Lee Carter doesn’t exactly look like the kind of guy who should be giving Republicans nightmares. The Marine Corps veteran is a stocky, 30-year-old redhead from Manassas, Virginia, who works in I.T. and dresses like it—visible undershirt, khakis, the whole bit. He had never run for office until last year, when he embarked on a long-shot bid for Virginia’s House of Delegates. Carter was trying to unseat the sitting House Majority Whip, a 10-year Republican incumbent. Making his challenge even more daunting, Carter ran as a democratic socialist, in the mold of in a middle-class district that’s the very picture of Panera Bread exurbia.
But not only did Carter win, he did so in startling fashion, defeating his Republican opponent by nearly 10 points on an Election Day that saw Democrats capture seats up and down the ballot in Virginia, including Ralph Northam’s victory over a Trumpified Ed Gillespie for the governor’s mansion. It was a total wipeout for Republicans. Carter, himself, didn’t think he’d win in such blowout fashion. “There were a large number of people motivated to go vote because of what they heard from the White House and what they saw in Congress,” he told me recently with a shrug. “There were also thousands of people who showed up to vote me. I don’t know the exact mix yet.”
What should give Republicans nightmares, however, isn’t simply that Carter managed to win as an avowed socialist in a state that prides itself on political moderation—“the Virginia Way,” as insiders there call it—but rather that no one saw it coming. In a defining characteristic of a wave election, he won in a suburban district that wasn’t supposed to be competitive at all. “The thing about wave elections is that they manifest themselves in places you didn’t think were competitive,” said Stuart Rothenberg, the political analyst. “Today you have fewer competitive districts than you did in the 1980s or 1990s, and that puts more of a burden on the Democrats because the playing field is narrower. But if you have wave, it widens the playing field.”
It’s starting to seem silly to ask if the 2018 midterm elections are going to be a wave. Of course they will be. Donald Trump is both the animating force of the Republican Party and also its biggest scourge. State, local, and federal midterm elections are always a referendum on the president and his policies, and while the G.O.P. can point to concrete achievements (like massive tax cuts and a new Supreme Court justice) and positive trends (sky-high consumer confidence and a jump in U.S. manufacturing), Trump has managed to create a political atmosphere so toxic that incumbent Republicans are deciding to retire and cash out rather than walk headfirst into the slaughterhouse this coming November. Departing Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker came to the conclusion that they would lose their Republican primaries for being free-thinking individuals instead of MAGA zombies. In the House, there are 31 open Republican seats, a number that grew higher this week with the retirement of California Rep. Darrell Issa. And though Trent Franks and Blake Farenthold are leaving because of their strange and creepy behavior around female staffers, most of the other fleeing congressmen have one thing in common: they represent moderate suburban districts, some of them won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, where Trump is deeply unpopular.
Charlie Dent talks to reporters prior a House GOP weekly conference, July 28, 2017.
By Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post/Getty Images.
The majority of Republicans won’t say this stuff outright—they have to keep governing for another year even as the smell of death starts to waft through the hallways of Cannon and Longworth. But Charlie Dent will. The retiring Pennsylvania congressman, who represents Allentown and parts of Harrisburg, is a favorite of Capitol Hill reporters largely because he has a pleasant habit of telling the truth, which is how he proceeded when asked on CNN whether his retirement this year from Congress had anything to do with the Trump headwinds. “We are in a very challenging midterm environment,” Dent said in December. “Most of my colleagues are well aware of the historical challenges that we face. . . . The party of the president typically loses 32 seats in a situation like this. Of course then, Donald Trump, you know, complicates that because he’s a very polarizing figure, and so I suspect our challenges will be even greater just because of that.”
For decades it’s become conventional wisdom that the American electorate likes divided government, sending candidates from the opposite party to Washington as a necessary check on the executive branch. The only recent exception to this rule was after September 11, when Republicans expanded their majorities in Congress after voters rallied to the president in wartime. Things got worse for George W. Bush four years on, when Republicans lost 32 House seats and control of Congress in 2006 amid the stagnating Iraq war and the White House’s catastrophic bungling of Hurricane Katrina. Trump’s fate, though, looks closer to Barack Obama’s in 2010, when Democrats lost the Senate and 63 House seats in that year’s tea-party tsunami. That was the definition of backlash—a “shellacking,” as Obama memorably put it. And yet Obama’s job approval, even in his darkest days, was never as low as Trump’s is now. Since 1950, no party has kept the House in a midterm election when the president’s approval rating was below 40 percent, [according to Nate Cohn of The New York Times]. Trump has been below 40 percent since May, irrespective of various wins and losses. Voters are more or less split on his handling of the economy and terrorism. But majorities disapprove of his personal qualities and temperament. It suggests that voters are evaluating the president independent of the policies he is enacting. This election is all about Trump, the man.
