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Democrats Can’t Rely on a Trump Backlash

The lesson from Alabama is that the party must do much more to ensure a wave victory in 2018.


Throughout the last presidential campaign, no Republican hated Donald Trump more than Lindsey Graham did—or so The Washington Post declared, with the evidence to back it up. The South Carolina senator frequently warned of the dangers of nominating Trump, calling him a “jackass” and “a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot.” “You know how you make America great again?” Graham, then a presidential candidate himself, said in December 2015. “Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.” After quitting the race, he continued to warn of the dangers of nominating Trump:

Graham’s prediction didn’t pan out that November, when Trump eked out a victory over Hillary Clinton and the Republicans won unified control of the government. But the recent Democratic victories in Virginia and Alabama suggest that Graham’s forecast was clear-sighted about Trump’s impact on the Republican Party. He’s a historically unpopular president, and he’s pulling the GOP down with him.

Paradoxically, as the extent of Trump’s political toxicity becomes clear, Graham himself has transformed into one of the president’s biggest supporters. This trajectory from foe to friend illustrates the problem the Republicans face. As the president and standard-bearer of the party, Trump possesses power that Republicans covet, and they want to influence him. This has led Republican politicians to consolidate around Trump, whatever their previous criticisms and personal concerns were. The oft-predicted Republican crack-up hasn’t happened. Rather, the party is contracting into a personality cult, one whose fate is tied to a much-hated president. As Trump’s popularity declines, so do his party’s electoral chances.

“The victory Tuesday by Democrat Doug Jones to represent that heavily conservative state [of Alabama] in the Senate,” the Post reported, “was the latest example in a string of elections this year that Democratic leaders think represent a growing backlash against President Trump—and a potential building wave for 2018.” What was unthinkable a few months ago is now a serious question: Can Democrats win back not only the House of Representatives next year, but the Senate, too? “I worry that the Senate is in play. I didn’t think that before yesterday,” Alex Conant, a Republican strategist, told Politico. “If the political environment is still like this in 11 months, Democrats might be able to defend their incumbents and pick up the seats they need out west.”

There’s no question that the political landscape has become much more favorable to Democrats, yet the true lesson of these recent elections is that the party can’t count on a Trump backlash to deliver a wave victory in 2018.

Republicans could write off the Alabama loss as an anomaly. After all, it’s hard to win with a candidate who’s credibly accused of child molestation. But Moore won the nomination, over establishment favorite Luther Strange, by harnessing the same anti-establishment anger that made Trump president. Moreover, as FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver notes, the shift in the vote from Trump’s landslide in 2016 to Moore’s narrow loss in 2017 wasn’t just caused by Moore’s personal flaws, but also shifts in party enthusiasm. In this year’s special elections, there has been an 18-point shift from Republicans to Democrats:

Alabama saw such a large swing partly because the Democratic Party made a more concerted effort to energize black voters, rather than take them for granted. As David Weigel and Eugene Scott noted in the Post, the Democratic National Committee used a “quiet strategy in Alabama” that included “a $1 million investment in millennial and black voter turnout that was not advertised until the election was won. That was just one of the efforts that paid off for Democrats in Alabama, where new third-party groups including Woke Vote and BlackPAC engaged in weeks of voter persuasion and targeted messages.” Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher told the Post that the party “didn’t just come in at the end and treat black voters like get-out-the-vote targets. They treated them like persuadable voters. They actually engaged on the top issue for African American voters, which is criminal justice reform. And they didn’t dance around the issue of police brutality.”

Some analysts have suggested that Democrats projected a more centrist image:

This analysis seems slightly off-base. Ralph Northam, the governor-elect of Virginia, and Jones, the senator-elect of Alabama, are hardly centrist in the context of their states. Both men ran as strong supporters of reproductive freedom. Jones took forthrightly liberal positions on health care (supporting the Affordable Care Act and calling health care a right) and LGBT rights. Northam campaigned on raising the minimum wage to $15. If Northam and Jones seem “anodyne,” that’s less because of their politics than their style. Both men are reassuringly bland, an appealing contrast to Republicans in the age of Trump and Moore. Perhaps the true lesson is that you can win as a strong liberal if your personal demeanor is unthreatening.

To the extent that the sexual assault accusations against Moore hurt him, that also has wider implications beyond Alabama. As New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait notes, such scandals are likely to have a disparate impact on the two parties. While the Democrats are forcing out their alleged harassers, the Republicans are stuck being the party of Trump, himself an alleged predator of women. Moreover, men make up a significantly larger part of the Republican political leadership. Reports of harassment “will hurt the majority party much more,” Chait wrote. “The reason is that 2018 is shaping up as a wave election. In wave elections, the out-party usually loses very few seats. It is the in-party that loses. If Democrats are forced to step aside, they can easily be replaced. Republicans who have to step aside cannot. Incumbents pressured into retirement will open up seats that might otherwise not have had competitive races.”

Paul Maslin, who worked as a pollster for Jones, offered his insights to L.A. Times reporter Mark Z. Barabak. “The lesson is we need to keep being aggressive, fighting him everywhere,” Maslin said. “There’s no reason we can’t win Tennessee, there’s no reason we can’t win Arizona and Nevada. There’s no reason we can’t win congressional seats all over the place.” But Maslin also offered a cautionary note: “[W]e can’t simply be naysayers. We’ve lost credibility in the Midwest, in places like Pennsylvania. The Democratic Party is seen as being out of touch, elitist, without any good ideas on economic or pocketbook issues. We’re going to have to give people a sense we’ve turned the page and we’re not the same old same old.”

Maslin’s wise counsel suggests that Democrats need a two-pronged approach to riding the coming wave. First, they have to play up anti-Trump sentiment, which will help make many races competitive by energizing the Democratic base and appealing to disenchanted Trump voters (or at least convincing them to stay home). But Democrats also have to offer a positive agenda, especially to core voters such as people of color and women, and also provide the organizational resources to turn out those voters. Being reflexively anti-Trump will help Democrats win, but Trump won’t be on the ballot next year, and he won’t be around forever. For lasting success, the party will also have to out-hustle and outthink the Republicans.