President Trump is close to being impeached by the House. His party just lost two gubernatorial races in conservative states and control of the Virginia legislature. House Republicans have been stampeding toward retirement.
It looks like Democrats are on a roll, but you wouldn’t know it from the high-anxiety mood of the party.
Republicans are no calmer. They worry about their mercurial president and the impact he could have on races down the ballot in 2020. Party strategists doubt they can win back a majority in the House. Some fear they could lose control of the Senate.
The result, as Washington moves toward an impeachment showdown, is a rare chapter in American politics when members of both parties seem wracked with insecurity.
Among Democrats, there’s been no dancing in the streets to celebrate this month’s off-year elections nor giddy relief after the impeachment hearings, which ended Thursday, went about as well as Democrats dared hope.
Instead, some Democrats are wringing their hands about their presidential candidate field, encouraging new candidates to jump in. Former President Obama has warned Democrats that they risk losing it all in 2020 if they tack too far to the left, while progressives fear Trump will win if Democrats nominate a “safe” but uninspiring centrist.
Throughout the party, people are still spooked by Trump’s upset victory in 2016 and don’t want to take anything for granted.
“People are terrified, and we don’t want to mess up again,” said Jane Kleeb, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “We have learned our lesson. So you see people in all the states knocking on doors, and not high-fiving each other.”
Republicans are sifting through off-year election results that spotlighted the party’s rapid decline in suburbs that were once a cornerstone of their coalition. Democratic victories in Virginia, Kentucky and Louisiana were powered by strong showings in the collar counties of places like Richmond, Louisville and New Orleans.
“The suburbs are burning,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president of Republican Main Street Partnership, a group that backs the dwindling band of GOP moderates. “We see more and more suburbs going Democratic, and we are not giving them a reason to vote for Republicans.”
The anxiety on both sides is a departure from the political norm. Usually one party or the other has a clear upper hand — especially when an incumbent is running for reelection. Trump is one of the most vulnerable incumbents to seek reelection since the Great Depression in the 1930s: His approval rating has remained stuck below 50% for the entirety of his presidency.
Jeff Horwitt, a Democratic pollster with Hart Research, said the 2016 election results gave both parties cause for concern because, while Trump won the electoral college, Hillary Clinton got more votes.
“Democrats lost the White House, and Republicans lost the popular vote,” said Horwitt. “If 2016 was a referendum on Hillary Clinton and the establishment, 2020 promises to be a referendum on Donald Trump, and Republicans have good reason to be anxious about their chances next year.”
It is too soon to say whether the impeachment hearings will affect that, but it is already clear that the deepest political fears of both sides have not been realized.
Democrats have not experienced the political backlash some feared from launching their impeachment inquiry. Neither have the revelations from the hearings prompted Republicans to abandon the president.
Support for impeachment is higher than it was when Presidents Clinton and Nixon were facing removal. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that Horwitt conducted in October found that 49% supported his impeachment, compared with 24% for Clinton and 38% for Nixon at comparable points. Trump’s job approval rating, 45%, is lower than Clinton’s but higher than Nixon’s.
But support for impeachment, which grew during September, had plateaued by the time the House hearings started. Most important for Trump: his job approval among members of his own party remains around 90% in most polls — the same as Clinton’s and far higher than the 53% rating Nixon had among Republicans before he resigned. That’s key for his ability to hold the support of Republican senators in an impeachment trial.
Trump and his allies remain confident in the face of their political troubles. He has amassed a campaign war chest that dwarfs any of his potential Democratic rivals. Ronna McDaniel, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told reporters Thursday that she was unfazed by impeachment or state losses because Trump supporters are still loyal, the party’s fundraising remains strong, and they are prepared to do battle.
“Democrats are energized. Republicans are energized. The difference is we’re organized,” she said.
Others in the party are opting out of the fight: 20 House Republicans have announced their retirement at the end of this term; just eight House Democrats have.
Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a centrist Democratic group, said he understood why Democrats are nervous about 2020 because the stakes are so high and there is so much uncertainty about who will be the party’s nominee. But he offers a reassuring message to the party’s worrywarts: The fundamentals are working heavily in their favor.
“Trump is among the most unpopular presidents we have ever seen; Republicans keep losing elections badly,” Rosenberg said. “The underlying structure of this race is that Democrats should win, and win handily in 2020.”
His group’s research found that, during 84% of his first three years in office, Trump’s unfavorability rating has exceeded his favorability rating by more than 10 points. By contrast, the 11 presidents since 1952 combined were that unpopular just 2% of the time in their first three years.
Nonetheless, Democrats are anxious because they expect tough fights to reclaim three historically Democratic industrial states Trump won narrowly in 2016: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Most polls show Trump behind in battleground states, but a new Wisconsin survey gave Trump some encouraging news.
A Marquette University Law School poll of Wisconsin voters released Wednesday found that support for the impeachment inquiry had dropped slightly; Trump’s approval rating had risen a bit; and the president led his potential Democratic rivals in hypothetical head-to-head match-ups, although the differences were mostly within the poll’s margin of error. Marquette’s last poll, in October, found Trump losing to Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, also within the margin of error.
It’s because crucial swing states like Wisconsin are so close that some Democrats believe that tacking too far to the left in 2020 could cost them the race. That is part of the case made by Biden and Pete Buttigieg, who pitch their ability to speak to the industrial Midwest.
Obama took a rare step off the sidelines of the Democratic primary earlier this month to warn of the risks of a policy agenda that tests voters’ tolerance for major change. Although he mentioned no names, his remarks seemed a clear swipe at Sanders’ call for “revolution” and Warren’s for “big structural change.”
“Even as we push the envelope and we are bold in our vision, we also have to be rooted in reality,” Obama said, speaking to a group of Democratic donors in Washington. “The average American doesn’t think we have to completely tear down the system and remake it.”
Many Democrats say that the anxiety coursing through the party is not uncommon at this early phase of a presidential campaign, but is amplified by an awareness of how even a weakened Trump is a uniquely formidable foe.
“I don’t think there’s any Democrat out there who thinks this election is going to be a cakewalk,” said Mo Elleithee, former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee and the 2016 Clinton campaign. “They absolutely see that the president has the unique ability to command media attention and knows how to win.”
Times staff writer Melanie Mason contributed to this report.