Every election people talk about an “October surprise” that upends the conventional wisdom about the outcome. Well, it appears we can see the contours of at least one October surprise. The Democrats have managed to shoot themselves in the foot with their handling of the Brett Kavanaugh nomination and the antics of their most extreme supporters. The “Blue Wave” that liberals have been waiting for may still come, but it’s more likely to splash the knees of most GOP incumbents than to submerge them.
Veteran political handicapper Charlie Cook puts it bluntly in his latest column at the Cook Political Report, in which he asks whether “those who led the out-of-control demonstrations on Capitol Hill against the Kavanaugh nomination have any understanding of how much damage they did to Democrats and the party’s chances of winning a majority in the Senate. His answer: “My guess is they don’t. But Senate Democrats probably do.”
Cook now says the odds of Democrats winning a Senate a majority are “long, no better than 1 in 5.” As of today, “a Republican net gain of a seat or two seems most likely, moving the GOP up to either 52 or 53 seats, though a gain of three seats or no net change [is] entirely possible.”
As for the House, political analysts still make the Democrats the odds-on favorites to retake control there for the first time since 2010. But while the new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll out today gives Democrats a nine-point advantage nationwide in voting for the House, it tells a different story in the battleground seats that will determine control:
The Democratic advantage has vanished in House districts that matter most. In districts rated as most competitive, the parties are dead even on which one should control Congress. In last month’s poll, Dems led by 13 points among registered voters and 6 points among likely voters.
In other words, Republicans have a real chance to beat the odds and hold their losses below the 23 seats that would transfer House control.
The reasons for this turnaround are various and go beyond the shrinking of the enthusiasm gap between the parties (before the Kavanaugh nomination, Democratic voters were more enthusiastic). The WSJ/NBC poll shows President Trump with a 47 percent job approval, his highest rating yet as president. At the same time, 43 percent of registered voters say Republicans handle the economy better versus only 28 percent who pick Democrats. That’s the largest lead on that question the GOP has ever had in the WSJ/NBC poll.
In the aftermath of a new trade deal with Canada and Mexico, Republicans also are favored by voters on trade, by 17 percentage points. Democrats have an equally large advantage when it comes to health care, where they have an 18-point advantage. When asked what their most important issue is, 38 percent of voters said the economy and 31 percent said health care.
The Kavanaugh hearings apparently took a negative toll on the image of Democrats. In September, Democrats had a 44 percent favorability rating, while Republicans were at 38 percent. Post-Kavanaugh, Democratic favorability has fallen nine points to 35 percent while the GOP has held even at 38 percent. It’s been years since the GOP had any advantage in polls on that question.
The campaign still has more than two weeks to go, but early voting in most states locks up more ballots with each passing day. Another October surprise is still possible, but for now, the new conventional wisdom of the 2018 election is set: Democrats had a real chance to ride anti-Trump sentiment and inflict a crushing defeat on Republicans. But their own excesses tripped them up and woke up fatigued Republican voters, reminding them that 2018 was indeed an us-versus-them election. Republicans will probably still lose ground, but for the first time, they are on the offensive in many marginal districts.
Perhaps one lesson from the 2018 election will be that when both President Trump and Democrats run brutal, divide-and-conquer campaigns, Trump just does it better and more effectively. And when voters finally focus less on personalities and more on issues in the final stages of the campaign, the left-wing lurch by Democrats hasn’t done them any favors in what is still a center-Right country.
If the “Blue Wave” really does recede next month, will Democrats just blame Trump, or will they look in the mirror? The answer to that question may be a good predictor for how the 2020 presidential election turns out.