This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on November 28, 2016
In just a few weeks Democrats have gone from driving for what figured to be an easy lay up to having the rest of the season cancelled, with the next season in real doubt. They seemed to have the presidency in hand, a majority in the Senate very likely, and, while winning a majority in the House was always unrealistic, they did seem to have a good chance to cut the GOP majority in half with a gain of between 10 and 20 seats. Instead they allowed the White House to slip from their grasp, gained just two Senate seats, leaving them in the minority, and gained only a half dozen seats in the House, below the bottom end of what thought possible.
It only gets worse. Democrats would need a three-seat net gain in the to secure a Senate majority in 2018, a tall order since they’ll be defending 25 seats and Republicans just eight. Of the eight Republican seats up in 2018, just one, that of freshman Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada, is in a state that went for Democrats in either the 2012 or 2016 presidential elections (it voted Democratic in both). No other GOP-held Senate seat appears to be even remotely in danger.
Conversely, Democrats are defending some states that have been pretty rough on them in the past. The two candidates likely to face the toughest races are Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, a state Mitt Romney won by 20 points and Donald Trump by 36, and Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia, which sided with Romney by 27 points and Trump by 42. Three other Democrats have the their work cut out for them. In Indiana, Sen. Joe Donnelly will face his first reelection in a state that went to Romney by 10 points and Trump by 19. In Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill faces an electorate that favored Romney by 9 points and Trump by 19. In Montana, Sen. Jon Tester must win over voters who chose Romney by 14 points and Trump by 21.
In the House there seems to be very little volatility in 2018. Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman estimates that there are about ten Republicans sitting in districts carried by Hillary Clinton and just eight Democrats in districts won by Donald Trump. The party holding the White House usually loses House seats in midterm elections, but that might not happen this time. First, the House often experiences a surge and decline phenomenon in which a party picks up a bunch of seats with its White House victory only to lose many of those seats in the next mid-term election. But this year Republicans won the Presidency while losing House seats, so they aren’t going into the midterm with a lot of new seats to defend. Second, Democrats depend on younger and minority voters, who are most likely to sit out midterm election years.
The first order of business for Democrats is finding a new coach. The front-runner for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship is Rep. Keith Ellison, who represents a Minneapolis-area district that, at least in 2012 (new numbers won’t be out until early next year) had a Cook Political Report Partisan Voting Index score of +22, meaning that his district votes 22 points more Democratic than the country as a whole, the 45th most Democratic district in the country. It isn’t quite clear why some Democrats think that a congressman and part-time DNC chairman is the solution, especially since the real challenge for the party is in the states. It needs to score sufficient gains in state legislative and gubernatorial races in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 to have a hand in 2021 drawing the congressional and state legislative boundaries that will be in place for the next decade.
Ellison’s two current rivals for the position, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and South Carolina state Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison, at least would be able to work for the party full time. While Vermont is a very Democratic state, Dean is a former chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, a former presidential candidate who built an admirable grassroots national network, and a former DNC chairman who put together a 50-state party that undoubtedly helped Barack Obama win 2008. A good case also can be made for Harrison. Like Ellison, he is an African-American, and he’s party chair in a state on the front lines of the challenges facing the Democratic Party in the South—small-town and rural America.
The task for Democrats in 2018 is formidable. They need to hold the bulk of their Senate seats, make some modest inroads in the House, and make a start on breaking the Republican stranglehold in the states. President Trump could be their best friend. If he shows no signs of making America great again, if he doesn’t moderate his temperament in keeping with the dignity of his high office, if he can’t avoid conflicts between his business interests and political duties, then the usual pattern of midterm elections could be turned on its head.