Jobs report raises GOP hopes for midterms, while worrying Dems

A strong jobs report on Friday bolstered the GOP’s argument that the economy is humming under President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms BuzzFeed stands by Cohen report: Mueller should 'make clear what he's disputing' MORE, raising Republican optimism for the midterms.

The economy added 223,000 jobs in May, a bigger than expected number that was coupled with news that unemployment had fallen to 3.8 percent.

It extends the good economic news for Trump and the GOP, which has seen a series of favorable jobs reports this year.

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Economists such as Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell think the rate could drop as low as 3.5 percent. That would be lowest unemployment rate in more than 45 years.

Trump hailed the numbers in remarks on Friday, saying the nation had “picked up a lot of value, a lot of wealth since I’ve been president.”

Strong top-line economic numbers play into the Republican argument that voters should reelect them to support Trump’s agenda of lower taxes and less regulation. They believe it cuts into arguments that 2018 should be a “change” election.

Democrats are still largely optimistic about their electoral chances in the fall. The president’s party almost always loses congressional seats in the first midterm.

At the same time, some acknowledge the economy could help the GOP.

“I do think this is the single biggest challenge, by far, faced by the Democrats, and it will determine whether we pick up 30 seats or 50 seats,” Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said of the economy.

Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to win control of the House and two seats to seize the Senate.

“We have to get ahead on the economy. We’re still behind today,” Lake added.

Trump’s job approval rating has picked up this year, and the once-substantial lead that Democrats had on the generic congressional ballot has shrunk.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Thursday showed Democrats with a narrow 2-point lead on the generic ballot.

“Without question it will be a significant determinant,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres said of the economy. “The job numbers are undeniably good news for Republicans.”

Republicans have expressed anxiety that Trump’s aggressive tactics on trade — he imposed tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico and the European Union on Friday — could hurt the economy.

At the same time, Lake noted that Trump has made progress with blue-collar voters by pushing a populist trade agenda. He was the first Republican in decades to win the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where his trade message seemed to resonate.

Lake argues the economy’s underlying strength indicates that Democrats most improve their own economic messaging. 

“I don’t think it’s so much a question of what Trump’s policies are but it’s a question of what our policies are,” Lake said. “We’ve been good at the critique but still haven’t really provided in a way that has penetrated with the public a clear alternative economic vision.”

Other Democratic strategists argue that Republicans remain vulnerable over lingering anxieties that middle- and working-class voters have about their own economic prospects.

“We’ve had continued improvement in the macro economy and it has had remarkably little effect on the politics of elections and remarkably little effect on voters’ attitudes about their own personal circumstances,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who has surveyed potential voters in Senate battleground states.

He pointed to a polling memo produced for Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, by his firm, Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group.

It showed that only 15 percent of voters say their own income is going up faster than the cost of living while 77 percent say health-care costs are rising and 87 percent point to mounting gas prices.

Senate Democratic leaders have seized on this to chip away at the GOP argument that their policies are improving prosperity.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump blasts Pelosi for wanting to leave country during shutdown The Senate should host the State of the Union Dem senators debate whether to retweet Cardi B video criticizing Trump over shutdown MORE (D-N.Y.) held a press conference shortly before the Memorial Day recess to blame gas prices on Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran deal.

“Whatever meager benefit working families might have seen from Trump’s tax scam for the rich is being wiped out by the gas prices that President Trump is responsible for,” he said.

But concerns are beginning to emerge within the Democratic base that Republicans are benefiting from an economic tailwind.

A coalition of liberal groups worry that Democrats in Washington are too focused on highlighting Trump’s leadership flaws and are not doing enough to sell their own bold economic vision to the public.

About 30 liberal activist groups have signed a pledge organized by Campaign For America’s Future calling for a commitment to good jobs, sustainable prosperity and economic justice.

“It’s definitely true that Democrats are making a mistake if they think they can just oppose Trump without having their own agenda,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future.

“They have to have a plan for jobs, even though the conventional wisdom is this is a full employment economy," he said. “They need an explanation for why Republicans are standing in the way and giving away the tax base to create those jobs.”

Lake said that while Democrats in Washington may dismiss Trump’s claims that he’s responsible for the good economy, many voters around the country give him credit.

“It’s not the economic numbers that matter, it’s people’s perception of the economic numbers that matter,” she said.

“In Donald Trump they see someone who’s actually quite good on economic message,” she said of blue-collar voters. “We may be dismissive of it but voters aren’t.”