Normally midterm congressional elections in the United States are local, not national. Normally U.S. presidents play only a cameo role in these contests. Normally the fate of a presidency does not rest on the composition of the House of Representatives.
These are not normal times, Donald Trump is not a traditional occupant of the White House and the nature of his presidency, if not his presidency itself, may well depend on whether the Republicans retain control of the House or whether a resurgent Democratic Party captures the chamber.
So at a time when the financial markets are experiencing the longest rally in American history and when unemployment is below 4 per cent – normally strong assets for the party in power – the midterm elections are especially perilous for the Republicans. Here are some of the factors that will help shape those midterm contests:
Is this a national election or 470 individual, local elections?
Until this week, the answer was clear: The Democrats, who, according to well-established historical patterns, are poised to gain seats in the first set of elections after losing the White House, were keeping the focus local, with emphasis on the profile of their incumbents and challengers in the 435 House ridings and 35 states with contested Senate seats. The model was Conor Lamb, the moderate, soft-spoken ex-Marine who won a special election in a Pennsylvania riding that Mr. Trump carried in 2016.
No longer. This week’s guilty plea by Michael Cohen, the President’s fixer-lawyer, and the eight-count conviction of Paul Manafort, the onetime Trump campaign chairman, altered the Democrats’ playbook. They now see potential rather than peril in transforming many of these contests into referendums on Mr. Trump and in describing the Republicans’ control of both the executive and legislative branches as something of a criminal conspiracy.
How much does the Trump factor count, and where does it play?
For months, Mr. Trump has been coated with no-stick Teflon, especially among Republicans, who have sought to dismiss questions about Russian involvement in the 2016 election and have emphasized the health of the economy and the shiny conservative credentials of the President’s two Supreme Court nominees.
This, too, has changed, with some Republicans shifting away, if not exactly declaring independence from the President. This may accelerate in districts ranging from red-state Nebraska (where Republican Representative Don Bacon faces a difficult re-election battle) to blue-state New Hampshire (where the Republicans have perhaps their greatest chance of picking up a Democratic seat).
Overall, Mr. Trump will be the principal factor in ridings with the starkest ideological profiles – to his great advantage in rural districts where his appeal remains robust and to his great disadvantage in suburban districts where stylistic and ethical issues are more important than the administration’s policies.
Is this an impeachment election?
Only once have Americans gone to polls in midterm elections with presidential impeachment as an issue, and it did not hurt the party of the sitting president. That was in 1998, when Bill Clinton was under siege for his affair with a White House intern.
Out of the White House for six years, the Republicans ordinarily might have expected to pick up support in the House in 1998 because of the relentless attacks against Mr. Clinton – and because the presidential party customarily loses seats in the sixth year of a presidency. In the event, it was the GOP that actually lost five seats, perhaps because of voter queasiness over the prospect of presidential impeachment. A month later the Republican-controlled House moved ahead and impeached Mr. Clinton, who in February 1999, three months after the midterms, fought off efforts in a Senate trial to remove him from office.
This is an entirely different situation, with impeachment talk on the lips of Democrats before any such proceedings have begun. Indeed, unless the Democrats actually take control of the House, the likelihood of impeachment hearings and debate is very small.
For months a handful Democrats, mostly on the left of the party, have spoken of impeachment, their notions buttressed by books from prominent authors such as Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide, by the Obama regulatory chief and Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein, and To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment, written by Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe with lawyer Joshua Matz. (On the other side, Alan Dershowitz, a prominent figure with Harvard ties, has weighed in with The Case Against Impeaching Trump.)
Now the impeachment talk may become broader, though not solely among Democrats.
Republicans have sowed the notion that if they lose the House, their rivals would initiate impeachment proceedings – a sure-fire way to mobilize Mr. Trump’s most enthusiastic boosters. Democrats may feel the same in reverse, as their liberal base surely would respond to candidates who are open to, or back, impeachment.
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California this week said the election should not turn on impeachment. Representative Jerry Nadler of New York, who would be the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and thus the pilot of impeachment proceedings if the Democrats take power, has indicated that the House wouldn’t contemplate such an action unless there were clear indications that 67 Senators, as required in the Constitution, would at least take the notion seriously.
This dynamic, changing swiftly and susceptible to further developments, is being watched carefully in the White House. In an interview with Fox News that aired Thursday, Mr. Trump warned that the “market would crash” if he were impeached, adding, “I don’t know how you can impeach somebody who’s done a great job.” On the truth of that assessment, if not on impeachment itself, the election may turn.