Now that the presidential election campaign is in the history books, with the results certified and the new president at work on making America great again, Washington’s attention turns to the 2018 midterm congressional elections and the set-up to another presidential campaign. The city snoozes, but the politics never sleeps.
This was not only supposed to be Hillary Clinton’s week (all the wiseheads said so), but the 2016 election was supposed have produced a Democratic Senate, a diminished Republican majority in the House of Representatives and even an improvement of Democratic prospects in the states.
Instead, the Republicans won the White House, held the Senate, kept losses in the House to a bare minimum, and acquired nothing less than a stranglehold on the governorships and state legislatures across the land. It was not quite a Democratic year.
Prospects next year are even bleaker. The Democrats need to pick up a net of three seats to win the Senate (there’s no realistic prospect of taking the House in the foreseeable future), and saddest of all for the Democrats, the party will defend 25 seats next year and the Republicans, only 8. Only one Republican senator, Dean Heller of Nevada, a freshman, is in a state won by Hillary Clinton, an indication of the temperature of the water. No other Republican seat, says the authoritative Cook Political Report, “appears to be even remotely in danger.”
But several Democratic incumbents may be fighting for survival in states that Donald Trump carried by margins up to a remarkable 42 percent. These endangered incumbents include Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Jon Tester in Montana and Claire McCaskill in Missouri. They have survived frights before, but this time the politics is strange and new.
The incumbent presidential party nearly always loses seats in the midterm elections. It’s almost a given, and the party chiefs expect to breathe a little free air on the way to the next presidential year. But David Wasserman, who monitors House races for the Cook report, says that might not happen next year. A lot of voters might well sit out the midterms, none like blacks and millennials. Since they vote mostly Democratic, the party can’t realistically expect to do well without them.
Nevertheless, politicians are at the mercy of two phenomena, loyalty and unexpected events. Just as every general knows that the most meticulously assembled battle plan is rendered moot when the first shot is fired, so the campaign wise men know that the unexpected event — a war, spectacular terrorism, or a killer earthquake — can scramble expectations beyond recognition.
The unexpected this time was Donald Trump, and it may be that the unexpected next time is that the wave that the new president rode to Washington comes from something deeper and more unpredictable than anyone can fathom now. Where that wave goes, and what it does to further scramble politics, is the great unknown that terrifies the politicians.