There was one consistent theme from congressional Republicans in their after-action report on the likely loss of a House seat in a Pennsylvania: It’s time for the party to wake up.
“Wake-up call,” is how Texas Sen. John Cornyn described it. Steve Stivers, the head of House Republicans’ campaign arm, went with: “This is a wake-up call.”
Which is a helpful – and hopeful. Why? Because it’s a notion/strategy(?) built on the idea that Republicans have agency in all of this. That not everyone is doomed to the likely fate of state Rep. Rick Saccone – the guy who may lose the race no GOPer should lose.
See, if we just “wake up” right now, things are going to be fine! All we need to do is raise money! Build organizations! Know the challenge that a political environment tilted away from us poses! This is all going to work out!
Except that, if history is any guide, Republicans may be trapped in an electoral nightmare from which they can’t wake – no matter how hard they try.
Go back to the last three midterm elections – all of which were waves (two for Republicans, one for Democrats.)
In 2006, every Republican – or at least the vast, vast majority – understood that the unpopularity of President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq made things very difficult for them. They tried to plan accordingly.
Ditto 2010 and 2014 – both of which delivered major gains to Republicans. Democrats were under no illusion in the 2010 election that President Barack Obama and the health care law were big problems. Endangered candidates did everything they could to run from Obama and other national Democrats.
My favorite example from the 2010 election is then-Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat from North Dakota. First elected in 1992, Pomeroy understood how to run and win as a Democrat in a conservative state. He also understood that the Republican wave building in 2010 might ensnare him. So, he ran TV ads trying to make sure that didn’t happen. “I’m not Nancy Pelosi, I’m not Barack Obama,” Pomeroy said in one, speaking directly to the camera. It didn’t matter – Pomeroy lost by 10 points.
The lesson there is that simply because you see the wave coming doesn’t mean that you can escape it. History suggests spotting a wave and figuring out how not to be swept away are two totally different things.
Here’s a look at the seat losses by the president’s party since the 1994 midterms:
And that doesn’t even capture the full scope of negative history for a president’s party in midterms. 1998 and 2002 – heavily influenced, respectively, by the investigation into Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and September 11 – are two of only three midterms since 1934 that a president’s party didn’t lose House seats. And 1934 was in the teeth of the Great Depression.
You can, if you are a House Republican or President Donald Trump, write off all of that history as simply dumb politicians not handling their business.
The party “does not view (the Pennsylvania race) as a referendum on Trump,” one source close to the White House told CNN’s Jim Acosta. “Rather a weak candidate.”
The history of midterm elections – especially with an unpopular president in the White House – suggests that Republicans may well be whistling past their political graveyard with that sort of thinking.
Midterm elections – particularly in the past decade or so – are entirely nationalized, and focused on how people believe the president is doing. Everything else is a secondary (or lower) concern in voters’ minds.
For all of members of Congress’ bravado about how they have a special connection to their district and how they are the exception to the rule, history suggests they are dead wrong.
Waves are waves for a reason. Simply because you see it building way out in the ocean doesn’t mean you can run from it. There are some nightmares from which you can’t wake yourself – no matter how hard you try.
For Republicans, 2018 is looking like that nightmare.