A consensus is building in both US political parties that Democrats are heavily favored to take control of the House of Representatives on Nov. 6 and to pick up half a dozen governors’ offices, while Republicans hang on to their slim Senate majority. But there’s a caveat: Politics is unpredictable with President Donald Trump in the White House.
It would be foolish to rule out the possibility that the prospect of Republican losses in the midterm election will provoke Trump to take some kind of dramatic executive action during the next eight weeks. If he does, it could work for his party or it could just as easily backfire.
Democrats would need to pick up 23 Republican seats to take over the House and two to capture the Senate. There are 20 to 25 House seats and seven or eight Senate seats that remain toss-ups. Any of them could be tipped by mistakes, embarrassing revelations or unusual developments like ones that took place last week when Michigan’s Republican governor refused to endorse his party’s candidate to succeed him, or when Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate made a pedestrian choice of a running mate.
But the momentum building toward a Democratic wave, small or sizable, is unlikely to fade. “I’ve never seen a wave reverse or dissipate between midsummer and Election Day,” said Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report and a sage of US elections. “They have just remained constant or gotten bigger, like 1994 and 2006.”
Over more than half a century, there have only been two midterm elections where a post-Labor Day event changed the dynamics of the overall race. In both cases, these involved weighty historical events and Republicans were marginally hurt. One was in 1974, when President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon for crimes related to the Watergate scandal. The other was the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
An international crisis is possible, especially if Trump seeks to create a distraction from his own scandals. Whether real or manufactured, Trump would be called upon to handle it with the same skill President John F. Kennedy displayed during the Cuban nuclear confrontation in the Cold War. That’s far-fetched.
The 2018 do-nothing Congress still has a month to go. House Republican leaders want to pass a few spending bills and get out by early October so endangered incumbents can campaign. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell will probably keep the Senate in session for most of October to inhibit Democratic incumbents from spending more time on the campaign trail and to force votes on federal judicial nominations.
For all the fury over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, he’s expected to be confirmed on a mostly party-line vote, perhaps by Oct. 1, when the Supreme Court convenes. Politically, the fight probably is a wash or a slight energizer for Democrats.
These plans could be sidetracked if Trump threatens a government shutdown to try to force Congress to approve money for his wall on the southern border. The issue of a small pay raise for federal employees, which budget director Mick Mulvaney nixed, could get ensnared in this. Fearing the pay raise could cost them a half-dozen House seats, Republican leaders would like to pass a modified version but fear Trump won’t go along.
The president earlier threatened a shutdown, then last week seemed to retreat only to renew the threat yet again. As Stan Collender, a commentator on the federal budget, noted, “Nothing Trump says on any particular day should be treated as gospel.”
Trump retains the support of his most loyal fans, but his credibility among other Americans is eroding. The Washington Post’s fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, reported Tuesday that the president has made 4,713 false or misleading statements since he took the oath of office in 2017; the summer months saw new highs in Trump lies.
Trump’s unpredictability is bound to be amplified in the coming weeks. He’s already lashed out wildly over revelations in a new book by Washington-watcher Bob Woodward and an anonymous New York Times op-ed column about White House dysfunction and efforts by staffers there to undermine their boss. Soon-to-be released books by the journalist Michael Lewis on chaos in important agencies and the communications scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson on Russian manipulation of the 2016 presidential election -- not to mention continuing fallout from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible links between the Trump campaign and the election meddling -- are likely to enrage this unstable president even more.
I remember the dark moods of White House aides during the Watergate scandal and after the exposure in 1998 of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. But these were mild compared to the gloom in the Trump White House, where hardly anyone trusts anyone else.
For the midterms, one slim hope for Republicans is that they tend to narrow their polling deficits right before an election. That’s often because Democratic voters aren’t motivated. This November, however, Democrats have the great motivator sitting in the White House.
Albert R. Hunt
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. -- Ed.