Mueller probe blows election headwinds into Republicans

Mueller probe blows election headwinds into Republicans
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With a guilty plea on Friday to a federal lobbying charge by Republican political consultant Sam Patten, the inevitable question arises: What impact will the special counsel probe have on the midterm elections?

Patten pleaded guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent while lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian interests. He admitted steering $50,000 from a Ukrainian oligarch to the Trump presidential inauguration committee. His plea follows by one week the federal jury trial conviction of former Trump campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortTrump to declassify controversial text messages, documents related to Russia probe Mueller asks court to schedule Flynn sentencing Manafort went ‘above and beyond’ with plea deal, says ex-federal prosecutor MORE and the guilty plea to other federal charges by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen.

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Despite all of this, and despite President TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE falling to 36 percent approval in a recently released Washington Post/ABC News poll, the available evidence does not show that the generic vote for Congress, with Democrats leading by eight points in the most recent Real Clear Politics estimate, has been impacted by Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation. Indeed, over the past few months in most polls, Trump’s numbers have stabilized in the 40s and, if anything, the generic vote has tightened slightly. What, then, is the impact of the Mueller probe? It is likely to hurt the Republicans for two unrelated yet important reasons.

First, with the attention the mainstream media gives the probe daily, along with near continuous coverage on cable news, the ability of the president and the Republicans to put out a positive and consistent message about the economy has been limited. To be sure, polls show people are increasingly positive about the economy and the impact of the administration’s policies on their personal economic well being.

Yet, the Republicans have been unable to systematically articulate this message or to tie it to individual candidates for the House and Senate. Unless this is able to occur, Republican candidates across the board are likely to be adversely impacted. I think back to the 1982 election, following the 1980 “red wave” and the election of Ronald Reagan as president. In that campaign, the Republicans, facing 10.1 percent unemployment, ran on a message of “stay the course” to give Reagan’s economic policies and tax cuts a chance to work. In the wake of economic news that is far less good than we are seeing now, the Republicans minimized their losses, losing only 25 House seats and two Senate seats.

Given the 4.1 percent economic growth in this year’s second quarter and record low unemployment across the board, the Republicans need to demonstrate the same kind of focus that earlier Republicans demonstrated 36 years ago. Yet, the amount of attention given now to every aspect of the special counsel probe makes this much more difficult than it was back then to articulate a consistent message.

Second, in the absence of any showing (as of yet) of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, the Democratic leadership is wisely doing all it can to focus messaging more generally on corruption rather than impeachment or specific allegations against the president that have yet to be demonstrated conclusively.

To be sure, the Democrats must avoid playing into Republican hands by advocating the kind of extreme leftist policies that the socialist wing supports, and that the Republicans have said now represents the new mainstream of the Democratic Party. Most importantly, the Democrats should avoid making midterms a referendum on impeachment, an issue which, at best, is a 50/50 proposition with the electorate.

By avoiding advocacy of health care for all, a job for all, a $15 minimum wage, or redistribution of income, Democrats also can take advantage of the challenges that the Republicans currently face from the top down, and potentially win a clear majority in the House and potentially limit any substantial losses in the Senate. Time will tell.

Douglas E. Schoen (@DouglasESchoen) served as a pollster for President Clinton. A longtime political consultant, he is also a Fox News contributor and the author of 11 books, including “Putin’s Master Plan: To Destroy Europe, Divide NATO, and Restore Russian Power and Global Influence.