By Lowman S. Henry
Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal
Labor Day is still considered to be the traditional kick-off of the General Election campaigns despite the fact the nation has settled into perpetual campaign mode. In recent weeks there has been a spate of columns by mainstream media types pointing out the challenges Republicans face in the upcoming election.
There has been little by way of analysis of the difficulties facing Democrats. The possibility of a ‘blue wave’ is baked into conventional wisdom, although there is little evidence to suggest a profound realignment of the electorate will take place this year that will undo the populist surge of 2016.
This is not to suggest Democrats will not make congressional gains. History tells us the first mid-term after election of a new president is usually not kind to his party. The electorate is sharply divided – and closely so – therefore minor shifts in voting patterns could have an outsized impact on the partisan composition of the next congress.
Let us take a look then at the challenges facing Democrats as they seek to re-gain some modicum of power in the federal government:
Former Bill Clinton campaign manager James Carville once famously summed up what determines elections by saying: “It’s the economy stupid.” That was true in 1992, it is true today. And the surging U.S. economy represents the biggest hurdle facing Democrats this November. There are more jobs available that workers seeking employment. Unemployment among traditional Democrat constituencies, especially African-Americans, is at an all-time low – and the president’s approval rating in that category is at an all-time high.
Adding fuel to the economic fire are the tax cuts passed by congress and signed into law by President Trump at the end of last year. By November the full impact of those cuts will be felt by taxpayers. As has happened with past tax cuts, the current round has spurred increased economic activity which has resulted in rising wages. More Americans are working; workers are getting paid more, and paying less in taxes – all a boost for the party in power.
Most pundits predicting a blue wave focus on Democrat chances in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is indeed in play. They don’t talk about the U.S. Senate because the GOP likely will make gains in that chamber and that doesn’t fit the narrative. Here is the reason why Democrat changes of taking over that chamber are bleak: 24 seats currently held by Democrats are up for election this year, just 9 Republican seats are in cycle. Even worse for Democrats 10 of those 24 seats are in states won in 2016 by Donald Trump. The most recent round of polling shows Republican held seats are at risk in just three states, in as many as eight or nine states Democrat incumbents trail their Republican challengers or the races are within the statistical margin of error.
The narrow middle of the electorate gets scared when either party veers too far to the extreme. This year Democrats are experiencing a wave of ultra-Left wing socialist activity with the so-called Democratic Socialists ascendant within the party. Such extremism turns off independent voters, particularly those in more affluent suburbs where many congressional and statewide elections are decided. Those voters understand they will be the ones paying for the “free” education, health care and guaranteed minimum incomes promised by the socialists.
There have been a number of congressional special elections since Donald Trump arrived at the White House. Promoters of the blue wave point to them as evidence of a pending GOP melt-down. While those races have been competitive – and many producing razor thin margins – Democrats have won but one GOP-held seat. That was the election of Connor Lamb in a suburban Pittsburgh district that sports a substantial Democratic voter registration advantage.
Special elections also tend to not be good bellwethers. Attention of the entire political world focuses on special elections with huge amounts of national money flowing into the candidates’ coffers. They have a national spotlight and attract the efforts of activists from across the country. In November there will be hundreds of contested congressional races. All but a handful will be fought in relative anonymity.
This is not to suggest Democrats will not regain control of the U.S. House. After all only a minor shift in voter loyalty in politically fickle suburbs could flip the 23 seats needed. If that happens (and that remains in doubt), Left wing pundits will undoubtedly look at a subtle shift in the current and label it a blue wave.