Trump’s Fast Start Likely Puts the House in Play in 2018

by Stuart Rothenberg January 30, 2017 · 10:43 AM EST

President Donald Trump is off to a fast start, but that aggressiveness could produce the same sort of reaction that Barack Obama’s fast start did in 2009: It could lead to a midterm election in which voters apply the brakes.

In 2010, voters told President Obama that he had gone too far, too fast, with health care reform, a $787 billion economic stimulus package, the bailout of the banks, cash for clunkers and a generally liberal agenda.

The result was a GOP landslide – an outcome that did not surprise readers of The Rothenberg Political Report, which projected Republican House gains of 55 to 65 seats. The final result was a Republican gain of 63 seats, a number unimaginable a year earlier.

Trump’s supporters surely are pleased with his populist rhetoric and actions, and relieved that he is keeping his campaign pledges. But others, who opposed him or voted for him only because they disliked Hillary Clinton, will find his agenda and approach disturbing, even alarming, and they will likely turn out in November 2018. 

Trump’s fast start almost guarantees that the midterm will be about him – about how comfortable voters are with his accomplishments. The more successful he is, the more easily his party will navigate those elections.

The president’s party has lost seats in 18 of the last 20 midterm elections, so it is likely that Democrats will gain House seats next year. How vulnerable will the GOP be? Much more than you think now.

Democrats need to gain 24 seats to win back the House – a relatively large number given the way districts were drawn at the beginning of the decade. But if the outlook is challenging for Democrats, it certainly isn’t impossible.

There are 27 Republican House members sitting in districts in which Mitt Romney drew less than 50 percent of the vote. In another 19 districts, Romney drew between 50 percent and 52 percent. 

Not all of those seats will be at great risk for the GOP next year. While Romney drew only 46.3 percent of the vote in 2012 and Trump just 39 percent in Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s 27th District, the Florida congresswoman is so personally popular and entrenched that she might win re-election regardless of Trump’s popularity. 

But it isn’t difficult to come up with a quick 20 seats that could be at serious risk if 2018 sees a “normal” midterm election, with disappointed or angry voters turning out to send a message of dissatisfaction to the president.

That list would include: Arizona’s 2nd (Martha McSally). California’s 10th (Jeff Denham), California’s 21st (David Valadao), California’s 25th (Steve Knight), California’s 49th (Darrell Issa), Colorado’s 6th (Mike Coffman), Florida’s 18th (Brian Mast), Florida’s 26th (Carlos Curbelo), Iowa’s 1st (Rod Blum), Iowa’s 3rd (David Young), Illinois’ 12th (Mike Bost), Maine’s 2nd (Bruce Poliquin), Minnesota’s 2nd (Jason Lewis), New York’s 1st (Lee Zeldin), New York’s 19th (John Faso), New York’s 22nd (Claudia Tenney), Pennsylvania’s 6th (Ryan Costello), Pennsylvania’s 8th (Brian Fitzpatrick), Texas’ 23rd (Will Hurd) and Virginia’s 10th (Barbara Comstock).

Of course, those are just the most obvious ones. In anything approaching a partisan wave, at least twice as many districts could be in play.

Some of the Members on this list are proven vote getters who have won in different kinds of years. Many have been targeted before, quite unsuccessfully. 

But a midterm with a Republican in the White House has not occurred since 2006 – 11 years ago, and it will likely produce a very different dynamic from what we have witnessed over the past five general elections.

In fact, only one of the 20 Republicans listed above, Darrell Issa, won during the 2006 elections, and his current vulnerability stems from the changing demographics of his district. The others don’t know what it is like to run in a midterm with a controversial GOP president.

They should talk with Walter Minnick. A Democrat who won a Republican House seat in Idaho in 2008, Minnick voted against cap-and-trade, Obamacare and the stimulus. Republicans liked him and gave him high marks – until they had to cast their votes during the 2010 midterms. Then, in an effort to limit President Obama’s dominance, they voted for Minnick’s GOP opponent, Raul Labrador, 51-41 percent. Flipping the House became the highest priority.  

Republicans who want to squash any talk of a midterm problem for their party no doubt will note that midterm electorates have been older, whiter and more Republican than in presidential cycles. That will limit Democratic gains next year or possibly even result in GOP gains, they will argue.

That certainly was true during the Obama years, but nothing guarantees that will be the case again in 2018. 

Republicans lost 26 seats in Ronald Reagan’s first midterm election. More recently, House Democrats won only 46.8 percent of the popular vote (202 seats) in 2004, a presidential year, but 52.3 percent of the popular vote (233 seats) two years later, during Pres. George W. Bush’s second midterm election. 

Of course, to put the House in play, Democrats must recruit strong challengers, and the party’s prospects would be greatly enhanced by GOP retirements. For example, if Ros-Lehtinen were to retire, her seat would immediately be at risk. The same would be true if New Jersey’s Frank LoBiondo (who turns 72 in 2018) or New York’s Peter King (who will turn 74) don’t seek re-election.

Given the 2018 Senate map, which offers Democrats few opportunities for gains, next year’s fight for control of Congress will be all about the House. It is far too early to guess what the political environment will be like then or how many districts the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will put into play – the committee just released an list of 59 initial Republican targets. 

Most Trump loyalists will continue to have faith in the president and contempt for the national media. They will stand by him in 2018 and argue that he has defied history before.

But the president’s aggressive start, combined with cracks within the GOP on how to deal with health care and Russia, will unsettle many voters, just as Obama did. And those voters will be inclined to hit the brakes when they next go to the polls. Because of that, Donald Trump is likely to have the same midterm problems that other presidents have experienced. 

The House map favors Republicans, but the midterm dynamic could well prove more powerful. Nothing is yet guaranteed, but don’t be surprised if the House is up for grabs in the fall of 2018.