Even More Reason to Watch the House in 2018

by Stuart Rothenberg March 29, 2017 · 9:20 AM EDT

Barely ten days into the Donald Trump Administration, I wrote that the new president’s “fast start” made it likely the House of Representatives would be “in play” in 2018.

Some, I’m sure, thought that suggestion ridiculous. After all, state legislatures have generally minimized the number of competitive congressional districts around the country, making large Democratic gains difficult except under ideal conditions.

But the last two months have only confirmed my earlier assessment that the House will see a real fight for control next year.  

Whatever you think of Trump’s style and agenda, there is no doubting the impact he plans to have on the country. He is a man in a hurry, a president wasting little time in trying to transform the government, no matter how many feathers he ruffles.

Multiple surveys show slippage in Trump’s job approval. Gallup’s March 24-26 poll showed his approval plummeting to 36 percent, and even the usually sympathetic Rasmussen found his approval at only 45 percent in its last two surveys (March 12-14 and March 23-27).

The Feb. 11-13 and March 12-14 Fox News polls also showed Trump’s job approval dropping, from 48 percent approve/47 percent disapprove to 43 percent approve/51 percent disapprove.  

Yes, these polls are just snapshots. They could change quickly. But that doesn’t make them irrelevant.

It’s likely that most of Trump’s new problems are not with his most passionate supporters but with those who voted for him because of their antipathy to Hillary Clinton or their overriding concerns about the Supreme Court. 

A March 15-19 survey by Garin-Hart-Yang, a Democratic firm, showed a significant number of Independents, Obama/Trump voters and white non-college women were unhappy with the GOP’s effort to replace the Affordable Care Act.

While it’s possible Trump will change his approach to make more Americans comfortable with his leadership, it’s more likely that the administration will continue to be defined by controversy and chaos, with the president in the middle of the maelstrom.

Trump sees himself as a change agent, and key advisors regard disruption as both a strategy and a goal. Given that, it is likely to take more than a single legislative defeat to force him to change his approach fundamentally.

Of course, the contours of the 2018 midterm elections depend on what the Republican Congress – and the Trump White House – does or does not do on health care, taxes, environmental policy and other areas over the next 18 months. If Americans are content, the economy is expanding and the nation is at peace, any Democratic midterm “change” argument will be weak. 

The great risk for the GOP is that voters are likely to tire of the turmoil and tumult that surrounds Trump. If that happens, especially if other aspects of the Republican agenda frighten swing voters, the midterm electorate is likely to be receptive to House Democrats’ “check Trump” message.

Since the House has no role in confirming Cabinet or judicial nominees (including any future Supreme Court vacancies), voters can use their midterm House vote to check Trump without giving Democrats too much power. 

The GOP’s inept handling of health care insurance raises doubts among all but the most enthusiastic Trump supporters about the party’s ability to govern. For most voters, that’s crucially important, regardless whether “governing” means a more conservative or a more progressive America. Voters next year will want competence, at the very least.

Former Republican congressman Tom Davis was surely correct when he wrote in a recent op-ed that either House Republicans get their “act together” or else “face losing the majority.”

The problem for Republican officeholders is that many Trump/GOP actions already can be portrayed as benefiting corporate America and leaving the average American unprotected. To Republicans, this narrative may seem completely unfair, but it is likely to be effective for Democrats because it plays into long-time caricatures of the two parties.

Both the Republican and Democratic congressional campaign committees have released lists of 2018 targets, and each includes some reasonable names and a few that aren’t.

Count me as skeptical that the National Republican Congressional Committee really believes that it has a chance to threaten Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona 9), Denny Heck (Washington 10) or Sander Levin (Michigan 9), or that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is going to devote resources to defeating Bob Gibbs (Ohio 7) or Pete Sessions (Texas 32).

Open seats could well impact the Democrats’ takeover prospects. The retirement of Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz (D), for example, improves an existing opportunity to the GOP, while possible retirements across the aisle could give Democrats new targets.

It is still early in the candidate recruitment cycle, but it’s likely that the Trump Administration’s early actions and the defeat of the GOP health care effort will encourage potentially strong Democratic challengers into races. If that does not happen, it will be a serious blow to the DCCC.

If history is any guide, the midterms are likely to turn out a disproportional share of angry anti-Trump voters, and that is likely to make it difficult for Republicans, who control Congress and the White House.  

It is far too early to say that the House will or will not be in play in 2018.  Today, the Republicans’ handling of health care is the top issue, but a year from now Americans could be talking about war with North Korea, inflation, taxes or some issue not now on anyone’s radar screen. And we certainly can’t know how popular the president will be as autumn 2018 approaches.

However, we already have reasons to believe that one thing has changed dramatically since November 2016.

The midterm elections are not likely to be about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Instead, they are more and more likely to be about the GOP and, more specifically, President Trump. As one veteran Democratic strategist put it to me recently, if the 2016 campaign was about “he said, she said,” 2018 will be about “he said, he did.”