When Donald Trump assumed the presidency, the GOP had reason to be hopeful about the 2018 midterms. While it’s true that the party in power tends to lose seats in midterms—especially if the president is unpopular—it was widely agreed that the electoral landscape favored Republicans, forcing Democrats to play defense. “The Senate map is so mind-bogglingly awful for them that retaking the chamber in 2018 seems out of reach,” Vox’ Andrew Prokop wrote in May. “The House map is also slanted in Republicans’ favor, due in part to gerrymandering and in part to geography. Finally, the Democratic coalition is composed heavily of younger and nonwhite voters, who in the past have been less likely to turn out in midterms than the older white voters who vote heavily Republican.”
That thinking began to change as Trump became historically unpopular and the Republican majority proved historically inept. Now, a confluence of events this week suggest that Republicans may be the ones playing defense.
With the death of the Senate’s latest gambit to repeal Obamacare, Graham-Cassidy, the GOP has once again broken its signature, years-long promise to voters. No Republican can escape the stench of such failures: A Politico/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday found Trump’s entire cabinet is underwater with the public. The most popular member, Defense Secretary James Mattis, polls at just 40 percent, while the least popular, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is at 28.
Then there’s this week’s Senate news. Senator Bob Corker’s announced he won’t run for re-election, setting up what could be a messy GOP primary in Tennessee. And in Tuesday’s Republican primary in Alabama, right-wing theocrat Roy Moore defeated the Trump-endorsed incumbent, Senator Luther Strange, on a platform that consisted largely of ridiculing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Moore, who is expected to defeat his Democratic opponent in December, will cause immediate problems for McConnell’s legislative agenda. But The Washington Post’s Robert Costa observes that Moore’s victory “could also produce a stampede of Republican retirements in the coming months and an energized swarm of challengers”—more extreme candidates who, if they win the primary, would be easier for Democrats to defeat in a general election. “For Democrats,” Costa wrote, “the prospect of further retirements and revived GOP infighting has sparked talk of competing for Senate seats previously thought out of play.”
Next year’s midterms still look challenging for the opposition party, but at the rate things are going for the Republicans, even an extremely favorable electoral map might not save them.