In less than a month, many Americans will participate in yet another critical election. I say “yet another” because we have recently experienced an unusual spate of critical midterm contests. For most of the post-World War II period, midterm elections were sleepier, less impactful events. The Democrats controlled the House of Representatives for 40 years up until 1994 and the U.S. Senate for 26 years until 1980. Since 1994, the House has flipped twice and the Senate four times. If the polls and projections are correct, the House will change hands once again.
What makes an election critical? Above all, it is the prospect that the voting outcome will shift political power and policy dynamics in Washington. In a wave election, national forces prevail over local personalities, context and issues, pushing congressional outcomes in one predominant direction. David Brady and Brett Parker have argued that a wave has historically meant a shift of 30 seats or more. This time, however, the Democrats need a mini-wave of 24 seats in the House to take control, but need something more like a tidal wave to take the U.S. Senate. The 2018 Senate races remind us that waves are not only about winning the incumbent party’s seats, but holding onto your own vulnerable seats as well.
The usual sources of negative midterm wave elections (i.e. where the President’s party loses many seats) are bad economic conditions, unpopular Presidents and policies gone awry, plus the usual incumbent party decline that follows presidential election surges. In this case, we have an unpopular President buoyed by relatively strong economic conditions running for re-election under circumstances of increasing polarization. The President is particularly unpopular with Democratic and independent women for obvious reasons. He hopes to offset that with appeals to angry white men.
Adding to the uncertainty about the outcome on November 6, there are different dynamics in the House and Senate races this year. Republicans are defending 25 House districts that Hilary Clinton carried in 2016 versus 13 represented by Democrats and won by Trump. By contrast, 10 Democratic Senators are up for re-election in states that were carried by President Trump two years ago (five of which Trump won by double digit margins) as compared to only one Republican Senate seat in a state won by Clinton.
President Trump poses a strategic dilemma for vulnerable House Republicans in suburban seats. If they embrace the President, it will likely mobilize the Democratic base in their districts, possibly alienating many independents and some moderate Republican leaners at the same time. If they distance themselves from the President, they potentially demobilize their Republican Party base.
In theory, President Trump, the leader of the Republican Party, should be as concerned about this dilemma as the Republican House incumbents are, but Donald Trump is the ultimate me-first candidate: It is always about him first and foremost. Trump knows he cannot win over any Democrats or quite possibly many independents either. In the past, a strong economy might have neutralized or demobilized some of these Democrats, but as Brady and Parker point out, voters view the economy through an increasingly partisan filter. Whatever the objective reality, the economy looks better to partisan voters when their party is in charge and weaker when the other party is.
Whether by instinct or calculation, President Trump has adopted a strident political strategy, appealing to his base voters, drawing attention to “liberal mobs,” portraying Judge Kavanaugh as yet another innocent male victim of feminist anger, and warning of extreme liberal policies such as “Medicare for All.” None of this partisan bluster will help vulnerable Republican House incumbents in the seats Clinton carried in 2016. But it could be just what the doctor ordered in order to take down vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbents in states like North Dakota, West Virginia, and Missouri, where the Republican voting base is large.
Losing the House would of course be problematic for President Trump as it will trigger numerous investigations and stymie a conservative policy agenda. Losing control of the Senate, however, would be a potentially devastating blow, because it would block the conservative judicial appointments that have bolstered his mainstream Republican support. It would also likely increase the odds of impeachment. The President has strong survival instincts based on a lifetime of success despite being reviled by many. He understands the Senate is the key to his political survival. There is clear political logic to his actions even if they seem like madness to many.
The strategic dilemma for vulnerable U.S. Senate Democrats was on full display during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Any Democratic Senator voting to confirm Kavanaugh would earn the enmity of the Democratic base. But a vote against Kavanaugh would play into President Trump’s mobilize-the-base strategy. While several recent polls show that a majority of the American public oppose Judge Kavanaugh being on the Supreme Court, that may not matter in an U.S. Senate election that fortuitously features more vulnerable Democratic than Republican Senate seats.
So what will be the main takeaways if our highly flawed, personally unpopular President survives this midterm referendum, and the Republicans manage to hold onto the Senate? Predictably, many Democrats will focus on the tactical advantages that the Republicans enjoy, such as small state over-representation, voting law restrictions, partisan redistricting and the like. Those are legitimate concerns, but they cloud an important point that Donald Trump recognized: There is a lot of economic hurt outside America’s urban hubs. No one has a good answer as to how we replace the old economy with a new one in many red states, but President Trump continues to reap political advantage by forcefully articulating those fears along with a healthy dose of nativism.
Secondly, although we have had some very decent human beings as President in recent years, it is not clear that character matters much to voters any more. The election of a reasonably good person may just be incidental. One reason perhaps may be that personally decent Presidents such as Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and both Bushes are regarded in retrospect as weak and ineffectual, while some of our more ethically dubious ones like LBJ, Bill Clinton, and Richard Nixon produced significant achievements during their tenure in office.
Taking a longer view of presidential character, the early 18th-century ideal of representatives as trustees who did what was best for their constituents has long since given way to the modern ideal of representatives who do exactly what their constituents want. Today, the messenger needs only to deliver the message faithfully, not exercise independent judgment or integrity. Office holders are mere instruments of the popular will, not neutral experts or wise leaders with the responsibility of correcting or checking the people’s judgment. And if constituents on the other side of the political divide are enemies, then what is the use of compassionate and empathetic public agents anyway?
Putting new faces into the same political system with identical incentives and pressures will not restore the role of character to representation. But what will? The problem may be too deeply embedded in our narrow, populist expectations about representation and what it takes to navigate the entrenched material and ideological interests of modern America.