GOP Sees Reasons for Optimism in 2018 Midterms

GOP Sees Reasons for Optimism in 2018 Midterms
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
GOP Sees Reasons for Optimism in 2018 Midterms
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. – Republicans are bracing for strong headwinds in this year’s midterm elections, but also see signs that the environment might not be as treacherous as once anticipated.

GOP lawmakers, here for their annual party retreat, point to improving poll numbers for their tax cuts and the decreasing Democratic advantage in the generic congressional ballot as signs that a tidal wave for the opposition party may not be forming. Republicans’ midterm plan is relatively straightforward: aggressively sell the individual benefits of their tax law and the broader strong economy, and scapegoat and attack Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

“The conventional wisdom said, in 2016, that Hillary Clinton was going to be elected president of the United States of America, right?” Vice President Mike Pence said in his address to lawmakers here Wednesday evening. “I mean, the truth of the matter is, we made history in 2016, and we're going to make history again in 2018 when we re-elect Republican majorities in the House and Senate.”

Pence added that he and President Trump would be with lawmakers “every step of the way” this year, and Politico reported that the vice president has charted an aggressive travel schedule in the coming weeks to raise money and to campaign for GOP lawmakers.

Rep. Steve Stivers, the chairman of House Republicans’ campaign committee, presented the midterm outlook to his colleagues Thursday evening. Speaking to reporters before that briefing, Stivers admitted Democrats are “energized” and said Republicans were prepared for a “battle.” But he cited the tightening generic ballot and slight uptick in Trump’s approval ratings as positive signs.

Democrats currently have a 7.3 point advantage in the generic ballot, according to the RealClearPolitics average, but that is down from a 13-point margin at the end of last year.

“If we stay focused on selling the tax reform package, I think we’re going to hold the House and I think things are going to be okay for us,” said Stivers (pictured).

It’s difficult to predict the political environment nine months ahead of Election Day, but both parties maintain certain advantages in their quest for congressional control. In the House, Republicans have a 24-seat majority and redistricting and geographic alignment limit the number of districts that are truly competitive.

But Democrats have history on their side: The president’s party loses an average of 32 seats in the first midterm election. Since World War II, that average has jumped to 36 seats if the president’s approval rating is below 50 percent, according to Gallup, but drops to 14 seats if the president is above that threshold – Trump’s approval is currently at 41.5 percent, according to the RCP average.

Both parties also have reasons to be optimistic on the financial front. Democrats on Tuesday touted that their candidates outraised nearly three dozen Republican incumbents in the final fundraising quarter of 2017, a sign both of grassroots optimism and professionally run campaigns from challengers. But Democrats acknowledge that they’re still likely to be far outspent overall in the election. A super PAC allied with Speaker Paul Ryan has pledged to spend $100 million to defend the House majority, and last weekend the Koch brothers’ political network announced plans to invest between $300 and $400 million in the midterms.

“When you start looking at total amount of money raised and spent, there are many different pots of money that get added up at the end of the campaign,” Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin told RCP. “When you’re looking through the TV, the radio and the mail, it’s often not just the two general election campaign accounts spending money.”

Zeldin also pointed out that most House incumbents avoided facing primary challengers, while Democratic candidates could be forced to spend heavily in primary races, potentially depleting those war chests.

On the Senate side, Republicans have a dream map: Democrats are defending 26 seats to Republicans’ eight, and 10 of Democrats’ seats are in states Trump won. But those incumbents remain fairly popular with their electorates, and Republicans have missed in recruiting some of their top candidates to challenge them.

Democratic incumbents have also posted strong fundraising numbers, while some of the GOP’s best recruits – including Rep. Lou Barletta in Pennsylvania and Attorney General Josh Hawley in Missouri – have had somewhat lackluster fundraising efforts.

Still, not all Republicans are convinced they’ll be able to dodge the typical midterm backlash of an unpopular president. Multiple GOP incumbents in swing districts have retired in the first month of 2018, putting several seats in far more jeopardy than they previously were. Rep. Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania moderate who is retiring this year, said Republicans will try to make the election about the economy and their tax cuts, but it will inevitably become a referendum on Trump.

“The national environment and the president’s behavior – his Twitter handle, his divisive rhetoric and all that – are going to be a big issue,” Dent said. He pointed out that the last time Democrats won the House, in 2006, they ran against an unpopular President George W. Bush, who was dragged down by the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina.

“This feels much worse,” Dent said.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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