We’re now inside a month until the midterm elections that will do no less than check or validate Donald Trump.
Those are high stakes.
A Democratic takeover of at least one of the congressional chambers — the House, most likely — would put a new and official constraint on Trump. It would authorize the new Democratic House leadership to investigate his many transgressions and controversies. A Democratic House would pass articles of impeachment if Robert Mueller’s report made a case.
But if Republicans hold both majorities, then it will be two years of Trumpism run amok, or even more amok than it’s running already. It will prove the prophecy of Kellyanne Conway, who told reporters last week that they ought to know by now that Trump always gets the last laugh.
The midterms usually are bad for the party of a new president who will have encountered bumps and bruises in his first two years. He will pay a price for pushing his triumphant agenda.
Those having voted for him will assume the enactment of the agenda. Those having voted against him will deplore it. Deplorers are more apt than assumers to vote in off years.
Bill Clinton reeled from trying to get the deficit down with top-tier income taxes. Barack Obama reeled from trying to impose universal health care.
The midterm setback has been much truer of Democratic presidents than Republican ones. That’s in part because Democratic presidential turnouts rely on occasional voters, and midterm elections tend to be dominated by regular voters of which Republicans have a greater percentage.
Midterm turnouts also are typically dominated by voters motivated by resentment, and, until lately, Republicans tended by general disposition to be more resentful than Democrats. That was until Trump, of whom resentment is probably an all-time record both by percentage of the voting population and intensity.
After two years, Clinton’s Democrats lost 54 House seats and eight Senate ones. After two years, Obama’s Democrats lost 63 House seats and six Senate ones. After two years, Ronald Reagan’s Republicans lost 26 House seats and no Senate ones. After two years, George W. Bush’s Republicans lost nothing, but gained slightly, on account of the aberrant political mood stemming from the 9/11 terror attack.
While all old rules are different for and with Trump, the issue is whether resentment of his offensive style will make him more a typical deep midterm drag like a Democrat than a typical mild midterm drag like a Republican.
Well, that’s one issue. A new one, arising in recent hours, is whether Republicans might now be as motivated as Democrats — by a sense of triumph in the takeover of the U.S. Supreme Court and a deep resentment over Democratic tactics against the Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
And there’s another mitigating factor this year. It’s that, in the U.S. Senate, almost all the up-for-election action is in states Trump won, including 10 states Trump won where Democratic senators are standing for re-election.
It seems logically out of the question that the Democrats could turn their 47-51 Senate disadvantage (49-51 with independents Angus King and Bernie Sanders caucusing with them) into a majority. They’d have to take Republican seats, probably in Nevada and Arizona, and only Nevada looks do-able from current polls. And they’d have to win several races in Trump states in which Democratic incumbents are stressed to the limit — Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, an almost-certain loser, along with Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Bill Nelson in Florida, Joe Donnelly in Indiana and Jon Tester in Montana. All those races are tossups, except maybe that of Tester, who is a slight favorite.
Why did Republicans push Kavanaugh so rapidly and vigorously even amid troubling charges? It was for the very reason that a Republican backlash against the attack on Kavanaugh would make life even tougher for McCaskill, Nelson, Donnelly and Tester.
There’s less principle than meets the eye in Congress, unless you count election-angling a principle.
Nationwide polls showing more voters opposing than supporting Kavanaugh’s confirmation are as meaningless as those nationwide polls — which were accurate — showing Hillary Clinton beating Donald Trump. She did beat him — nationwide.
But in this geographically fractured country, with red ever-redder and blue ever-bluer, nationwide polls are pointless. The point is the place, and, for the Senate, the places favor Republicans in 2018.
The House of Representatives offers a different story. The Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to go from 195 to a majority of 218, and local polls show them ahead in more than 30. Thirteen competitive House seats are ones currently held by Republicans from districts that Hillary Clinton carried. That suggests a suburban and upscale female aversion to Trump.
Most serious observers think Democrats will gain a minimum of 12 House seats — to 207 — to a maximum of 40, or 235.
A gain of 12 means Trump gets the last laugh again and is off to the blustery races. A gain of 23 to 40 means Trump meets, for the first time, congressional resistance.
P.S. — No national House prediction envisions Democrat Clarke Tucker defeating Republican incumbent French Hill in the 2nd District of Arkansas. But I still give Tucker an outside shot, though not as good a shot as his grandmother would have had as the nominee.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.