Washington Wednesday: 2018 midterms

MARY REICHARD, HOST: From member-supported WORLD Radio, this is The World and Everything in It for Wednesday, March 14th. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington, and today is Washington Wednesday. 

The clock struck midnight in Pennsylvania with the race for the U-S House seat in the 18th District still too close to call.

More than 225,000 voters cast a ballot in the special election. As of early this morning, Democrat Conor Lamb was leading by just 579 votes, with more absentee ballots still to be counted today.

But those ballots are unlikely to tip the vote count in Saccone’s in favor, and with that in mind, Conor Lamb told his supporters late last night:

LAMB: It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it!

Meanwhile, Republican Rick Saccone told his supporters, Lamb hasn’t won anything just yet.

SACCONE: You know we’re still fighting the fight. It’s not over yet. We’re gonna fight all the way to the end! You know I never give up. You know my first race went into the night and we won that. My second race was the same way. We’re kind of used to this now, right? So… Don’t give up! We’ll keep it up!

If Lamb’s narrow lead holds up after all of the voters are counted, it will be a big win for Democrats, poaching a House seat in a district Donald Trump won by 20 points only 16 months ago.

The seat belonged to Republican Tim Murphy before his resignation amid scandal last year.

Both parties saw the race as a possible bellwether for control of the House this year, leading outside groups to pour more than $12 million into the race.

President Trump waded into the race last week, firing up supporters at a rally for Rick Saccone on Saturday. He noted that Democrat Conor Lamb struck a centrist tone in the race in an effort to win over many working-class voters in the district who backed Trump in 2016.

TRUMP: He’s now saying–and I appreciate his nice words about me. This is Trump country, right? So he has to say nice–okay, smart, so he’s saying nice things. Here’s the problem: As soon as he gets in, he’s not gonna vote for us. And if he doesn’t, he’s never going to the chairman of a committee and–it’s a whole crazy system. But he’s gonna vote the party line. He doesn’t care about us.

Whether his warnings to Republicans were enough remains to be seen. But regardless of final outcome, Democrats say a race this close in that district is good is good news for them and bad news for the GOP.

Republicans had won eight straight elections in the 18th District. And in 2014 and 2016, Democrats did not even field a candidate against Tim Murphy. With that in mind, some calling Lamb’s strong performance the start of blue wave in 2018.  

So does last night’s election really signal the beginning of a big year for Democrats? And what about last week’s elections in Texas? What can we learn from those votes ahead of big battle for control of Congress in November.

Here now to shed some light on that is Henry Olsen. He’s a Senior Fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center.

And Henry, before we talk about what last night’s results might mean, let’s start by looking at what was really the kickoff of the 2018 election season, and that was the primary elections in Texas last Tuesday.

Democrats were energized and turned out in force, especially in early voting and, in fact, when the early numbers started pouring in, we started to hear buzz that this could be the beginning of a big blue wave in 2018. But in the end, granted it’s a red state, but Republican showed up in significantly larger numbers, so what should we make of what we saw in Texas?

OLSEN: Well, first of all, what Democrats are doing is moving their normal voting patterns to the early vote. That’s something that we saw in the 2016 race. So a lot of people overanalyzed the strong Democratic early turn out in 2016 because they assumed there would be a high election day turnout. Instead, there wasn’t. So we saw that again in Texas. Secondly, Democratic gains are coming in highly educated urban areas, which has been a trend over the last 2 or 3 years. But they’re not coming in the larger part of the state, which is the small towns and the rural areas. And they held up very well for Republicans. Texas is going to remain red, if a slightly paler shade, for quite some time and there’s nothing that the primary results did to change that perception.

Okay, turning now to what we saw last night, an incredibly close race, Conor Lamb with the narrow lead as early this morning — but again, in a district Trump carried by 20 points. So does that suggest that Democrats have the momentum here?

OLSEN: Lamb outperforming Trump shows that there’s significant wind at the back of the Democrats. It’s particularly when there’s a bad Republican candidate, that’s going to put Republican seats that should be safe at risk. But the fact is Democrats’ enthusiasm is up there and people who don’t like Trump and Lamb’s performance is just an example of the tilt that’s going towards the Democrats going into the midterm.

Okay, but at the same time, you have told me that Democrats shouldn’t read too much into Lamb’s strong performance here in this 18th District. Why not?

