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Posted Jan 23, 2017, 4:53 pm
At some point during the next decade, I would not be surprised to see U.S. Rep. Martha McSally inaugurated president after a successful term and a half as Arizona governor.
She's got a ground-breaking personal story to tell and a way of selling conservatism without the harsh edges, plus she's charismatic. And the dog. Don't forget the dog.
But McSally has a problem between now and then, and that problem is named Donald John Trump.
Unless President Trump can get his job approval up by a lot, the Republican congresswoman will find herself having to bend Newtonian physics to avoid oblivion.
I can hear the talking points. McSally is popular. Her congressional district has shown it can vote for her and oppose Donald Trump. She easily won her seat. Trump lost her district. Plus, who do the Democrats get to run against her? Where is the Gabrielle Giffords to take on McSally, while running with Nancy Pelosi draped around her neck?
Uh-huh. What danger is Giffords in against radical right-wing Republican Jesse Kelly caught on tape promising to eliminate Social Security in a district full of retirees? On election night 2010, Team Gabby wasn't laughing. They were biting their nails down to the knuckle.
McSally is about to learn it's much different running for reelection when your party is in the White House than it is when your team is out of power. Mid-term elections are referendums on the president and she gets to be Trump's proxy.
I'm not attacking The Donald. Ronald Reagan got smacked in the teeth between a 489-electoral vote win and a 525-electoral vote juggernaut. Obama and Clinton scored big wins that sandwiched giant mid-term losses. Mid-term elections present the party in power with an impossible Newtonian imperative: Move in two directions at once, go!
Of math and turnout
Start with the math and the math is about turnout.
I'm going to compare the total vote in races for the U.S. House of Representatives from the presidential election to the succeeding midterm for both parties. There's a trend.
Since 1994, we've seen two types of midterm elections – those with a president's job approval over 60 percent and those with the president under 50 percent. When the president's job approval is under 50 percent, the other party turns out in numbers equal to 80 percent of their previous showing in the vote for the previous congressional vote. The party that won, gets their souls to the polls at an average of 62 percent.
In 2016, 63 million (rounding up) voted for Democrats in the House of Representatives, while Republicans actually won that vote with 63 million. History would forecast a record 50 million will vote for Democrats in 2018 and 39 million will vote Republican.
When Republicans won in 2010, they swamped Democrats with a 6 million-vote margin in House races and picked up 62 seats. In no way am I predicting those kinds of gains because how those votes might break in gerrymandered congressional districts is anyone's guess. Could be 20 seats. Could be 40. I'm talking about the trend. The loser always wants a rematch. The winners bask in their glory and get buffeted by pressures involved in holding the title.
Let's break those figures down and apply them to McSally's last race.
She won with 180,000 votes, easily besting Matt Heinz with his 136,000 ballots. Project the 80/60 turnout numbers to that race and for McSally it's now a 1 percent race on turnout alone. Forget about persuasion.
Now, during the two midterms where the president's job approval soared over 60 percent, the president's party turnout shot to 73 percent in 1998 and 79 percent in 2002. Just as important, the party out of power turn out sunk from the 80s to 74 and 73 percent.
Under those circumstances, McSally would win easily because Democrats won't turn out but Republicans will.
If Trump isn't popular, McSally will face a more liberal electorate than she just did and will have to appeal to those voters. At the same time, she'll have to inspire her base. Try moving to the left and right at the same time. Cha-cha-cha.
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That's just the lousy reality that faces every party that just won the White House. Gone is the presidential candidate at the top of the ballot. Railing against the current president is no longer an option. The other side is pissed and eager to show their numbers. Rank-and-file partisans on your side experience the gap between campaign rhetoric and the real world.
Donald, the Popular (or not)
Now, Trump could sail above the fray, seek common ground, avoid needless confrontation with his detractors and let his policies provide lift to his popularity.
If you've been asleep for the last two years, or even the last two days, I gotta point out that ain't likely to happen.
The new president is picking a ridiculous fight and lying about his inaugural being the best-attended ever. Why? It makes no sense. No one cares except him. So why lie? Just be president. Meryl Streep lashes out at you? So? Hollywood attacks a Republican. Dog has just bitten man. She has haute couture. You have the launch codes.
President Trump scraps for a fight every day and wants to be in the face of the 66 million voters who supported Hillary Clinton. Every time he does, he inserts himself between voters and McSally and taunts them. What are you gonna do about it?
Well, voters will have to wait four years to tell Trump to “Fuck me? No, fuck you!” but they will get a chance to send McSally packing to prove their point.
If No Drama Obama pissed off enough people to inspire a 62-seat whooping, what will The Teenage Drama Queen President do to congressional Republicans?
So Trump is coming into power with a job approval in the low 40s. That's about 20 percentage points below every other modern president. It's harder to climb than it is to fall.
A dose of reality
Immediately, McSally is facing a policy choice that illustrates her dilemma.
Her base wants to eradicate the Obama administration from the pages of history and they want to start with repealing Obamacare.
She already voted to do it during her first term when it was just symbolic. Now, Republicans expect it gone. It's just not that easy and the politics are getting harder and harder by the moment.
Obamacare is wrapped all throughout the private insurance model and only parts of it can be repealed through a bare majority vote. Keeping parts of it in place and eliminating other parts will trip up the whole industry. Then there's the matter of dropping 20 million Americans from health insurance.
There's a movement to repeal but replacing Obamacare is much harder. If McSally holds out for a replacement before voting for repeal, she risks pissing off her base and undermining their turnout. If she keeps them happy and just blows up the health insurance markets, she risks an inspired opposition.
So she faces a hard choice even without a mad tweeter-in-chief hawking his wife's jewelry line on the official White House website.
Every election is its own thing. Democrats can screw up the opportunity and some can argue they have already started to do that by re-electing Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as the face of the party (I don't get the animosity because all she's done is proven a fantastic floor leader) and installing Chuck Schumer as minority leader in the Senate.
I would not be shocked if Beltway Democrats look at McSally's strong showing and just give up. The Beltway Democrats give up really well.
McSally won't run against a “generic Democrat” but a person with faults and foibles her team can exploit.
Democrats can make eyes roll with that “Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho!” and the economy may pop in the next year or two.
None of that may matter.
A chimpanzee with an iPad can figure out a 2018 refrain that goes “Donald Trump needs a check on his power.”
If you are going to pick a fight with a lot of people, you better bring a lot of guys to the old-school rumble. They might show up for you, because you are their leader. That may not be transferable. Trump calling on his supporters to protect him from voters is one thing. Asking them to show up and prevent McSally from getting drubbed is something different.
Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.