Democrats are feeling overconfident. They won a hard-fought special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District in early March, then saw over a million people take to the streets in cities across the country to march for gun control some two weeks later. Both are taken as signs of progressives’ organizational prowess and battle-ready morale. Left-leaning commentators, meanwhile, tirelessly remind their audiences that President Trump’s job approval numbers remain around 40 percent in most polls. Add the historical pattern of a sitting president’s party losing seats in midterm elections, and Democrats believe the House is already as good as theirs.
Republicans in Congress seem to believe this, too, to judge from the record large number of them who are seeking other offices or retiring outright. As of late March, 37 House Republicans were not planning to run for re-election or had already resigned; at press time, only 16 House seats now held by Democrats were set to be open come November. There have been rumors that the House speaker himself, Paul Ryan, might not run for re-election to his Wisconsin seat, or that he might resign his speakership ahead of the election in favor of Rep. Steve Scalise.
As a victim of a politically motivated shooting—by a left-wing gunman who attacked a congressional Republican baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, last year—Scalise could be the man to blunt the thrust for gun-control coming from Democrats and their allies. Speaker Scalise might also help turn out conservative voters in November simply by virtue of the fact that he is not Paul Ryan. But even a switch of speakers would not automatically replenish right-leaning voters’ trust in the GOP. Those voters were dealt a demoralizing blow when the Republican Congress passed a pork-laden $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill at the end of March.
By all measures of enthusiasm, Democrats are riding high seven months before the election—but maybe not high enough. In separate conversations with two top figures from the 2016 Trump campaign, I recently heard a cautious case for Republican optimism. Both individuals pointed to the Democrats’ narrowing lead in generic congressional preference polling: By the end of March, most polls gave Democrats an advantage of six or seven points. That, my sources believed, would not translate into enough Republican losses for the Democrats to gain control. Nate Cohn, an analyst for the New York Times, predicted in February that, to take the House, Democrats “would need to win the popular vote by 7.4 points.” As things stand, they would fall just short of that.
Representatives of the small-business lobby, meanwhile, caution against interpreting the GOP’s failure in Pennsylvania’s 18th District as a sign that the Trump tax cut is not popular enough to campaign on. This was the nigh universal conclusion reached by the mainstream media and Democrats. But the small-business community, or at least its D.C. spokesmen, think the problem was that Republicans gave up too easily: Super PACs and the National Republican Campaign Committee pulled their support for the tax-cut message in the final days of the campaign. Did they do so because they correctly sensed that the message was not working, or because they had a failure of nerve? Where the GOP is concerned, the latter is always a live possibility.
The spokesmen for small business, notably those of the Job Creators Network, argue that more work has to go into educating hourly wage employees, whose paychecks may vary from week to week, about just how much more pay they’re taking home as a result of the tax cuts. JCN representatives are also confident that, as small businesses increase production in the months following the cut, the effect on pay and jobs will be obvious—and a boost to those who supported the cuts.
President Trump’s trade policies also appear to be working, though once again the question is whether Republicans have the courage to make the case. Some 500 steel workers in Granite City, Illinois, who had recently been laid off were hired back virtually as soon as the President announced his tariff plan. The tariffs have prompted South Korea to put her automobile market on the negotiating table, offering the U.S. access in exchange for exemption from the steel levies. Yet GOP orthodoxy on trade is slow to change, and even those Republicans in Congress who have come to embrace the President’s strategy often have no idea how to articulate it to the American public. Conservative movement media and think tanks are of little help in this regard—quite the opposite.
The Republicans have a fighting chance at keeping their majority, if only they take a stand on their economic successes. The former Trump campaign officials I spoke with see a parallel to Donald Trump’s triumph in the face of all predictions of certain defeat, including, of course, those of the Republicans and the conservative pundit class. But Trump believed in his own message and communicated that belief with absolute confidence. The same cannot be said of the congressional Republicans. With the odds heavily against them, their majority’s survival depends on convictions and a creativity in communicating them that they have so far utterly lacked.