OLSEN: Yeah, because there’s a couple of things that are unusual. One is the Republican candidate there is extremely weak in terms of personality and in terms of fundraising, and the Democrats have the ability in the special election to pour resources into one seat that they simply cannot do on a national level. You can’t spend $5 million per race when you’re running a national race, the way the Democrats can pour $5 million into Connor Lamb or the way they did into Jon Ossoff in the suburban Atlanta seat last year that everyone was looking at. So the Democrats have an ability to command resources for a special that they cannot command in a general election, and virtually all Republicans running in competitive seats next time will be a stronger fundraiser and personality than Rick Sarcone has been.

Now, you mentioned a lot of Democrats being energized by Donald Trump and their opposition to him and to his agenda. Officially, of course, Trump is not on the ballot in 2018, but how much of an impact will his job approval have on the November elections?  

OLSEN: It’s actually quite a lot. What we’re seeing in the polls right now is that Republican percentages in midterms very closely tracked the area approval for Donald Trump. So if Donald Trump is doing 44 percent nationally, on election day it means he’ll be at 50 or above in Republican-leaning areas and that means the day will be an average midterm. A few losses for the Republicans but generally what you would expect. If Donald Trump’s percentages go down to where they were in October, which is the mid-30s, you could be looking at a 40-50 seat Democratic gain in the house and a significant sweep of the state houses up for election this fall.

Speaking of numbers to watch here over the next 8 months, voters will obviously hear quite a bit about the poll numbers in all of the state and national races.

You say the national numbers for Democrats may look a little better in the opinion polls than what we’re likely to see when the votes are counted on election day. Explain that what you mean by that.

OLSEN: Well that’s because Democratic strength, as we learned in 2016, is focused in areas where they’re already going to do well. So, if the Democrats are winning the national vote by 7, 8, 9 points, that probably means that they’re picking up a lot of votes in areas they’re going to win anyway. So the national vote is not going to be as indicative of House races and particularly Senate races as it used to be because Democratic strength is so heavily tilted toward the coastal states and the big, urban cities.

Henry, you’ve said that Democrats absolutely have a shot at taking over the House — you see that as a coin toss at the moment. But you just wrote a piece for WORLD Magazine in which you raise a very interesting possibility — a scenario in which the Democrats could take control of the House, but actually lose ground in Senate. How’s that?

OLSEN: Yeah, well the bottom line is that in the Senate there are 10 seats that are held by Democrats in states that Donald Trump carried. Five of those are in seats that Donald Trump carried by between 19 and 42 points. It’s going to be very hard for Democrats to hold those seats even if the national trend is against him because there are so many Trump partisans there. Remember that the Democrats are attracting highly educated, high income suburbanites. These states don’t have a lot of those people. So there’s a poll that came out last week that supported this showing the five Democrats in those states running behind hypothetical or actual Republican challengers. So you could see a situation where the Democrats gained control of the House but lose a significant number of seats in the Senate as the two parts of our country — urban and rural — go on their own separate political ways.

Now, while all eyes will be on the midterm elections here for the next 8 months, preparations for 2020 are already underway. President Trump has hired a campaign manager and settled on a new campaign slogan. But let me ask you this: Republican Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who is a noted Trump critic, said the other day that he believes there could be a primary challenge to Trump in 2020. What do you say to that? What are the odds of a credible primary challenge for the White House?

OLSEN: I think there are a lot of people in the Republican party who want to challenge Donald Trump, perhaps Senator Flake is holding himself out to be drafted for that role. But the bottom line is that the Republican party voter base nationwide is more in line with Donald Trump’s positions on issues than they are with Senator Flake’s positions on issues. And a primary challenge to President Trump will demonstrate that Donald Trump won for a reason, which is that he is closer to the center of the Republican voting base’s preferences than most of his challengers. And a challenge that comes at Donald Trump from the Jeff Flake position will lose Iowa, it will probably lose New Hampshire, it will lose South Carolina, and it will probably not make it to Super Tuesday — absent some kind of indictment or other legal cloud on President Trump.

Okay, Henry Olsen, always a pleasure, sir. Thanks a lot!

OLSEN: Thanks for having me on.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) Conor Lamb, the Democratic candidate for the March 13 special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District celebrates with his supporters at his election night party in Canonsburg, Pa., early Wednesday, March 14, 2018. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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