Who has the edge for 2018: Republicans or Democrats?

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Last Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that unemployment had dropped to 3.8 percent, the economy had added 223,000 new jobs, and average hourly earnings were up 2.7 percent year over year. At the same time, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta pegged projected second quarter gross domestic product growth at more than 4.5 percent. Against this economic backdrop, the inevitability of a blue wave crashing over the capitol come November looks less than certain.

Control of the House is now a toss up, according to CBS News. The one-time double-digit lead of the Democrats on the generic congressional ballot has shrunk to little more than 3 points. Even as a majority of Americans continue to disapprove of the president, he holds the second highest post-War World II rating within in his own party, and that counts for plenty. Impassioned disdain for Donald Trump may no longer be enough to fuel a Democratic takeover of the House.

{mosads}The Republican agenda is beginning to gel, and that bodes well for the GOP if the economy continues to move along and congressional Republicans are perceived as having delivered on their promises. Throw in the culture wars that undergird our politics and what comes next becomes that much more difficult to declare with certainty.

Looking back, congressional Republicans bottomed out last December. Despite control of all levers of power in Washington, the GOP had little to show. Repeal of ObamaCare flopped as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) gave his iconic thumbs down on the Senate floor. Meanwhile, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) began to muse about cutting entitlements, which is “donor speak” for chivvying working Americans out of Social Security and Medicare.

Suffice to say, the older rungs of the Trump coalition were not amused, nor were many Americans across the country. Trumpian chaos was one thing, legislative incompetence was something else, and sticking it to the very voters who brought you there in the first place ranked as political stupidity of the highest magnitude.

But then things began to change. Congress upended the tax code, ladling out oodles to the rich, but also offering a sop to those in the heartland at the expense of the deep blue coasts. At the same time, the GOP made ObamaCare’s individual mandate disappear, and the United States moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Each of these developments was tangible. The Republicans had finally put points on the board. There was more to life than just chirping “Gorsuch, Gorsuch.”

But the House Democrats also did their bit to help, as it were. In February, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) delivered an eight-hour speech over immigration and, in the process, reminded some voters why they went with Trump and the GOP back in 2016. To be clear, immigration remains a two-edged sword, and liberal turnout at the polls lags. Indeed, had liberals voted at the same rate as conservatives Hillary Clinton would be president, according to Thomas Edsall and David Leonhardt of The New York Times.

So does all of this mean that the GOP will continue to wield the Speaker’s gavel, even as Ryan heads for the exit? Not so fast. In March, Democrat Conor Lamb pulled off the year’s biggest upset and snatched a congressional seat in western Pennsylvania last held by a Democrat more than 15 years earlier. That same district went for Trump by 20 points, and voted for McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. Pennsylvania’s 18th District was not meant to be up for grabs, but it was.

In the past eight special elections, Democrats have overperformed by an average of 9 points. Last Tuesday, Scott Garrett, a Virginia congressman, announced that he would be stepping down. Beyond that, Robert Mueller grinds on, Paul Manafort’s trials loom, and Trump’s tweets continue unabated, guaranteeing that Democrats will remain fired up. But that’s not the end of the story.

As the latest blowups over Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee remind us, our culture wars are only getting hotter. If 2016 teaches us anything, it’s that the Democrats are at a disadvantage when they reflexively worship at the twin altars of identity politics and political correctness. Whether they can successfully hew to the cultural center, at least when politically necessary, remains the unanswered question. Said differently, was Lamb’s win a fluke, a harbinger of things to come or simply yesterday’s news?

Lloyd Green was the opposition research counsel to the George H.W. Bush campaign in 1988 and later served in the U.S. Department of Justice. He is now the managing member of research and analytics firm Ospreylytics.

Tags Democrats Donald Trump Hillary Clinton John McCain Mitt Romney Nancy Pelosi Paul Manafort Paul Ryan Republicans Robert Mueller Scott Garrett

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