Republicans in Washington ended the year simultaneously celebrating a legislative triumph and facing what may turn out to be the worst political climate for an incumbent party in nearly half a century.
The party has been deeply divided all fall, and by the time the Christmas season approached, every political indicator — special-election results, polls, candidate recruitment, fundraising — had begun flashing bright red, warning that the Republican majority in Congress faces tremendous risk in next year’s midterm elections.
For shelter from the impending storm, Republicans got their tax bill this week. It’s not clear it will be enough to save them.
I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.
THE GATHERING STORM
For decades, one of the most reliable forecasting tools in American politics has been the so-called generic ballot — a question on polls asking which party’s candidate a person plans to vote for in the next election.
For most of the fall, Democrats showed a healthy lead on that question — enough to suggest the midterms would be competitive. This month, the forecast took an abrupt shift. In one nonpartisan survey after another, the Democratic lead jumped — to 13 points in a poll from Marist College, 15 points in Quinnipiac University’s poll, 15 from Monmouth University and a previously unheard of 18 points in a poll for CNN.
Don’t trust polls? Actual election results point the same way. It’s not just Virginia, where Democrats won the governorship in November and all but wiped out a huge Republican majority in the lower house of the legislature, or the Alabama Senate race, where a terrible Republican candidate, Roy Moore, opened the door for a Democrat, Doug Jones, to win a Senate election there for the first time in a generation. Other, less heralded elections have also shown a repeated pattern of high Democratic turnout, depressed Republican voting and double-digit shifts in the partisan outcomes.
On average Democrats have done about 12 points better than expected in races across the country, according to a compilation of more than 70 special elections this year by the fivethirtyeight.com website. Looking just at federal election contests, the swing has been even larger, a 16-point swing toward Democrats, a margin very similar to 2006, the last time a pro-Democratic wave swept the party to control of the House.
President Trump’s deep unpopularity has helped drive those numbers. While Trump’s overall ratings with the public have remained fairly steady — and low — an intensity gap has built all year. In his first month in office, the share of Americans who said they “strongly disapproved” of Trump was 16 points bigger than the share who “strongly approved,” according to polls by SurveyMonkey. Now, that gap stands at 26 points.
“The environment today is not great, the generic ballot’s not good, and I’d love to see the president’s approval rating higher,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) conceded in a year-end interview with the Washington Examiner, a conservative publication based in Washington, D.C.
“I think we should anticipate a real knock down, drag out — even on the Senate side,” he said. Republicans have consoled themselves that the assortment of Senate seats up for election in 2018 gives them a strong advantage. McConnell has been warning them that a favorable map may not be enough.
Neither will gerrymandering. For the past three election cycles, the partisan drawing of district lines after the 2010 census has helped bolster the GOP majority. Paradoxically, if the Democratic wave continues to build, that GOP advantage could abruptly shift.
A gerrymander works by taking a party’s voters and, rather than concentrating them in a few districts where they have an overwhelming majority, spreading them out over as many districts as possible, while still preserving a certain margin for safety. In a wave election, that margin for safety becomes too small, and large numbers of districts that appeared safe can suddenly be put at risk.
All told, the indicators now point to a Democratic year like 2006, with the outside possibility of a wave as large as the post-Watergate election of 1974. Luckily for Republicans, the election won’t be held next month. They have nearly a year to turn things around.
THE ECONOMY, THE TAX BILL AND THE GOP OPPORTUNITY
Republicans have one huge thing going for them, as Don Lee noted, 2018 is likely to deliver the best economic performance in years. Already, the word “prosperity” is showing up more and more in Republican talking points.
Good economic times usually help the party in power. So far, however, Republicans seem to be getting very little credit from voters other than their own partisans.
Party strategists hope that passage of the tax bill will give them an opening to change that and brand the good economy as a Republican product.
That could prove challenging. The bill, itself, starts out very unpopular. Republicans like House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), say voters will like it better once they see it in action. One of his predecessors as speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), said much the same about the Affordable Care Act in 2010. It remained unpopular for years — until Trump tried to repeal it — and helped cost the Democrats their majority.
About 44% of American households don’t owe income taxes, and most of them will see no benefit from the bill. The GOP did nothing to reduce the main levy many of those households pay — the payroll tax.
Toward the other end of the economic spectrum, many upper-middle-class professionals in urban states will get a tax increase. Those voters tend to live in precisely the suburban congressional districts where Republicans already face political risk.
Many other Americans simply won’t register much of a difference — people won’t be getting larger refunds until April 2019, after all, and while withholding rates will change in February, the history of previous tax cuts indicates that many won’t notice.
As Noah Bierman and Brian Bennett reported, the tax bill is far from Trump’s populist promises. It focuses most of its largesse on corporations and the wealthiest Americans. And as Jim Puzzanghera reported, the bill largely abandons the promise of taxes so simple they could be done on a postcard.
Moreover, Republicans face a problem partly of their own making — after years of telling voters that the system is “rigged” to favor special interests, they can hardly be surprised if even voters who do see a tax cut suspect that the wealthy have gotten a better deal than they did.
CONGRESS GETS OUT OF TOWN, LEAVING WORK BEHIND
Congress approved a short-term spending bill to avoid a government shutdown, but as Lisa Mascaro reported, the Senate failed to pass an $81 billion disaster-aid package. Lawmakers will try again in January.
Congress also told the young immigrants known as Dreamers that they will have to wait for an answer about their legal status. Some 800,000 young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children face deportation starting in March because of Trump’s decision to end the Obama administration’s DACA program.
The Dreamers were just one reason that the sound of protest drowned out caroling this holiday season at the Capitol, Mascaro wrote.
“We have essentially repealed Obamacare,” Trump said after the tax bill passed. The next day, his administration revealed that sign-ups for Affordable Care Act coverage had surged this month, and the number of people covered in 2018 will be almost the same as in 2017, Noam Levey reported.
NO EXCEPTION FOR RAPE?
The administration official who oversees detention centers for minors caught crossing the border illegally tried to prevent a 17-year-old rape victim from getting an abortion, David Savage reported. That move, revealed in court papers, represents an escalation of the administration’s efforts to block abortions by minors in custody for immigration violations.
So far, however, the efforts to block immigrants from getting abortions have failed as a result of suits by the ACLU. The Justice Department appears to be spoiling for a fight in the Supreme Court on the issue.
A SHOWDOWN OVER THE MUELLER INVESTIGATION?
Efforts by Trump allies to discredit the investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III ratcheted up a notch when lawyers for Trump’s transition team said investigators improperly got sensitive emails.
Trump has told people he expects to be exonerated by Mueller soon, Chris Megerian, Noah Bierman and David Cloud reported, and some of his associates think Trump will fire his lawyers or perhaps lash out at Mueller when he realizes that’s not happening.
Nationwide, liberal protest groups have been stocking up on bullhorns and hot chocolate, getting ready in case Trump fires Mueller, Megerian reported.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS
Twitter has long been Trump’s favored means of pushing his message. We’re compiling all of Trump’s tweets. It’s a great resource. Take a look.
That wraps up this week. My colleagues and I will be back in the New Year with the Essential Politics newsletter. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.
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