Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Two high-profile congressional primaries in President Donald Trump’s hometown illustrate a central political truth of 2018: The upcoming midterm elections will primarily be about Trump.
Republican candidates, including moderates, will have to cling to Trump or risk oblivion. And Democrats unwilling to shift left and launch harsh attacks on Trump should expect to come under fire from the party’s fed-up liberal base.
It was only three weeks ago that current Rep. Dan Donovan, a moderate Republican in a seemingly safe seat, got the shock of his life. A NY1-Siena College poll revealed that Donovan was losing – by 10 points – to none other than Michael Grimm, a former congressman affiliated with the Tea Party who attempted a comeback after serving seven months in prison for tax fraud.
Despite his legal woes, Grimm, who described himself in an interview as “technically a felon,” was still well-regarded among area Republicans, and had spent months attacking Donovan for voting against Trump’s tax bill and for uttering heretical ideas about undocumented immigrants someday becoming citizens. Grimm declared himself an all-in Trump Republican, announcing support from ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon and campaigning alongside former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci.
In normal times, Donovan might have simply waved off the challenge, pointing out that inflexibly hard-right politics don’t fly in liberal New York City. But the age of Trump is not a normal time for Republicans.
Donovan, forced to tack to the right, began swearing allegiance to all things Trump. He stopped talking about paths to citizenship, began calling for a wall on the Mexico border and campaigned with Trump’s lawyer, former mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The rest is now history. Trump invited Donovan on a high-profile Air Force One trip, issued two tweets urging New York Republicans to stick with the incumbent and arranged a last-minute recorded endorsement by Donald Trump Jr. that was sent into 55,000 district households.
That was good enough to close the 10-point gap and yield a 30-point margin of victory — an incredible 40-point swing in just three weeks.
Donovan learned a lesson being repeated nationwide: Trump’s sky-high 87% approval rating among Republicans means midterm GOP candidates need to stick with the President to survive their primaries.
The Trump Effect is playing out very differently in heavily Democratic districts. A few miles from Donovan’s primary win, a charismatic 28-year-old community organizer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, successfully toppled a top national Democratic leader, US Rep. Joe Crowley, after charging him with being insufficiently bold about combating Trump and Trumpism.
“We’re having a grass roots, corporate-free political revolution in the United States,” Ocasio-Cortez told me a month before the primaries. “In 2018, it’s not enough to just turn red districts blue. We need to turn blue districts bluer. If in a district that’s 85% Democrat, if this seat hasn’t been leading the charge on progressive issues, what’s the point?”
Ocasio-Cortez is a former Bernie Sanders organizer who has been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America. She favors single-payer government health insurance, free college tuition for all and the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
That “aggressive progressive” posture and millennial energy helped Ocasio-Cortez pull off a stunning upset, soundly defeating 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley, the No. 4 Democrat in the House hierarchy.
More than a dozen states have yet to hold primaries — including key battlegrounds like Colorado, Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin — and Trump will figure prominently in all of them. As in New York, we can expect Democrats to continue rapidly moving to the left while Trump consolidates his hold on the Republican Party.
The bottom line: The fall midterm elections will be a referendum on Trump, with an increasingly polarized electorate pushing members of Congress to either cling more closely to the president or fight more fiercely to block the administration.
There’s a name for politicians who don’t accept this new reality: they’re called ex-members of Congress.