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Republicans and Democrats face off in ruthless election fight for victory

I have always liked the "Rocky" movies. The second one features the famous 15th round where Rocky and Apollo, after beating each other senseless with one last flurry, hit the canvas simultaneously. This being Hollywood, Rocky scrambles up to beat the count as Apollo collapses. That scene from long ago is emblematic of the coming midterm elections. Modern politics is like a heavyweight fight in many ways.

Both parties have absorbed major punishment from negative attacks and have also made plenty of mistakes of their own. The ultimate champion this November might be determined by a 10 count. We can focus on the House because of the large number of competitive races across the country. The Senate map heavily favors the Republicans, and they are the clear favorites to keep their majority. Governors races will be interesting, however, state matters could wind up trumping national trends.

The party in the White House almost always loses seats in midterms, but low approval ratings make 2018 an even greater challenge for the Republicans. President Trump currently holds a favorability rating in the low 40s. Even if his ratings are slightly higher than those held by President Obama, that should be small comfort since the Democrats suffered disastrous losses in the 2010 elections. President Trump has focused on energizing his base, which has so far energized Democratic voters even more, as seen in turnout at special elections the past year.

Republicans have seen this coming for some time as some 38 House incumbents are retiring and several others are seeking different offices. Open seats are traditionally among the best pickup opportunities. Democrats need to gain 23 seats to retake the House majority. The Real Clear Politics index categorizes nine Republican seats as "lean" or "likely" Democratic wins and another 41 Republican seats as toss ups.

Republicans have claimed periodically that a strong economy can save their majority. The problem is that few voters are focused on jobs and taxes. These are far down the list of public concerns. This is due in no small part to the total inability of the party to drive home an economic message and keep the national focus on very strong growth and low unemployment numbers. Voters are thinking about other policy issues and personality factors that are less favorable to the Republicans.

The recent legal troubles of Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen will force Republicans in Congress to offer some perspective on the role the legislative branch should play in the ongoing federal investigation of the 2016 presidential election. Smart candidates in competitive districts should indicate support for getting to the whole truth while also suggesting some time limit on the work of the special counsel.

For their part, Democrats are perfectly capable of blowing a winning hand. Their breakout "star" this year is Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a "socialist" who has difficulty articulating what that means beyond answering soft ball questions on MSNBC. Democrats need to remember most Americans are not socialists. Democrats for decades condemned Newt Gingrich and his "Contract with America" that foreshadowed the Republican takeover of the House in 1994. That plan offered Americans something to vote for and was a contrast to the status quo.

What policies are Democrats offering this year as an alternative to those of the Republican majority? The ideas many Democrats have suggested are either unserious or unpopular. Medicare for all is based on the notion that the federal government should become more involved in health care and would, by one estimate, cost $32 trillion in its first 10 years. This is on top of trillion dollar annual deficits that neither party has done much about. Other progressive Democrats have helpfully suggested abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Much like the idea of pushing socialism, the public disagrees with that proposal as well.

Another losing strategy is the increasingly loud call to impeach President Trump. Such talk probably stirs up the Republican base more than it does an already energized Democratic base. It also subordinates all other policy proposals to a constitutional showdown whose end game is far from clear. Democrats would be wise to wait for the final report by the special counsel, but their activists may be in no such mood.

So look forward to the tantalizing prospect of millions of dollars of negative ads in the coming months, with Democrats focused on President Trump and Republicans countering against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Precious little time will be focused on issues important to the future of the country. It is also hard to say how many minds will be changed. But that is not the goal of modern politics, as both parties are focused on base turnout that emphasizes repetition over persuasion.

It is unlikely that the results will move America closer to consensus to address, let alone solve, our major problems. Rather, most voters are simply ignoring the drama and enjoying the start of football season.

Frank Donatelli served as an assistant for political affairs to President Reagan and as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain. He is now executive vice president and director at McGuire Woods Consulting.

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