The results of last week’s off-year elections should make the Republicans worry about 2018 and 2020, while giving the Democrats grounds for cautious optimism. But with 2018 a year away, and the next presidential election three years off, the Republicans still have time for course corrections, and the Democrats still have time to blow the advantage they currently seem to have.
2017 has not been a good year for Republicans. True, earlier this year they won four special elections to fill congressional vacancies, but in each case the margin of victory for the GOP candidate was less than earlier victory margins had been, indicating that the Republican brand was losing popularity in the era of President Trump.
And President Trump’s own approval ratings have been lower than those of any other president at this point in his first term. Moreover, he has been denied by Congress and the public of the beginning-of-the-term “honeymoon period” traditionally accorded new presidents during which their legislative proposals are given more favorable consideration than they might receive as presidential administrations grow older. Although President Trump has enjoyed a few victories—notably the confirmation of his outstanding Supreme Court appointment—neither he nor the GOP can boast significant legislative achievements of the order of Reagan’s tax cuts, Clinton’s tax increases, W’s No Child Left Behind and tax cut bills, or Obama’s Obamacare.
Off-year election results are normally seen as the voting public’s judgment on the record of the incumbent President and his party, and last Tuesday’s major election outcomes—the election of Democrats to the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia—are no exception. In New Jersey, outgoing Governor Chris Christie, once a rising star in the Republican Party and the first major Republican to endorse Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy in 2016 after ending his own bid for the GOP presidential nomination, saw himself repudiated by the voters, who selected a Democrat over Christie’s own Lieutenant Governor to succeed him. In Virginia, the Democrats extended their hold on the governor’s mansion as the outgoing Governor’s Lieutenant Governor easily defeated a former GOP National Committee Chairman who had once almost won a U. S. Senate seat but who this time abandoned his once-principled conservatism to parrot some of Trump’s less popular (in Virginia, at least) positions on immigration and the disposition of Confederate monuments.
But while the Democrats may understandably congratulate themselves on last week’s victories, they shouldn’t count future victories before they hatch. They still have their weaknesses. The Democratic Party is being pushed further to the left by the antics of its Chair, Tom Perez, who says nobody should be welcomed into the party unless he believes in the right to unlimited abortion on demand, as well as by the continuing influence of Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, whose positions on health care and other economic issues may prove less practical and more expensive as they are subject to greater scrutiny by the press and public. Moreover, the revelations by former Democratic Interim Chair Donna Brazile of what she considers to be Clinton-sponsored corruption in the party organization will also create more turmoil among Democratic activists, as well as give the Democratic Party a bigger black eye in the mind of the public. A political party is frequently hurt, and never helped, by being perceived as too extreme in its positions or too disorganized in its operations.
Of course, President Trump, by his erratic personal conduct, and the congressional Republicans, with their pathetic inability to pass major legislation reforming either health care or taxes, have been pretty good at giving their party a nice set of shiners as well. It’s still not clear why the GOP, with all the time it had, failed to produce any rational legislation in these areas. But Republican victories at the state legislative level since 2010 have produced numerous gerrymandered congressional districts designed to produce Republican congressional victories no matter what the general public may think of the GOP, and one hopes (at least if one is a Republican) that the sting of last week’s losses will scare the GOP enough to use 2018 to get its act together and produce something constructive by the time of next year’s congressional elections.
And the 2018 congressional elections will be especially important to both the GOP and the Democrats. As always, off-year elections will provide each party with clues as to the possible outcome of the next presidential election, and how to reinforce or deflect whatever trends the election results may indicate. Moreover, next year’s election results may encourage and facilitate the impeachment of President Trump. Or not.
The possible impeachment of President Trump—which as a Republican I currently oppose but as a political scientist, analyst and historian I fear may be possible–should make a great topic for a future column. I’ll try to get to it soon.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.