As 2017 ends, Republicans struggle to counter a Democratic wave

The clock is ticking on the Republican majority in Congress: The GOP has just over 10 months to avoid a rout in 2018.

Republicans could do it. They have time and several important factors on their side: a good economy, low crime rates, achievements of significance to the party’s followers.

Nevertheless, as 2017 closes, almost all signs point toward big Democratic gains next year, largely driven by President Trump’s widespread unpopularity. And some of the pugnacious instincts that helped the president win election a year ago may now be worsening his party’s dilemma.

Midterm elections “are a referendum on the party in power,” notes Sean Trende, political analyst for the Real Clear Politics website. During the Obama years, Trende correctly forecast that Democrats had underestimated the potential of a surge of conservative white Americans voting Republican. Now, he says, Republicans are making a mistake in assuming that turnout will once again favor them in an off-year election.

Trump has “terrible numbers,” Democrats have a large advantage in polls, and “it all adds up to a really rough midterm” for the GOP, Trende says.

The trouble for Republicans comes despite some of the best economic conditions in years, which normally would boost the party in power. Unfortunately for Republican candidates, a majority of Americans continues to believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, despite the good economic news.

Much of that discontent appears to center on one person — the president.

Throughout the year, opposition to Trump has generated energy among Democrats. But something new has been added to the mix in recent months, said Joe Trippi, the veteran Democratic consultant who served as media strategist for Doug Jones’ upset Senate election this month in Alabama.

“The sense of chaos, the constant fight, fight, fight and alarm bells going off all the time” has deeply troubled voters, including many who backed Trump last year, Trippi said. “There’s this sense of being on edge,” which Alabamians talked about frequently, Trippi said. “That’s what they don’t want anymore.”

Alabama’s election had unique aspects, notably the flaws of the Republican candidate, Roy Moore. But that same voter anxiety has come up repeatedly in focus groups around the country.

If a year of Trump has put voters in the mood for less confrontation, that poses a big challenge for Republicans.

“I don’t know how you stop Donald Trump from putting people on edge,” Trippi said. “That’s what he does.”

Indeed, even if conflict weren’t so deeply ingrained in Trump’s personality, political calculation might lead him to continue seeking out battles at every turn. Voters as a whole may not like it, but to Trump’s most fervent supporters, his willingness to fight forms a major part of his draw. His former strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, threatens to add to the political tension by backing challengers to several Republican incumbents.

Trump’s hard-core supporters remain loyal and probably always will. But for all the attention they get from the White House — and often from the news media — Trump’s fervent backers make up only about one-fifth of the public and are outnumbered about 2 to 1 by fervent opponents.

Indeed, the gap between the share of Americans who say they “strongly disapprove” of Trump and those who “strongly approve” has grown significantly this year. In polls by SurveyMonkey, for example, the margin now stands at 26 percentage points, up from 16 points at the start of the year.

Those numbers form just one of several indicators of problems for Republicans. The most basic comes from the so-called generic ballot — a question polls have used for decades that asks which party’s candidate a person plans to vote for in the next election. It has long proven among the most reliable forecasting tools in American politics.

For most of the fall, Democrats showed a healthy lead on that question — enough to suggest the midterms would be competitive. This month, the forecast took an abrupt jump in one nonpartisan survey after another — to 13 points in a poll from Marist College, 15 in Quinnipiac University’s poll, 15 from a Monmouth University survey and 18 points, a previously unheard-of level, in a poll for CNN.

Exactly why the numbers for the GOP worsened is unknown, although the timing suggests the unpopularity of the Republican tax bill played a role. What is knowable is that even discounting the biggest numbers, the Democrats’ lead on the generic ballot surpasses that of any party out of power in decades.

The average size of the Democratic advantage forecasts that if the election were held now, they would gain in the neighborhood of 40 seats in the House — considerably more than the 24 they would need for a majority.

For those who don’t trust polls, actual election results point the same way. Some of the contests have gotten wide attention, including the Alabama Senate race and the Virginia election in November, in which Democrats won the governorship and all but wiped out a huge Republican majority in the lower house of the Legislature.

Other, less heralded contests have shown the same pattern of high Democratic turnout, depressed Republican voting and double-digit shifts in partisan outcomes, particularly in suburban areas where Trump fares worse than a typical Republican.

On average, Democrats have done about 12 points better than expected in races across the country this year, according to an analysis of more than 70 special elections by the fivethirtyeight.com website. Looking just at federal election contests, the swing has been larger, a 16-point shift toward Democrats. That’s a margin similar to 2006, the last time a pro-Democratic wave swept the party to control of the House as well as the Senate.

The current size of the Democratic advantage would overwhelm two of the protections Republicans have counted on — gerrymandering in the House and, in the Senate, a favorable lineup of state contests.

In the House, partisan gerrymandering has helped pad Republican majorities in the last three national elections. But a gerrymander works by taking a party’s voters and spreading them out over as many districts as possible — ensuring just enough to win — while packing the other party’s voters into as small a number of districts as clever line-drawing will allow.

The result can allow a party to win a big majority of districts even with a small majority — or sometimes even a minority — of votes cast. But when a wave hits, a lot of those “just enough to win” districts suddenly get swamped at the same time.

Just that sort of wave brought the GOP to power in 2010 in the House. Now, the indicators point to a Democratic surge.

In the Senate, where one-third of the 100 seats are up for election in 2018, the selection favors Republicans.

Of the 34 contests, including a special election in Minnesota, Democrats have 26 incumbents to defend. Several hold seats in states Trump won last year. Defending all that territory gives Democrats a harder job.

To win a Senate majority, Democrats would have to hold onto all their current seats and take two from the Republicans. That’s not impossible — Republican seats in Nevada and Arizona are at risk — but clearly it is a tough road.

Republicans who think the map alone will save them have gotten a stern warning from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

“The environment today is not great, the generic ballot’s not good, and I’d love to see the president’s approval rating higher,” McConnell said in a year-end interview with the Washington Examiner, a conservative publication. “I think we should anticipate a real knockdown, drag-out — even on the Senate side.”

David.Lauter@latimes.com

@DavidLauter

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