The Nov. 6 election will be a referendum on President Trump, who will cast a long shadow down the ballot, political pundits say.
They expect an angry electorate to help Democrats cast out Republicans in significant numbers, but warn if Democrats take control of the U.S. House any attempts to impeach Trump would boomerang.
Jonathan Kappler is executive director of the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, which hosted a pre-election briefing in Raleigh on Tuesday, Sept. 25. Historically, he said, when a president’s approval rating is below 50 percent, the opposition will win dozens and dozens of seats in congressional midterms.
“Ultimately this cycle is about Trump. Anybody who tells you it’s not about Trump is not being honest,” said Democratic political consultant Morgan Jackson. The 2010 and 2014 midterm elections were about Obama, and Republicans achieved key gains.
“This is the best cycle to have a Democrat beside your name since 1974, based just on pure polling measures that we’ve seen,” Jackson said.
Jackson predicts the GOP supermajority will fall in the state Senate, where Democrats might pick up six to eight seats. If the election were held today, he said, Democrats would break the majority in the state House. Republicans outnumber Democrats 75-45 in the House, and 35-15 in the Senate.
Republican political consultant Paul Shumaker said the political winds favor Democrats nationally, and they’re likely to pick up state legislative seats.
But if there is a wave election, Democrats shouldn’t misinterpret that as voters liking them, he said.
“We have a political environment where both political parties are polarized,” Shumaker said.
Neither has enough registered voters to win an election outright. Democrats make up about 38 percent of registered voters, unaffiliateds 32 percent, and Republicans 30 percent.
“You’re seeing the rise of the unaffiliated voter,” he said. While they lean conservative, their voting patterns tend to be volatile.
Jackson agreed. He expects unaffiliated votes will be closely aligned to the president’s favorability rating. But for six straight election cycles it has been impossible to pin voters down on how they will vote.
“They are mad every cycle, and they want it fixed yesterday,” he said in explaining how the country could shift preference from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, and then to Trump.
While many Democrats are excited about the possibility of impeaching Trump if they wrest U.S. House control from Republicans, Jackson balked at the idea.
“There is no worse move Democrats can make when, not if, they take back the House of Representatives this cycle,” Jackson said. “That is the absolute guarantee that Trump gets re-elected.” Impeachment would bring out the GOP base vote in 2020, the reverse of what happened to Republicans when they impeached Democratic President Clinton in 1998.
The tendency of incumbent majorities is to overstep bounds due to overconfidence, ending up out of sync with voters, and being washed over in an opposing wave election, Jackson said.
State Republicans touting success stories on health care and education spending “is the most tone deaf argument I have ever seen,” Jackson said. The message to thousands of teachers who marched in Raleigh when this year’s short session opened is that they are ingrates, Jackson said. And affordable health-care access remains the top issue among voters across the state.
“Not a damn voter out there cares about what you’ve done for them already. They want to know what you can do for them now, and when their motivation is anger, that’s a bad place to be,” Jackson said.
Jackson thinks allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh will play a role in the election.
“If you’re a Republican, this whole thing is really bad for you.”
The country, he said, is in an anti-Trump mood, with suburban, white, college-educated women driving elections, and being nominated as candidates.
Generic ballot polling now shows Republicans picking up between 5 and 8 percent of Democratic voters, with Democrats siphoning off 8 to 10 percent of Republicans, Shumaker said.
While Trump and congressional Republicans emphasize a resurgent economy, Shumaker thinks that actually hurts GOP election chances. “It takes the economic card off the table when it comes to government spending issues” Democrats promote, he said. Instead, attention shifts to social issues such as health care, education, and the environment, which favor Democrats.
Kappler agreed the tax bill and growing economy haven’t turned out to be the silver bullet the GOP anticipated. But several unusual factors could affect how voters react.
Hurricane Florence creates uncertain dynamics. It’s hard for people to focus on voting when their homes are destroyed, and they’re looking for a place to live. An international crisis could alter who voters trust to handle it. Court-ordered legislative redistricting could affect voter behavior.
Kappler said Gov. Roy Cooper has a 50 percent approval rating, and a 31 percent disapproval rating.
“That’s very good. In the context of politics these days we don’t love our politicians.” Cooper’s favorability could have a Democratic spillover effect, Kappler said.
He isn’t sure the placement of six constitutional amendments on the ballot will drive Republicans to the polls as some hope. And with so many items on this year’s ballot, Kappler wonders whether voters will even vote on the amendments, or drop off in disinterest further up the ballot.