Democrats are increasingly bullish about the prospect of a wave election in 2018 amid backlash against the passage of the House GOP’s ObamaCare replacement bill and the snowballing revelations coming out of the White House.
Nonpartisan election handicappers have begun to shift the House further away from the Republican majority, in part due to President Trump’s tepid approval ratings and the FBI’s investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
While Republicans and ballot forecasters stress that there’s still 18 months to go until the midterm elections, most concede that the trend lines are ominous.
“Anyone who thinks the House isn’t in play is kidding themselves,” a former GOP aide told The Hill.
“The House healthcare bill is full of landmines and the constant White House drama Republicans have to defend is destroying any ability we have to be on offense or talk about a positive message.”
Democrats have an uphill climb to flipping 24 seats and winning the House, given that gerrymandering and extreme polarization have reduced the number of swing districts nationwide.
But the recent cycle of negative headlines for the White House — which included Trump’s controversial firing of FBI Director James Comey — could be creating a perfect political storm.
One early test will come in the special elections in Montana and Georgia, where Democrats are hoping to score early victories and build momentum.
“The storm clouds that normally hover above a wave election seem to be forming, which is incompetence, scandal and seeming to be out of touch,” a former aide to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) told The Hill.
“You’ve got small clouds there that are getting bigger every day.”
Even before Trump’s difficulties, Republicans had reason to worry about 2018.
Off-year elections have not traditionally been kind to the party in power; in the last three midterm cycles, the party controlling the White House lost a double-digit number of House seats.
Going on the offensive, the DCCC has announced the expansion of its 2018 targets, increasing the number to 79 GOP-held districts.
It’s a strategy that mirrors the Democrats’ 2006 playbook, when then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel helped the party pick up 31 House seats and regain the majority after more than a decade out of power.
“Given where Trump’s approval ratings is, we can guarantee that Republicans will lose seats — the question is, how many?” said Geoffrey Skelley, an associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
One early clue to the 2018 elections can be found on the generic ballot, which is seen as a bellwether of party strength.
Democrats are, on average, leading Republicans by 7 points when voters are asked which party they prefer in the upcoming elections, according to Friday’s RealClearPolitics average.
That average didn’t include a recent Quinnipiac University poll that put Democrats up by 16 points when participants were asked which party should win control of the House in 2018.
The generic ballot numbers for House Republicans now are worse than the numbers Democrats were seeing when President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden Valerie Jarrett: ‘Democracy depends upon having law enforcement’ MORE was in the White House.
More than a year into Obama’s first term, polling from late May 2009 gave the Democrats a small edge on the generic. But as voters soured on his presidency and ObamaCare was signed into law, Republicans flipped a whopping 63 seats and won back the majority in 2010.
Early on in Obama’s second term, Democrats were up 4.6 points on the generic ballot test in late May 2013. But by Election Day 2014, Republicans were up by 2.4 points and ultimately picked up 13 seats, bringing them to one of their biggest majorities in decades.
Nonpartisan ratings experts say there is an expanded political battlefield.
The Cook Political Report moved ratings for 20 House districts in favor of Democrats following the healthcare vote in the House, while Sabato’s Crystal Ball did the same for 18 districts in the days after that.
“Where we stand right now is not a necessarily good space,” Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, told The Hill.
“You are very thankful there is no election this November, but you are hopeful you have the opportunity to move the ball in your favor now that you know where the American people are.”
But not all Republicans are sounding the alarm.
When asked about the prospect of a Democratic wave on The Hugh Hewitt Show last week, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBush, Romney won’t support Trump reelection: NYT Twitter joins Democrats to boost mail-in voting — here’s why Lobbying world MORE (R-Wis.) dismissed it with a simple message.
“Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah is what I think about that stuff,” he said.
Other Republicans warn against predicting who will hold the House majority so far away from an election. And they argue that if Democrats fail to produce any victories in this year’s special elections, it’ll prove that the talk of a wave is mere froth.
“It just shows yet another cycle Democrats come with a lot of bluster, but evidently fail to meet their own expectations of winning races,” said a Republican operative following House races.
Democrats acknowledge that they have their own set of obstacles. The party was criticized last year for focusing too much on Trump and not having their own message that resonates with voters — a mistake they are at risk of repeating in 2018.
Strategists for the party also worry that voters will get “Russia fatigue” if they continue to only play up the chaos surrounding the White House.
“I think Democrats need to figure out how they define themselves outside Trump, and they haven’t done that yet,” the former DCCC aide said.
“Democrats have got to bring it back to how it impacts ordinary folks. It’s the challenge they face.”
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