Conventional wisdom says the GOP is in for a beating in the 2018 midterms.
It’s been repeated to death that the president’s party tends to lose seats during midterm elections. That’s been the case in all-but three elections since the Civil War.
With only 24 House seats and 2 Senate seats needed to flip control of the legislative branch to Democrats, Republicans are right to be on guard.
That’s especially true considering what’s at stake. Democrats have vowed to curb the GOP’s historic tax reform bill and even impeach President Trump if allowed back in power.
But the future isn’t set in stone. Historical trends are often broken and new trends created. If Republicans play their cards right, they can buck history and retain control of Congress.
They already have some circumstances playing to their favor, like the large number of Democratic senators up for reelection in states Trump won, as well as the GOP (and President Trump’s) rising poll numbers.
But even these advantages won’t amount to much without smart campaigning. And here’s where history can give Republicans some unique insight into how to approach the midterms.
After all, history was defied three times in the past. In three midterm elections, the president’s party didn’t lose, but gained seats in Congress.
These were 1934, 1998, and 2002. Here’s a look at each of those races and an analysis of what allowed the president’s party to win rather than lose.
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I develop print and digital marketing for Republican candidates at one of the country’s leading political consulting firms. Our services include websites, direct mail, social media ads, Google ads, and video.
Prior to that, I was in journalism. My experience in the field included writing for one of the highest-visited conservative outlets on the web.
I formerly did a stint as a neighborhood leader for the Republican Leadership Initiative.
I also have a digital marketing business.
I put all this out there as a way of saying: I’ve seen first-hand what works and what doesn’t–what kind of campaigning moves voters to the polls and what kind leaves them sitting at home.
With all that said, here’s the lowdown on how the president’s party has occasionally defied history during midterms–and how Republicans can do the same in 2018.
The 1934 election was the first time since the Civil War that the president’s party gained seats during a midterm.
Franklin Roosevelt and Democrats brought sweeping change to the country as part of the New Deal. Historically, great change results in great pushback–the provocation of the pendulum swing.
But Roosevelt’s Democrats gained nine seats in the House and nine in the Senate–giving them a supermajority in the upper chamber. This, despite opposition from business organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce and disaffected Democrats who formed the American Liberty League.
How did Democrats thrive in the face of highly-organized opposition and abandonment by a significant portion of their base?
It would be a mistake to say the unique severity of the Great Depression wasn’t a factor. Just two years into Roosevelt’s presidency, and still reeling in economic hardship, Americans held out hope in the New Deal and were willing to give Democrats an extended shot at making good on their promises.
But there was something more. The 1934 election saw Democrats recenter themselves in urban areas and the North, as opposed to their traditional base in the South.
By expanding their coalition and welcoming new demographics into the fold, Democrats were able to offset the losses of key voting blocks–and ultimately buck history.
There are important parallels to be drawn between 1934 and 2018.
As the New Deal Democrats faced highly-organized and well-funded opposition in the form of groups like the Chamber of Commerce, Republicans today face opposition from the likes of The Resistance, #Enough, Women’s March, and other activist left-wing organizations carrying out massive get-out-the-vote initiatives.
And just as Democrats back then dealt with a splintering of their party, today’s GOP faces the abandonment of “Never Trump” conservatives.
President Trump himself put the Democrats’ 1934 gambit into practice in 2016, crippling Democrats’ “blue wall” in Rust Belt states with a message that appealed to blue-collar workers.
The key is for Republicans to expand the base further. In politics, you’re either gaining ground or losing ground.
What demographics, then, would already be inclined to vote Republican? Working-class voters were an obvious choice in 2016 because many of them are already culturally conservative–they were just waiting on the GOP to come around on manufacturing and trade.
Christian minorities repelled by Democrats’ increasing leftward movement on social issues are one possibility, as are young Asian-Americans dissatisfied with Affirmative Action.
Or the party can gain ground with young white-collar employees getting left-behind in tech due to corporations’ importation of cheap foreign labor via work visas.
The lesson is clear: Divide (their base) and conquer.
At the turn of the millennium, Republicans were hoping to increase their congressional majorities, banking on voters’ six-year itch regarding the Clinton presidency, as well as the controversy surrounding the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the resultant impeachment, and a special counsel investigation.
Instead, Democrats gained five seats in the House and the Senate remained the same.
Why did Republicans come out the losers? Shouldn’t voters have turned against Democrats in droves after Bill Clinton filled the White House with scandal and embarrassingly became the second president to be impeached?
In 1998, the economy was strong and Clinton was a fairly popular president.
Republican legislation was a crucial part of the country’s prosperous condition, but the GOP mistakenly abandoned the messaging that brought them to power in 1994 in favor of what was perceived as a personal attack on the president.
The result was that voters viewed Republicans as petty, partisan, and childish. The impeachment gambit the GOP was so sure would destroy Clinton ultimately backfired.
It’s not hard to see the current political situation as a complete party reversal from 1998.
Twenty years later, it’s Democrats calling for the impeachment of a Republican president who, despite regular outrage stirred by the media, remains highly popular among the people who voted him into office.
As during the Clinton era, the economy is strong and growing under President Trump. Yet Democrats’ message is not one of economic prosperity, but simply about being anti-Trump–whether that means focusing on tenuous Russian collusion accusations or decade-old sex scandals.
Democrats may be correct that their “gotcha” game will earn them points among their far-left base. But it alienates moderate voters. And it does nothing to win back the blue-collar workers they lost in 2016.
After all, how can Democrats expect to win back voters they routinely label “racist” and “xenophobic,” as Trump voters are assumed to be?
Democrats have clearly forgotten James Carville’s “The economy, stupid” advice from 1992’s upset Clinton victory.
In short, Democrats’ “Resistance” gambit is sowing the seeds of a major backfire akin to Republicans’ 1998 debacle.
With Democrats doing most of the work of self-sabotage, all Republicans need to do is emphasize the contrast. In their campaigning, they must highlight how they have and will continue to concretely improve the lives of all Americans–and put Democrats’ anti-Trump hysteria on full display.
Republicans should portray themselves as the adults in the room. Let Democrats self-implode.
Just four years after Democrats’ unexpected House wins, it was Republicans’ turn to successfully swim against historical trends.
The 2002 midterms came about fourteen months after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The resulting War on Terror and the impending Iraq War were fresh on voters’ minds.
With events of such weight and magnitude taking place, Americans felt they couldn’t afford to change the ship’s captain midstream. It was a similar phenomenon to 1934, when the public gave Democrats another chance to continue addressing the Great Depression.
The GOP would do well to market itself as the party standing at the forefront of momentous national and international issues. Show voters that a Republican Congress is indispensable in the current climate.
The winning message is this:
From the historic North Korea talks to record economic progress to decisive victories against ISIS (which haven’t received nearly enough attention), Republican leadership is needed to continue the forward trend at a pivotal moment in American history.
The future isn’t written. Historical trends are just that–trends. They can be broken, and have been before, under the right circumstances.
Rather than letting the chips fall where they may, Republicans can proactively create favorable circumstances by courting new demographics and focusing their messaging to highlight their achievements–all while spotlighting Democrats’ immature anti-Trump antics.
Keeping Republican majorities in both houses of Congress will require a combination of targeted print and digital media, data, canvassing, party coordination, and message refinement.
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