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National Politics|By Charlie Cook, May 11, 2017

House Re­pub­lic­ans were caught on the horns of a di­lemma. If they didn’t pass a bill that ef­fect­ively re­pealed and re­placed Obama­care, they would either look in­ef­fec­tu­al or in de­fi­ance of their con­ser­vat­ive base. But to pass a bill with no Demo­crat­ic sup­port in a nar­rowly di­vided House, they would need sup­port of the vast ma­jor­ity of the con­ser­vat­ive Free­dom Caucus, which would mean a bill that would nev­er sur­vive in the Sen­ate, where mem­bers have sub­stan­tially more di­verse con­stitu­en­cies.

Bey­ond those factors, they faced a po­ten­tial back­lash from Amer­ic­ans who either would be ad­versely af­fected by the bill or fear that they would. So the Re­pub­lic­ans were forced to pick their pois­on: Either look in­com­pet­ent or thumb their nose at their base. They chose to side with their base. Many mod­er­ate and swing-dis­trict Re­pub­lic­ans hope that the Sen­ate will sub­stan­tially tone down the le­gis­la­tion and that the Free­dom Caucus will feel pres­sured to go along with a much more meas­ured bill after a joint Sen­ate-House con­fer­ence com­mit­tee re­con­ciles the two ver­sions.

So now what? Since In­aug­ur­a­tion Day, Pres­id­ent Trump has had the low­est job-ap­prov­al rat­ings of any newly elec­ted pres­id­ent since the first “sci­en­tific­ally based” poll by George Gal­lup in 1936. More than any­thing else, midterm elec­tions are ref­er­enda on the in­cum­bent pres­id­ent. Ob­vi­ously no one knows what is go­ing to hap­pen in next year’s midterm elec­tions, but ana­lysts who have watched con­gres­sion­al elec­tions for a long time are see­ing signs that 2018 could be a wave elec­tion that flips con­trol of the House to Demo­crats.

The late Demo­crat­ic Speak­er Tip O’Neill was fam­ous for hav­ing said, “all polit­ics is loc­al.” I would add an im­port­ant caveat: “All polit­ics is loc­al, ex­cept when it’s not.” Roughly once a dec­ade we see a tid­al wave elec­tion, al­most al­ways at midterm, in which an in­vis­ible hand seems to boost can­did­ates of one party and drag down can­did­ates of the oth­er. Can­did­ates who nor­mally win big end up win­ning by smal­ler mar­gins. Law­makers who usu­ally have com­pet­it­ive races of­ten get sucked away by the un­der­tow. Dis­tricts that should be safe are no longer safe. Strong cam­paigns lose to weak cam­paigns, un­der­fun­ded cam­paigns topple well-fun­ded cam­paigns.

In years like 1994 and 2006, chal­lengers who didn’t get a dime from their party’s House cam­paign com­mit­tees won any­way. Waves also swept away the party in power in 1946, 1958, 1966, and 1974. In each of these midterm elec­tions, the party in the White House lost at least 40 seats in the lower cham­ber and as many as 65 (in 2006 it was “just” 30 seats.) The biggest waves tend to oc­cur when the pres­id­ency and ma­jor­it­ies in both the House and Sen­ate are in the hands of the same party.

It would be highly un­likely for Re­pub­lic­ans to lose 40 or more seats. In many states, con­gres­sion­al-dis­trict bound­ar­ies were drawn in 2011 by Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors and state le­gis­latures, and they were ex­ceed­ingly gen­er­ous to GOP law­makers. Pop­u­la­tion pat­terns play an even big­ger role. Demo­crat­ic voters tend to be con­cen­trated in urb­an areas and col­lege towns while Re­pub­lic­an voters are more ef­fi­ciently al­loc­ated throughout the coun­try.

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, midterm elect­or­ates are older, whiter, more con­ser­vat­ive, and more Re­pub­lic­an than pres­id­en­tial elect­or­ates. But Re­pub­lic­ans still can have bad midterms: Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s second midterm elec­tion in 2006 was a hor­ror show.

These factors are im­port­ant and might well di­min­ish the po­ten­tial for large GOP losses next year, but they don’t re­peal the laws of polit­ic­al grav­ity. They simply mean that the kind of wave that in past dec­ades might have res­ul­ted in 40- to 65-seat losses might end up as a 20- to 30-seat loss. The ma­gic num­ber in 2018 is 24. That would give the Demo­crats con­trol of the House.

Of course, we don’t know what Pres­id­ent Trump’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ings will be in the fall of 2018. We don’t know what the voter mood will be either, but right now the Demo­crat­ic base seems highly en­er­gized while the Re­pub­lic­an base is in the Slough of Des­pond. A big ques­tion is wheth­er Trump voters will be­have like Barack Obama voters. In 2008, a lot of fresh new voters came on­line to elect Obama, but in 2010, when his name was not on the bal­lot, they stayed home. When he was up for reelec­tion in 2012, they turned up at the polls again, then didn’t show up in 2014. No one needs to be re­minded that Demo­crats had good years in 2008 and 2012, and hor­rif­ic years in 2010 and 2014. Will the Trump voters who turned out in 2016 do so again when he’s not on the bal­lot? Fi­nally, there is the mat­ter of in­cum­bent re­tire­ments and can­did­ate re­cruit­ing. There are ru­mors that a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of Re­pub­lic­an House mem­bers will re­tire while Demo­crats may stick around to see if they get back in power. Usu­ally it’s easi­er for an in­cum­bent to hold onto a seat. And while a large in­flux of first-time Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates is emer­ging, Re­pub­lic­ans who as­pire to Con­gress may wait for a more pro­pi­tious time to run.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on May 8, 2017