President Trump’s apparent new willingness to work closely with congressional Democrats could have a significant impact on next year’s midterm elections when, history indicates, the minority party is already likely to retake control of the House.
Or look at it this way: Trump’s developing willingness to work closely with congressional Democrats reflects a growing White House realization that, given the ineffectiveness or unwillingness of the congressional GOP to enact Trump’s agenda, the liberal party will almost certainly retake control of the House. And in the last half of his first term, Trump will have to work with a restored Democrat Speaker Nancy Pelosi anyway.
Trump’s disputed agreement with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to develop legislation ending the potential deportation of 800,000 DACA residents cut the legs from under his party’s congressional leadership. Republicans had adamantly opposed legalization of their residency as amnesty for their illegal initial entry.
Referring to his negotiations, Trump even adopted a Democratic description: “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!” Trump tweeted. “They have been in our country for many years through no fault of their own – brought in by parents at young age.”
GOP disunity is chronic, not just under this president. But it becomes increasingly serious as the Nov. 6, 2018, election draws closer, now just 59 weeks away. The growing impression that the feuding GOP Congress is not enacting its president’s agenda could very well worsen the already dire-looking election outcome.
Historically, the president’s party loses seats in the midterm election of his first term. That’s happened in 18 of the last 20 midterm elections. On average, the losses have been 33 seats. Democrats need gain only 24 seats next year for a House majority.
This is exactly how the GOP seized House control in 2010. More ominously for the party of Lincoln though is that presidents with job approval under 40 percent tend to lose even more seats, upwards of 40 or more.
At last check, Trump’s approval was 36 percent, according to Gallup’s three-day rolling average of 4,500 adults.
But given the chatter churn about each day’s Trump controversy, there’s something else largely overlooked: Retirements. They’re key, especially in House contests because they remove familiar incumbent names from the ballot, creating new opportunities for the opposing party, even in presumed safe districts.
This is the season for congressional retirement announcements, with lawmakers back in Washington after the long summer break facing endless political fights and feuds to no great productive end and, oh, by the way, the need to raise a million or more campaign dollars.
Already, eight incumbent House members – six Republicans and two Democrats – have said they will not run again in 2018. The average for each election is 22.
But that number could go considerably higher among GOP members this cycle given Congress’ fetid job approval in the mid-teens and the fractious climate on Capitol Hill, plus harsh public criticisms from a president of their own party.
Watch for a sizable batch of new retirees if little legislative progress is made by Thanksgiving in such important areas as tax reform, infrastructure spending and DACA.
History aside, the 2018 outlook could seem favorable for Republicans. Last November, fully 226 of the GOP’s 441 House wins (94 percent) had double-digit victory margins. So far this year, despite millions in extra spending, Democrats have failed to win any of five special elections.
Republican candidates last year won House elections in 23 districts carried by Hillary Clinton. Can Republicans hold them now given an unpopular president of their party?
Then, retirements create open seats, changing the political calculus. A study by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics found that open seats defended by the president’s party in recent cycles saw vote margin swings of 22 percent toward the other party.
Of course, nothing is certain 59 weeks before any election. How much will voters actually see Trump as a Republican president to be “punished” in a midterm? And how many Trumpers in his diminished plurality will abandon him if he continues flirting with Democrats and appears to waver on key promises such as a border wall?
Trump has been a long-term registered Democrat and donor. He ran in the GOP as a flag of political convenience while denouncing establishment leaders of both parties.
In recent days, he’s been praising “Nancy and Chuck.” But based on these first eight months of President Trump, he could be tweet-punching both of them as soon as, oh, say, tomorrow morning.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.