Washington (CNN)A new story on Fox News Channel carries this intriguing headline: "Hillary Clinton, not on ballot, is star of GOP midterm plan."
The 2018 election is going to be a referendum on Hillary Clinton????
Here's the key bit:
"Clinton is starring in the Republican Party's 2018 midterm strategy. With no Democrat to attack in the White House for the first time in nearly a decade, Republicans are betting big that the ghost of Clinton will serve them well in 2018.
"Even if she avoids the spotlight moving forward, the Republican Party plans to evoke her early and often in key congressional races, particularly in regions Trump won, which feature most of the midterm season's competitive races."
And, there's some evidence to back up the Clinton focus within the GOP. Witness the new ad by Don Blankenship, a Republican candidate for Senate in West Virginia.
"We don't need to investigate our president," says the ad's narrator. "We need to arrest Hillary."
It's not clear what Blankenship wants to arrest Clinton for -- email server? Uranium One deal? -- just that he wants to make sure she is incarcerated.
There's a BIG difference between Republican candidates and committees running ads featuring Clinton and those ads actually working to turn the 2018 midterm election into a referendum on the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee.
The former could well happen. What special elections since Trump's 2016 victory have shown is that the Democratic base is hugely energized -- largely by their dislike for Trump and their disgust with the decisions he has made as president. Meanwhile, the Republican base is fat and happy; their side control the White House, the Senate, the House, the majority of governor's mansions and the majority of state legislatures in the country.
That sort of disparity in energy between the two party bases is bad news for the side suffering from the passion deficit. Midterm elections tend to be battles between the bases so if one side is much more enthusiastic, it can lead to major seat losses for the other side.
How do you motivate the GOP base? You find the equivalent of Donald Trump for the left. The problem, of course, is that there is no equivalent on the right for how the left regards Donald Trump. Trump is president. Hillary Clinton is a private citizen. It's just not the same.
Which doesn't mean, of course, that raising the specter of Clinton in ads won't work for some Republican candidates hoping to rev up the base. Republicans loathe Clinton and some -- many -- could have a Pavlovian reaction to the mention of her name and a picture of her on their TV screen. (In a September 2017 CNN national poll conducted by SSRS, 91% of Republicans had an unfavorable impression of Clinton; her overall unfavorable rating was 52%.)
The problem with the we-will-make-this-election-all-about-Hillary logic is that it has no logical end. Clinton isn't in office. She isn't in charge of much of anything. She will not run again for any national office and she likely wouldn't win if she did.
How, then, do you raise the stakes of voting for a Democrat who is in the same party as Clinton? Like, if, say, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin gets re-elected in West Virginia, is he going to somehow find a way to install Clinton as president or work to enact her agenda? Um, no.
History tells us that midterm elections are always a referendum on the president and his party. Since World War I, there have been only three elections -- 1934, 1998 and 2002 -- in which the president's party has not lost seats in a midterm election. In all three of those cases, there was a cataclysmic event that intervened: The Great Depression, Bill Clinton's impeachment and the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, respectively.
Short of something that major happening, the Republican Party is assured of losing seats in the House this fall -- the only question is whether they lose the 23 that would reinstall Democrats to the majority.
The reality is that voters make decisions based on the politicians in office, the elected officials who can impact their lives -- often, in their mind, in a negative way. Clinton simply isn't that. She is gone from office, never to return. Whether or not she is a visible presence on the campaign trail or fundraising circuit this fall -- my guess is she might do some money raising but isn't likely to be a hot commodity on the stump -- won't change the fact that she's out of office, and staying there.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, will be president through (at least) 2020.