For the first time since November, Democrats are feeling good.
The GOP’s quest to repeal and replace Obamacare has collapsed. Its unpopular president is under investigation by a special counsel. And the rest of the Republican Party’s legislative agenda is, at best, on shaky ground.
Now, Democrats are brimming with a new optimism about next year’s midterm elections. They think the GOP’s stymied policy plan gives them a chance to make the case that Republicans — in complete control of Washington — are incompetent, a potentially significant new line of attack for a party in desperate need of winning over conservative voters in red states and battleground House districts.
“Democrats are beginning to believe that we can be good at politics again,” said Adam Jentleson, a former top aide to onetime Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “There’s still a heavy, high degree of trauma that still has not worn off from election night, but we’re finding our footing step by step.”
Even if Congress tries to put health care behind it, top Democratic operatives say it will remain a major issue for voters, especially those who voted for House Republicans in special elections earlier this year. And even if the issue fades, they’re hopeful the loss will be offset by an angry conservative base that wonders why it should even turn out for the next election.
Not even GOP strategists are sure the Democrats are wrong about that last point.
“Right now, it's devastating,” said one conservative strategist working on the midterms. If lawmakers don't find another way to repeal the law, “it will be absolutely devastating. It's so myopic of Republicans in terms of how they're handling this, because where they’re going to end up is back in the minority, like we were in ‘09.”
The conservative base, this strategist said, doesn't understand how Republicans could vote multiple times to repeal the law under President Barack Obama, but fail to reach the same consensus when the GOP actually has power to act.
"Why were they able to get it done under Obama, and they're not getting anything done now?" the strategist said. “The challenge Republicans are going to have in turning out conservatives is like nothing we've seen since ‘06.”
Democrats and Republicans alike think the GOP still has time to resuscitate its agenda, maybe as early as later this summer when the party has said it will take up tax reform as its next major initiative. Democrats also say they think Republicans will try again to repeal Obamacare, whether in the coming weeks or even into next year.
But if they don’t, Republicans run the risk of going before voters next year with nothing to show for their time in office.
And Democrats say that could change the nature of their attacks, switching from one focused on the details of the GOP’s agenda to the party’s broader failure to govern effectively.
“This is what happens when you have a Republican Congress that is not used to governing,” said John Lapp, a Democratic strategist. “Turns out health care is really hard, really difficult."
Lapp knows how potent a competence argument can be: He was the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, the last time House Democrats retook a majority.
That year, the party capitalized on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the then-unpopular Iraq War to depict Republicans as incompetent, an argument that — in part — helped them win a net of 31 seats in the House. (Democrats need to win 24 seats next year to win a majority, though the map of battleground seats is more difficult this time around.)
Lapp and other Democrats say they don’t think a failed legislative agenda rises to the level of either of those events. But they added that a competence argument can reach red-state voters in red states and right-leaning House districts, the kind Democrats need to win over in a year when they’re defending 10 Senate seats in states Trump won last year.
“It lines up well with the map and the types of the people who are running and the types of arguments they’re going to want to make,” Jentleson said. “Republicans are certainly handing us a ton of ammunition to make the competence case.”
Republicans will face two additional governing tests later this year, when they must pass a budget to avoid a government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.
Democrats have spent months vowing that the Republican health care bill would be the biggest issue of the 2018 midterm elections, legislation that would alienate elderly voters and some of Trump’s supporters who depend on government assistance for health insurance.
Despite the bill’s failure in the Senate, they say House Republicans who voted for it — and even those who didn’t — will pay a political price.
“This is far worse than Cap and Trade in 2009,” said Ian Russell, a former DCCC political director. “I'd be livid if I were in a remotely competitive district. They look ridiculous — they jammed through a stunningly unpopular bill, held a public celebration, and then it all came crashing down.”
“Yet they are on the record, and they can't run away from that,” he added.
Still, Democrats acknowledge their attacks might lack some of the same urgency.
“I'm confident that voters will continue to be compelled by talking about health care … but imagine it will be less than if it had passed,” said one Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster who will be involved in the 2018 midterms, said the health care flop won't necessarily be catastrophic for the GOP — if they can net real, beneficial accomplishments on other complicated issues, such as tax reform.
"The best outcome is a set of concrete accomplishments that appeal broadly to a center-right coalition," Ayres said. "If that set of accomplishments does not include an overhaul of the health care system, then something else, like tax reform, that truly stimulates the economy would be a good substitute. But it will be far easier to run campaigns in 2018 with a concrete set of accomplishments that Republicans can take to the electorate as a result of Republican control of the government."