DANIEL VAUGHAN: Republicans are gaining ground ahead of midterms, but will it continue?

October 8, 2018

DANIEL VAUGHAN: Republicans are gaining ground ahead of midterms, but will it continue?

With Brett Kavanaugh confirmed and sworn in as a Supreme Court justice, all the GOP’s attention is now on November’s midterms. And as we head down the final leg of the campaign season, the race has tightened considerably.

First, it’s important to note that as the party out of power, the Democrats have had all the advantages to date. Historically speaking, the party in opposition to the president picks up seats in the House and Senate during midterm years. In recent history, only President George W. Bush was able to gain seats for his party just after his first two years, though that was in 2002, when the country still primarily united in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Opposition parties gain seats after a new president’s inauguration for a variety of reasons. The majority party’s voters sometimes get apathetic after experiencing a significant victory. And, historically speaking, American voters don’t like a single-party rule in government for long. Americans, as a whole, often reflect the Founders’ wisdom in recognizing that power tends to corrupt, and it’s best to keep another party in power to check a majority.

In any case, the minimum number of seats the Democratic Party has to flip in November to gain control of the House is 23. With 435 total seats and everyone up for re-election in that chamber, the playing field is as narrow as ever.

In the summer and amid several special elections over the last several months, a Democratic wave come November seemed all but certain. And it’s still possible that Democrats could flip more than 35 seats to gain a considerable advantage in the House.

But the conventional wisdom that was once certain has now become questionable. Republicans have a small and narrow path they can take that allows them to retain control of the House — and while the Kavanaugh hearings raged, a perfect storm of events started to form that could help with that.

Axios reported that many Republicans feel the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings energized their base — and private polling supports them.

“Prior to the Kavanaugh hearing, the intensity level was really on the Democratic side,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said. “But in the last week, there has been a fundamental shift.” Some Republican candidates now lead their races.

On the other side, Democratic campaign operatives are terrified the Kavanaugh nomination fight is hurting their campaigns. Speaking to the Daily Beast, Kenneth Baer, a former Obama administration official, said: “The truth is that in nationalized elections — most of which are presidential but some of which can be midterms — if the dominant issue terrain is around the cultural sphere, Democrats lose.”

Adding to the anecdotal evidence against Democrats ahead of midterms, the Wall Street Journal recently reported a surge in low-dollar donations. Small money donations typically signify more grassroots excitement in an election.

For Democrats, even though the Kavanaugh nomination hearings galvanized their base, the question remains of whether they can get their voters more aroused than they were before the Kavanaugh hearings. If Democrats are already capped in enthusiasm, then a boost in Republican support would be significant.

But enthusiasm can only get you so far. After anecdotal evidence and historical data, you have to take into account polling averages and models.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s generic ballot tracker, Republicans started gaining ground during the Kavanaugh nomination hearings. Democrats gained ground too, but it was less pronounced than the Republicans experienced. Democrats typically hold an advantage on the generic ballot, but if Democrats can’t maintain a six-point lead or higher, it portends potential electoral success for Republicans.

As for models, FiveThirtyEight currently gives Republicans a 78 percent chance of retaining control of the Senate, but only a 26 percent chance of keeping majority in the House. Their editor in chief, Nate Silver, is giving Republicans a one-in-four chance at retaining the House. Decision Desk HQ and Optimus Legislative Modeling are a bit more bullish, giving the GOP a 30 percent chance at retaining the House.

Simply put: Republicans have a shot, a puncher’s chance, at retaining the House. But the odds are stacked against them.

That leaves the question: can Republicans maintain and expand upon their party’s newfound enthusiasm post-Kavanaugh? In my opinion, that will come down to whatever the last news cycle will be in the election.

You may recall that in 2016, the last anti-Trump news hit ahead of the election season featured the Access Hollywood tape of the now-president’s so-called “locker room talk.” Although it had floated around journalists circles before that, the big drop occurred in October in a naked attempt to affect the election. Dan Rather and CBS famously did the same with their DUI hit on George W. Bush in 2000.

But the real October surprise ended up affecting Hilary Clinton, when then-FBI Director James Comey said they were re-opening the investigation into her storage of classified information on her illegal, private email server. A presidential race that was already narrowing got even closer.

The Kavanaugh hearings are now complete, so they shouldn’t stay in the news. He’ll move on to hearing cases. Meanwhile, the New York Times has been actively trying to make their Trump tax scheme story an October surprise story. But they made the mistake of publishing it amid the Kavanaugh vote when no one cared. So they made the unprecedented decision to re-publish the piece for the weekend and Monday crowd.

But I’d wager we haven’t hit the final news story that will affect the November election. Ideally, Republicans would like to run on something similar to Kavanaugh. The chance to add another justice would provide a significant boost to their campaigning efforts. But Democrats would like nothing more than a critical anti-Trump news piece to drop.

Given the media’s decision to become overt activists for the Democratic Party, you can bet an on anti-Trump story dropping. But as history has shown us, that’s not all that happens just before the midterms. Republicans could get a helpful storyline too.


Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.