Friday, August 17, 2018

Election 2018:
The wannabe emperor’s non-coattails

OTHER BIG guns have gone off in August. More political pyrotechnics have been going on  where it counts this summer: in the voting booth. As possible bellwethers for the midterm elections 80 days away, some state races have pit the lie to Trumpian invincibility.

A lot of different flavors power the identity of America. We got a taste of some of them on Aug. 7; we should get ready to savor the results of the remaining state elections between now and the general midterm vote 11 weeks from now.

Some of these state elections stand out more than others as a barometer of the quicksilver, evolving voter sentiment; some of them could be flat-out anomalies. One of them took days to decide; the outcome of another one may take longer than that. But the picture starting to emerge is one that cuts hard against the Republicans’ dynastic mythology wielded by President* Donald Trump.

We’ve known for a while that the wannabe emperor has no clothes. He may not have any coattails, either.

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Democrats need to flip 23 seats in the House of Representatives to wrest control from the Republicans, and no one on the political scene has been more complicit in helping that happen then the president* himself, thanks to a series of breathtakingly inept and cynical actions, the most recent — Trump’s withdrawal of security clearances for former CIA Director John Brennan for speaking his mind, and threats to do the same to others he doesn’t like — managing to endanger free speech and imperil the national security at the same time.

Now with the election dead ahead, Trump has led the Republican party into his own version of the Steve Jobs reality distortion field, in this case a grim and sunless realm of handlers and supplicants where Congress is Trump’s rubber stamp and The Donald is ruler of the universe and not to be denied, anything, ever.

Trump is of course bringing the party base along for this horrible ride. Trouble is, there’s more and more evidence that no one beyond the base is buying this crap. Much of the latest conservative political analysis is all about “turning out the base,” but that prospect is, or should be, a given at this point.

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AS A TRADITION, or a political conditioned reflex, conservatives and Republicans show up at the polls. Indifference hasn’t been their strong suit. They’re funny like that. As a show of loyalty to the party and its principles, Republican base voters have had no problem navigating the cognitive dissonance of hating the candidate whose name is next to the R on the ballot, but voting for that candidate anyway because loyalty to the party always, uh, trumps loyalty to the person.

But the Republican base isn’t growing, it’s ageing and shrinking, and Trump and the GOP have gone out of their way to alienate all of the very people they need to have a future. And that’s why in recent days we’ve seen a growing consensus that Democratic gains in November will exceed the modest numbers that have been, to now, as much a hope as a statistical possibility.

Some of the Democratic candidates seeking state offices are coming to politics from the ranks of everyday people, and in a country sick to death of professional pols, or orange rank amateurs masquerading as professional politicians, few things could be more refreshing. Stacey Abrams is shaking up the governor's race in Georgia. Beto O'Rourke is terrifying Ted Cruz, now in the fight of his political life in Texas.

In Illinois, Democrat Karen Underwood has lately been raising more money than Rep. Randy Hultgren. And in the New York 14th congressional district, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been a lightning rod for the political left since she stopped Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley early in the summer.

Serious, credible people are even talking about Democrats taking back the Senate, or at least making it competitive.

There’s been talk that the phrase “blue wave” might not be enough, might not invoke the right metaphor for what some seers say is coming — in a “blue flood.”

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Any such true believers got a huge assist from Rashida Tlaib, the young Palestinian-American political upstart who is set to become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress, after her narrow win in the Michigan 13th congressional district.

Tlaib defeated Brenda Jones, Detroit’s City Council president, in the Aug. 7 Democratic primary race to replace Rep. John Conyers. Tlaib, a Detroit native, is running unopposed in November, although Jones won a special election to serve out the remaining months of Conyers’ term.

On Aug. 14, Ilhan Omar secured a Democratic-primary victory in Minnesota's 5th CD, a win that has the Somali-American poised to join Thaib as the other Muslim woman in Congress.

In the Kansas 3rd CD, Sharice Davids, formerly a mixed martial arts fighter, kicked ass in her primary, stopping five Democratic challengers in her primary win. Davids, a lawyer, a lesbian and a former White House fellow in the Obama administration, will face incumbent GOP Rep. David Yoder in November. Davids relishes her sexual preference as a point of leverage in decision-making on Capitol Hill.

“Having L.G.B.T. people sitting in the room while decisions are being made, and sitting there as peers, will shift the conversation,” she told The New York Times. “I think it’s important that the lived experiences and the point of view of L.G.B.T. folks be included in conversations that affect all of us.”

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PARTLY BECAUSE of the usual gravitational pull of American politics, and partly because of the violations of political physics specific to Donald Trump, we’re also seeing Democrats positioned to make strides in November that the defeats of other Dems in August would have suggest weren’t possible. By razor-thin margins — the number of people you could fit in a bowling alley — Republicans have won, but they’ve eked out wins, victories that aren’t nearly resounding enough to make them feel comfortable. And with good reason.