The Virginia elections last fall took place in an American political petri dish—a diverse, suburban state where Trump’s disapproval rating approached a soaring 60 percent. It’s incredibly tough to imagine how that story line reverses itself before November. Trump will not change. We know that. The fundamentals of the political environment are what they are, and Democrats, despite their own challenges, are just surfing the currents. “When you are on the upside of these cycles everything becomes a little easier,” said Guy Cecil, the chief strategist for Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC. “Recruiting candidates is easier. Raising money is easier. Finding quality staff is easier. All of the things you don’t see become easier.”
The rise and fall (and whatever we are experiencing now) of Trump is, of course, not entirely a political story. It is as much a media event played out 24/7, in real time, with every fresh Trump tweet or tragic shooting, leaked White House psychodrama or paroxysm of Oprah mania. The midterms will bring more of the same as wacky new candidates will emerge trying to claim the Trump mantle—Joe Arpaio in Arizona being the latest contestant. They will say over-the-top things, rally their base, and maybe even body-slam a reporter. There might also be Republican candidates who try to separate themselves from Trump, either out of principle or a naked attempt to save their political skins, that make for sympathetic profiles. The country will also be introduced to viral grassroots Democrats—Iron Stache!—who come out of nowhere to win unpredictable races, and #Resistance types might even rush to throw them into the 2020 presidential conversation.
Reporters and cable-television bookers, meanwhile, will race to keep up with the latest micro-scandal that flits across their context-free Twitter feeds. All of it will make for great political Ritalin. But none of it will matter more than the only thing that matters in politics right now—Trump. “There will be an endless number of seemingly game-changing moments, gaffes, Twitter wars, and hyperventilating CNN chyrons between now and 2018, but what won’t change is the overall political environment, which is very bad for Republicans and pretty good for Democrats,” said Jon Favreau, the former Obama speechwriter and Crooked Media co-founder.
There are counter-arguments: That partisan gerrymandering has lowered the number of competitive House seats, that most of the competitive Senate races are taking place in red states where Trump is more popular than the national average, that the economy is actually doing pretty well. All of them are true. The Senate map is particularly difficult terrain for Democrats, who would have to win in places like Arizona, North Dakota, Missouri, and Tennessee to take back the upper chamber. But a wave election, as defined, would render these arguments moot. Democrats are now working to recruit candidates everywhere and compete everywhere, because they know a wave will pull even the least likely candidates over the finish line. “The question for Democrats is not ‘are we going to pick up seats,’” said Cecil. “We are going to pick up seats in the House, we are going to pick up governor’s races and state legislatures. The question for Dems is ‘are we going to maximize everywhere possible?’”
Cecil and other smart Democrats know that their party has become too consumed by fights over identity politics and ideological purity tests. “The party has become a coalition of the aggrieved and not a party that operates off a core set of values,” he said.
A lesson from the Alabama Senate race, where Priorities USA spent $1.5 million on digital advertising, was that basic positive advertising worked. Doug Jones introduced himself to voters, talked about his record and his values, criticized his opponent Roy Moore where necessary. But Jones didn’t make the race about Trump. That took care of itself, because Trump is all anyone can talk about, anyway.
It’s a simple formula: Jones took an affirmative, middle-class-focused message to both the Democratic base as well as persuadable voters. Cecil believes it can be replicated in red states, blue states, state house districts, and city council races. “Democrats have micro-targeted ourselves into oblivion,” he said. “This is not about being efficient. This election should be about expanding the growth map, expanding the races and expanding our way of thinking about communicating to people. When people feel uneasy about the chaos and the ongoing churn of politics, having something that is positive and rooted in your values becomes more important.”
That’s not just how Jones won in Alabama. It’s how Carter won in Virginia. As long as Democrats wake up every day between now and November, put one foot in front of the other, and talk about issues, they’ll be walking en masse into elected power by this time next year. And Trump will have only himself to blame.
Peter Hamby is the host of Snapchat’s Good Luck America.
Vanity Fair · by Peter Hamby · January 10, 2018