Republicans enter the new election cycle already carrying the weight of Sisyphus: Rarely does the party in power gain seats in midterm congressional elections. But in 2018, they have an additional burden to bear, as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Donald Trump’s team colluded with Russia drags into the campaign season.
As the recent indictments of three Trump campaign aides, one of whom pleaded guilty, foreshadow, Mueller’s expansive inquiry will put Republicans who have been supportive or at least tolerant of Trump’s behavior on the defensive as they try to win re-election and maintain control of Congress.
“Certainly if we’re in a scenario where it’s totally consuming the news cycle, it will be very hard for Republicans to point to accomplishments,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican communications strategist and top adviser to Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee. “You could have a very animated opposition that could help Democrats really energize their base to show up on Election Day.”
John Weaver, the chief strategist for Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s unsuccessful fight against Trump last year to top the GOP ticket, offered a more lyrical description of the prevailing Trump-Russia climate: “There will be a blue wind blowing that will make it difficult for the party in power to win anyway, much less with Siberian clouds moving in.”
Mueller’s investigation is likely to continue through next year, if not longer. Several veteran prosecutors have said that the guilty plea and cooperation of George Papadopoulos, an obscure, low-level campaign foreign policy adviser who sought out Russian contacts, shows that Mueller is pursuing a tried-and-true legal strategy of starting with the minnows before gradually reeling in the trophy fish.
More politically explosive revelations are likely looming, they say, as Mueller painstakingly ascertains that every nail in the cases he is building is secure, every screw tightened.
“It would come as no great shock to me that we hear about some other sealed pleadings,” said David Weinstein, a former U.S. attorney.
On paper, Democrats remain at a disadvantage heading into the 2018 midterm elections. In the Senate, they have to defend 25 of their 48 seats, while Republican need to hold off challenges in just eight of their 52 seats. In the House, the GOP holds a 45-seat majority.
But it doesn’t help Republicans that Trump’s approval rating right now is 34 percent, according to the latest Pew Research Center survey. Other polls show that if the 2018 midterm election were held today, voters would prefer Democrats over Republicans by anywhere from six to 16 percentage points.
Still, much can happen over the next 12 months. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 58 percent of the public supports Mueller’s investigation. But Trump’s core support won’t budge even if Mueller finds that he did, in fact, collude with the Kremlin to win the presidency, according to yet another poll, this one by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling. Moreover, his support among Republicans overall nears 80 percent.
But if the 2016 campaign teaches any lessons, it’s that political tradition is overrated, polls can be wrong and the preference of many voters in an age of political distrust and dysfunction is like the will-o’-the-wisp: elusive and possibly misleading.
And Democrats, the likely beneficiaries of all the political turbulence, have a tendency to implode in self-defeating squabbles over progressive purity. They’ve also displayed a distinctive inability to craft a simple, coherent message that appeals to wayward moderates and others who abandoned them for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” manifesto.
“This is going to hurt, but it will hurt both parties badly,” Republican strategist Kim Alfano said of the ongoing Mueller investigation. “There is no such thing as a safe incumbent anymore. Anyone in office today is going to be under siege in their elections. Challengers will win. And the Democrats will misunderstand and think they have the mantle, just as we mistakenly thought we had the mantle. We don’t. We’re all in trouble, and yeah, this Russian crap just makes it that much worse.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and a lawmaker well-steeped in the Russia investigation, said he has advised his party to focus less on Trump and his problems and more on the kitchen table issues important to voters.
“I urge candidates to talk about what they’re going to do to improve the economy, bring jobs to communities that don’t have them, secure retirement, pay for kids’ education,” he said.
It would be a mistake if the Democrats’ message next year is simply “resist,” said Douglas Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee who has been critical of Trump.
“This would be the time for them to put forward some serious proposals to talk about what they would do,” he said. “The ‘resist’ message only appeals to Bernie (Sanders) voters and hard-core Clinton supporters.”
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said Democrats don’t necessarily need to make Trump the focus of their message because awareness of the Mueller investigation into his alleged Russian ties is so pervasive.
“It’s everywhere,” he said. “It’s not really something anyone has to do ads on. It’s on TV nonstop, in newspapers. The news coverage will be so intense it will have an effect.”
There’s no way to know for sure the direction Mueller’s digging will take. The indictments of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, and campaign adviser Rick Gates on money laundering charges seemingly unrelated to claims about Russia is seen as the special counsel’s opening gambit.
“It would appear they are intending to use it as leverage,” said Weinstein, the former federal prosecutor. “They’re letting them know we have evidence of what we believe are ties to allegations of Russian interference.”
The end point to Mueller’s work is anyone’s guess. The Watergate investigation began as a probe into a burglary at Democratic Party headquarters, and led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon two years later.
Whitewater started out as a real estate probe, morphed into an inquiry into President Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern, and resulted in a vote by the House of Representatives to impeach him. The Senate subsequently declined to convict. But all told, it took six years for Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr to shut down the investigation.
“The Starr investigation kept going and going as if there was never going to be an end,” said Ken Gormley, the president of Duquesne University and a former dean of its law school who has authored books on Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox and the clash between Clinton and Starr. “That’s not how a good independent counsel goes. The real job is to move it toward a conclusion to end this uncertainty that hangs over the country.”
He said Mueller is a seasoned prosecutor who will hew to his mandate without a lot of theatrics, though one thing can, indeed, lead to another — and Mueller’s mandate permits him to go after crimes he encounters in the course of his probe. Still, “it’s unlikely he’s the kind of person who will be hopscotching from investigation to investigation just to keep it going,” Gormley said.
In any case, Matthew Miller, a Justice Department spokesman during the Obama administration, said the Mueller investigation is a political time bomb: “There are a lot different ways this could blow up right in the middle of the election.”