The highest-profile congressional race in the country has had to wait awhile for a final chapter. The Ohio 12th CD is where Democrat Danny O’Connor has been locked in a statistical dead heat with Republican Troy Balderson for a seat in the House, since Aug. 7.

The Ohio primary outcome’s still unknown. Only about 1,500 votes separate the two, and the race won’t be called until Aug. 24, when absentee and provisional ballots are all counted. As of Aug. 17, Balderson is the unofficial winner, but there’s still vote out there.

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And this dead heat gets way more interesting when you look at the race in its broader context. In 2016, the Ohio 12 (long a Pantone-red district) was all in for Trump; he beat Hillary Clinton there by 11 points.

Now, two years later, in what should have been a commandingly comfortable precinct for Trump and whatever knucklehead he anointed, Balderson (whom Trump personally endorsed at a campaign rally and in tweets) finds himself in a major dogfight with a young, game Democratic opponent in a district that hasn’t gone for a Democrat since 1980. What should have been a walkover, given Trump’s big win in 2016, has turned into what may be a GOP November nightmare: a nailbiter that shouldn’t be one.

And that seems to be communicable: The drama that shouldn’t be drama is playing out in other primaries. Some of it, of course, is the usual scrimmaging pitting Republicans against Democrat. But some of it is the result of purely intraparty contests. The intraparty contests are interesting in what they reveal about voter tolerance for the outliers within.

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TAKE KANSAS, for example. Kris Kobach, a Trump acolyte and an underprincipled firebrand who’s done all he can to hamper voter registration in his post as Kansas secretary of state, unseated incumbent Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer, after days of late-ballot counting. Kobach won with a lead of 110 votes (that is not a typo).

But now Kansans are faced with a general election battle between Kobach and and Democratic state Sen. Laura Kelly. A story on the Kansas race by Allegra Kirkland of Talking Points Memo, found challenges for Democrats in deep-red Kansas — as well as reasons for hope:

“Kobach has consistently high disapproval ratings among Kansas voters familiar with his record. Trump’s trade war has hit the state’s agricultural sector hard. Kansas also has a record of electing both Republican and moderate Democratic governors ... .

“Local political experts describe Kelly as a well-liked, experienced politician who has repeatedly won tough races in her conservative-leaning district. A left-of-center moderate, Kelly can easily frame Kobach, who has campaigned with a fake machine gun mounted to a jeep, as an extremist.

“Kobach has praised the huge tax cuts enacted by deeply unpopular former Gov. Sam Brownback, who eviscerated the state’s education budget to pay for them. In her first statement after Kobach officially became the nominee, Kelly described him as "Brownback on steroids.’ ”

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Mark Joseph Stern said it on Aug. 13 in Slate: Serve you right to suffer.

“The whole mess is an absolute nightmare for Kansas Republicans, one they richly deserve. For years, the state GOP allowed Kobach to abuse the powers of his office for political gain while failing to perform basic duties. Now his negligence has come back to haunt the party, which faces an internecine brawl that is spiraling toward catastrophe.”

Stern continues: “Colyer is squaring off against a political machine that he helped to create. Kobach and his many loyal deputies amassed power with the near-total acquiescence of the Kansas Republican establishment. Colyer—who served as lieutenant governor for seven years before assuming the governorship in January—did not see fit to criticize Kobach until he ran against him.

“He now describes Kobach as a tendentious bomb thrower who could lose the November election to a Democrat. But it’s extremely difficult to take these accusations seriously when Colyer, a major player in state politics, appeared to embrace Kobach for years.”

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WHAT’S HAPPENING in Kansas and what happened in Ohio are distillations of the intra-identity crisis the Republican party has been having for years. The GOP’s not comfortable with what it wants to be, because (among other reasons) it’s not comfortable with the people who will be what the party is going to be.

The Democrats have their identity issues as well, mainly having to do with how to reconfigure party leadership for a restless electorate for whom generational distinctions are the demographic no one talks enough about. The smoldering arguments over whether California Rep. Nancy Pelosi — the symbol of an establishment politician — should repeat as House Speaker are proof of that.

But it’s not the same problem. The Democrats are weathering the crisis of deciding the identity of their leaders. The Republicans are grappling with the more existential crisis of deciding the identity of themselves: deciding who and what they are as a party and the embodiment of a philosophy — and then, defining what it is they stand for in a time when their president embraces the autocrats who used to be our adversaries, or enemies, and holds global friends at arm’s length.

Republicanism doesn’t stand for what it used to stand for, and that’s going to be a problem. Nature abhors a vacuum. This November, or in 2020, in the House and/or the Senate, that fact may position the Democrats to resolve a matter of physics made manifest in the political world.

Human nature can’t stand a vacuum, either.

Image credits: Trump: Evan Vucci/Associated Press. Ocasio-Cortez: Unknown. Omar: @jordanuhl. Kobach: Getty Images.

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