Is “R” the New Scarlet Letter?


If you are a Republican running for public office in November 2018, you are in trouble.

Let me count the ways. Donald Trump, the leader of your party, is the least popular president at this point in a first term of anyone in modern history. The Congressional members of your party are, with few exceptions, marching in lock-step support of the least qualified person  ever to hold the office.  And they are even less popular than Trump.

If you are a state or local office holder, you might run, but you can’t hide. You will still have “R” plastered over your name on the ballot.

Both history and math are against you. The party of the incumbent president almost without exception loses seats in Congress in the first off-year election of the presidential term. Add to that the enormous number of “voluntary” retirements by incumbent Republican members of Congress who have seen the handwriting on the voting booth wall.

Republicans are likely to lose as many as 50 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and, with them, control of the chamber. In the Senate, where many more Democrats are defending seats in 2018 than Republicans, your task should be much easier, but  probably won’t be.

Republicans in both houses voted for an incredibly unpopular tax bill whose primary beneficiaries are the very rich. They also tried mightily to repeal the Affordable Care Act, stripping health care coverage from millions of Americans. While they didn’t succeed directly, working in concert with Trump, they managed to badly cripple the law. Running on those two “accomplishments” is the challenge Republican incumbents have as a weight around their necks in this election.  And that was before a government shutdown that most Americans see as the fault of Republicans.

The early warning signs–the canaries–are already in.  2107 elections in New Jersey, Virginia and that special one in Alabama all should have Republicans quaking in their boots.  While most of the media attention has focused on the prospects of a Democratic takeover in Congress, Republican office holders at the state and local level should also be worried – very worried.

Look at Pennsylvania and Maryland, adjoining states with striking political differences.   A Democratic tsunami is barreling toward  Republicans who mistakenly think they are safe.  Local races in the suburban counties around Philadelphia in 2017 produced Democratic winners in offices that had been Republican for decades.  The trend is almost certain to continue in state legislative races in those counties in 2018.  While Republicans hold significant majorities in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, expect those gaps to shrink dramatically  this year and disappear altogether in 2020.

Meanwhile, the two statewide Democratic office holders, Governor Tom Wolf and U.S. Senator Bob Casey, who both looked vulnerable at one point, now seem well positioned to win re-election.

Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation, in which Republicans have benefited enormously through a combination of Democratic concentration in cities and some of the most extreme gerrymandering in the country, is likely to see changes in 2018.  Three districts in the Philadelphia suburbs are being targeted by Democrats.  Moreover, a suit before the State’s Supreme Court could result in a redrawing of the congressional districts in time for the 2018 election.  Stay tuned.

Maryland, widely known as a Blue state, could see a reversal of recent Republican gains.  In 2014, Larry Hogan upset the Democratic candidate, Anthony Brown.  In 2018, the circumstances will be dramatically different.

First of all, Brown ran a truly dreadful campaign.  Second, Hogan was largely unknown and managed to portray himself as a moderate Republican back when people still believed such a person existed.  Unicorns were in fashion that year as well.  Finally, Donald Trump was not the president.

This year, Democratic turnout  will almost certainly be significantly higher than it was in 2014.  The party’s large registration advantage means that Hogan will be facing strong head winds no matter what he does.  So far, he has tried to walk a difficult tightrope, paying lip service to bipartisanship but relishing attacks on the General Assembly’s Democratic leadership and on Baltimore.  His record of accomplishments is thin and all of his vetoes have been overridden.

As the recent Gonzales survey shows, Hogan continues to be very popular in public opinion polls, but that has not translated into support for his re-election.  While the Democratic field running for the nomination is large and the outcome is far from settled, any of the leading candidates is likely to be a formidable opponent for Hogan in the fall.  In fact, if you have an opportunity to wager on the outcome, bet on Hogan being a one-term governor.

How will these political forces play out in other state elections?  Democrats have veto-proof majorities in both legislative bodies and picking up additional seats is probably a stretch.  On the other hand, incumbents who might normally be considered vulnerable are much more likely to be re-elected in the political climate that will surround the November election.

If you think of suburban counties in Maryland as the best opportunity for Democrats to pick up offices currently held by Republicans, the jurisdiction that looks most like the Philadelphia suburbs is Howard County.  In the Democratic debacle of 2014, Republican Allan Kittleman was elected County Executive.  While he remains popular, he will face a strong challenger in County Council member Calvin Ball.  Regardless of how county voters see Kittleman’s record, he is going to have a really tough struggle to retain his office in a year in which Democrats have so much going for them.

A final example.  There are areas in Howard County where Republicans have almost always done well.  One is the state legislative seat currently held by Bob Flanagan, a long-time office holder who was Transportation Secretary under Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich. Flanagan has not been particularly visible and has little or no impact as a member of the minority in the House of Delegates.  Don’t be surprised if he loses his re-election bid to Courtney Watson who ran against Kittleman in the bad Democratic year of 2014.

While there are several months left until the November election and all sorts of things could happen in the meantime, just about every political indicator now points to a highly motivated and energized Democratic electorate going to the polls and sweeping large numbers of Republicans out of office.  Carrying the burden of Donald Trump as their party leader will be more than they can overcome.