Trump Numbers Are Up: New Hope for Republicans?

The Briefing, Vol. VI, Issue 22

This week:

  • Dare Republicans hope they can keep the House?
  • Braun begins with a modest lea
  • Democrats in Georgia, Texas take a step leftward

A new hope for Republicans? Is the electoral situation improving for Republicans? Are they competitive again, after months of anti-Trump sentiment and a couple of lost special elections?

There is a case to make that yes, they are in better shape — that perhaps a backlash is slowly developing to the backlash to Trump.

And make no mistake about the expectations game. Democrats must win back the House this year — failure to do so will be an unmitigated defeat for them and a huge surprise victory for Republicans. Democrats could do well and still fail to take the Senate, but that’s a prize they could really use, too, as it would help them block Trump’s nominees.

So, now, the argument. RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende penned a piece last week that suggests there’s a real game on here — that things don’t look nearly as bleak for Republicans as they had a few months earlier. Trende makes the case based on a few important data points:

  • Something is quietly happening with President Trump’s job approval rating. It has risen to its pre-Comey-firing level, suggesting a level of public contentment with Trump that hasn’t been seen since mid-March, just a month and a half after his inauguration.
    The RealClear average of recent polls, when Trende wrote last Wednesday, was 43.7 percent. Since then it has risen to 44 percent. Trump’s net approval is negative, of course — it always has been, including on the day he won the presidency — but since mid-December it has shifted from negative 20 to just below negative 9. Of the 12 polls taken entirely during May, his net disapproval rating is in the single digits in eight of them. The same could be said of only four of the 24 polls that were started in April.
  • Republicans are only a few points behind in the generic ballot polls. It may have been an anomaly, but for a brief moment they actually took the lead over Democrats in the Reuters poll, and that at least illustrates how close it is. Traditionally, a Republican generic poll deficit of as many as five points has been good for Republicans, as they tend to outperform this measurement. Also, they tend to do better when the polls are fine-tuned to measure likely instead of just registered voters.

Trende concludes by arguing that it would be a big mistake to judge November’s races based on the enthusiasm and turnout that Democrats have enjoyed in special elections this year. There is some sense to this — midterm electorate is much larger and its typical demographics tend to work in Republicans’ favor — but don’t underestimate the power of an angry base. Republicans had that going for them in 2010, and it served them well, although it must be said that in most of America, the conservative base is simply larger than the progressive base.

Finally,  it needs to be said once again that whatever happens in the House, the Senate map is so favorable to Republicans that they may have a chance of holding out there even if they lose the House. And of course, if Trump’s popularity continues to rise, and economic conditions (decent growth, record-low unemployment, etc.) fail to produce anything that anyone will complain about, Democrats may yet be in for some disappointment this fall. As bad as things looked for Republicans a couple of months ago, they still have reasons for hope on multiple levels.

Senate 2018

Indiana: You won’t see too many polls of Indiana this year, considering the importance of its Senate race, just because robo-calling is illegal. But the first poll out since the primary shows that relative political novice and Republican businessman Mike Braun has a one-point lead over Sen. Joe Donnelly, D, 47 to 46 percent.

Braun has a very long way to go to defeat Donnelly, but he’s starting off in as good shape as anyone could have hoped when he entered the race. A simple outsider’s campaign, akin to that of Trump (who went over very, very well in Indiana in 2016, by the way), could be a much greater threat to the Democratic incumbent than a race against an experienced but equally obscure professional politician.

Indiana used to be a more competitive state. But Hoosiers have lately taken their pick-axes even to formerly popular Democrats. Former governor and Sen. Evan Bayh was trounced in the open-seat race of 2016 by a largely unknown Republican congressman from the south of the state.

Donnelly is not nearly as revered as Bayh. It was actually something of a fluke that he was elected in 2012 in the first place. The opportunity here for Republicans is very enticing, and the rewards are great: A victory in this one race could guarantee continued GOP Senate control.

Montana: Voters will choose the Republican nominee to take on Democratic Sen. Jon Tester on June 5. With the backing of the Senate Conservatives’ Fund, the Club for Growth, Steve Bannon and state Auditor Matt Rosendale has the inside track.

His strongest rival, County Judge Russell Fagg, is running ads tarring Rosendale as a transplant from Maryland. This suggests that Fagg thinks he’s behind. It could have an effect, especially given Rosendale’s strong Baltimore accent, but don’t overestimate it. In most Western states, residents are fully accustomed to transplants, many of them being transplants themselves. It often isn’t the negative issue some people might think.

Republicans are stretching just a bit to make this a race at the moment. But whoever gets the nomination will have President Trump’s full-throated help, and that could go a long way in Montana. Trump has become Tester’s outspoken critic ever since he spread rumors about Trump’s nominee for VA secretary. Tester may yet rue the day he made that enemy.

Governor 2018

Georgia: As expected, Democrats nominated liberal state Rep. Stacey Abrams on Tuesday, and Republicans moved on to a runoff. The question now is whether Georgia, a Republican bastion for nearly two decades, but also a state that did not like President Trump compared to other Republicans, has changed as much as some people want to think it has.

Democrats’ big hopes stem from Trump’s unimpressive five-point victory margin in the Peach State in 2016. That’s inferior to Mitt Romney’s seven-point  margin and George W. Bush’s 17 points, but close enough to John McCain’s five-point margin.

The earliest poll of a general election between Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Abrams gives Cagle a modest five-point lead. That isn’t really too impressive, but considering the overall situation of Republicans right now nationwide, they’ll probably take it.

Abrams is quite liberal, and doesn’t fit the moderate model of Democratic statewide runs in Georgia since 2000. But there’s a general feeling among Democratic voters (judging by Abrams’ overwhelming primary victory) that there isn’t much to lose, given that none of those moderates ever won. And they do have a point, don’t they?

Of course, Cagle hasn’t  made it yet to the nomination — he faces a July 24 runoff against Secretary of State Brian Kemp, which he is favored to win.

Texas: Democrats also ran leftward in the Texas runoff, nominating their first openly lesbian candidate for governor in former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, and passing over the more moderate Andrew White, son of a former Democratic governor. Valdez is a big underdog against Gov. Greg Abbott.

The situation is not too different from the one in Georgia, except that expectations among Texas Democrats are much, much lower. They seem a lot farther away from power in their state than Georgia Democrats are in theirs. Texas Democrats, however, have already nominated a wide variety of candidates and tested every formula. They have run moderates, liberals, and a demographically diverse array of candidates for the various statewide offices. But if anything, they seem to have regressed in their electoral effectiveness, despite quixotic expectations that a Democratic majority would emerge from a growing Hispanic population. So far, it basically isn’t happening.

The 2014 candidacy of Wendy Davis was among the most disastrous in recent memory. She won just under 39 percent of the vote, but that wasn’t the worst thing about her campaign. It is perhaps hard now to remember how ridiculously the media overhyped her as a candidate. For all the fawning, sickly sweet coverage she got for her abortion fanaticism, and for all of the $43 million she spend on the election, she only just barely outperformed down-ballot Democrats who hardly campaigned at all.

But there is still cause for some hope for Team Blue. Texas, like Georgia (but very much unlike Montana and Indiana), is a state where Trump did not go over especially well. He won by only 9 points, compared to Mitt Romney’s 16-point margin, John McCain’s 12 points, and of course George W. Bush’s much larger victories.