- - Thursday, February 1, 2018


Not so long ago the conventional capital wisdom, retailed wholesale by the pundit class, held that all that was necessary to replace the Republican Congress with a large, left-thinking Democratic Congress bent on revenge, was to count the votes. The liberal landslide was on the way.

Nobody took the pundit primary more to heart than frightened Republican members of the House of Representatives. Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, the intelligent, tough-thinking chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is the latest of 34 Republican congressmen to call it quits. Nine of those 34 fleeing members are chairmen of congressional committees. Dignified retirement always looks more appealing than the humiliation of going home to look for a job.

But maybe not so fast, ladies and gentlemen. A new poll, this one by Monmouth University, demonstrates a contrarian view of the midterm prospects: “In a look ahead to 2018, Democrats currently hold a negligible edge on the generic Congress ballot. If the election for House of Representatives were held today, 47 percent of registered voters say they would vote for, or lean toward, voting for the Democratic candidate in their district, compared to 45 percent who would support the Republican.

This marks a dramatic shift from last month, when Democrats held a 15-point advantage on the generic ballot (51 percent to 36 percent), the Monmouth pollsters found. The president’s approval rating is slowly ticking upward, too. So what can explain the dramatic turnaround?

In a word (or two), tax cuts. It’s still the economy, Stupid.

“Opinion is currently divided on the landmark tax reform plan,” the poll-takers say. “Forty-four percent approve and 44 percent disapprove. But this marks a significant increase in public support from December, when just 26 percent approved of the bill and 47 percent disapproved. Perhaps more importantly, fewer Americans (36 percent) believe their own federal taxes will go up under the plan than felt the same when the bill was in its final legislative stages last month (50 percent).”

With the economy steadily improving, and paychecks expected to grow this month as withholding tables are adjusted, those numbers favorable to Republican incumbents are expected to rise.

There are several reasons for the Republican rush for the exits. Mr. Gowdy, celebrated for his dogged pursuit of the facts of what happened in Benghazi five years ago, when Islamic terrorists killed an American ambassador and three other Americans, suggests he wants to return to his occupation as lawyer. “I enjoy our justice system more than our political system,” he said on announcing his retirement. Perhaps he’s looking forward to a judgeship.

The explanations of others are less inspiring. Rep. Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania and Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas are quitting after they were accused of sexual improprieties, joining other congressmen of both parties who have quit, or say they will, for similar naughty behavior. Still others, like Martha McSally of Arizona and Raul Labrador of Idaho, are leaving the House of Representatives to run for other offices.

But many others have no kidney for the uphill battle they foresee. Republican members who serve in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, such as Darrell Issa and Ed Royce in California, are persuaded they just might not return to Washington. These include members from Pennsylvania, New York, and Florida, some of whom are moderate, but maybe not moderate enough.

Not long ago, when many frightened Republicans were fleeing to the exits like mice fleeing the cat, polling suggested that Republicans were suffering from a 15 percent deficit in generic ballot favorability. Retirement as an escape made some sort of sense, though generic ballot favorability, sometimes indicative, is often misleading. Voters nearly always regard their own congressman as a special case. Ours is not a parliamentary system, after all.

Midterm elections nevertheless tend to be hard on any incumbent president’s party. Republicans will almost surely lose some seats in the House, regardless of how swimmingly the country is performing. In the Senate, where the map is friendly to the Republicans, the party may gain seats to swell its one-seat majority. But the anticipated bleeding in the House appears to have stanched, which should persuade the frightened to think twice before deciding to quit. There’s still a considerable distance between here and November.

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