The GOP’s gathering political storm

CANONSBURG, PA - MARCH 14: Conor Lamb, Democratic congressional candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th district, greets supporters at an election night rally March 14, 2018 in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Lamb claimed victory against Republican candidate Rick Saccone, but many news outlets report the race as too close to call. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Conor Lamb, Democratic congressional candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th District, greets supporters at an election night rally on Wednesday, in Canonsburg, Pa.

Hear the sibilant susurrating sound of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” on the late winter wind?

That’s House Speaker Paul Ryan leading the GOP in a group whistling session as they skitter by the graveyard. Ryan & Co. are busy spinning that the Democratic victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District was as an aberration.

Just the way the election of a Democratic senator in Alabama was an aberration.


And the way the lopsided loss of Republican luminary Ed Gillespie in Virginia’s governor’s race in November was an aberration.

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So, with the midterm elections looming, when do the aberrations become a trend?

“It’s too early to make any firm predictions, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the wind is at the Democrats’ back and in the Republicans’ faces,” Republican pollster Whit Ayers tells me.

In fairness to the GOP, it is true that Democrat Conor Lamb ran as a moderate and distanced himself from House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. But that in no way negates the fact that he won in a heavily gerrymandered district that had gone for Trump by 20 points in November 2016. Let’s call this what it was: a referendum on the president.

“It’s Trump. It’s all Trump,” says Philadelphia-based Democratic political consultant Neil Oxman, who knows the district well. And though other rebukes to Republicans have seen college-educated suburban women who normally vote Republican deserting the GOP, Oxman says that the polling he saw showed that erosion running deeper in the Pennsylvania campaign, with increasing numbers of blue-collar women also rejecting Trump’s favored candidate.


Now, the first midterm election is almost inevitably bad news for a president and his party. But Tuesday’s result suggests worse than normal turbulence lies ahead. The usual political path for a party saddled with an unpopular Oval Office incumbent is to (1) stress their accomplishments and (2) emphasize that a congressman is nothing if not an intrepid iconoclast, ready to stand up to a president of his own party.

But those particular storm shelters aren’t open to today’s GOP.

To be sure, they do have one big accomplishment to ballyhoo: their tax cut. It has certainly put some additional money in people’s pockets. Still, the public seems to realize that though it’s better than stepping on a rusty nail, they haven’t exactly been handed a big windfall. Further, as logical fallacies go, the claim that the tax cut caused the strong economy isn’t even akin to a confused rooster thinking his crowing brought the dawn. It’s more like that self-same cock claiming his midmorning cackling somehow summoned the daylight into existence retroactively.

Nor, at a moment when voters seem to want a check on this erratic, authoritarian president, can this Republican Congress claim to have been that. With a handful of honorable exceptions, the GOP’s public posture has been to grin and bear it, to duck and cover, or to toady and truckle.

It’s been a party of church mice, not of formidable figures.


Which is not to argue that the Democrats don’t have significant problems of their own. They are torn between the adamantine Bernistas, who want leftist purity and view compromise as selling out, and the pragmatic progressives, who understand that a Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren message could prove unpalatable in a lot of purple districts.

The Democrats’ internal tensions are more easily finessed than is the orange-plumed albatross that hangs about the GOP’s neck.

That leaves them united in opposition to Trump, but not on the way forward.

“A very substantial number of Americans think the Democrats are mainly criticizing Trump rather than proposing positive alternatives,” notes Gary Langer, president of Langer Research Associates and director of polling for ABC News.

And yet, the Democrats’ internal tensions are more easily finessed than is the orange-plumed albatross that hangs about the GOP’s neck. If the motivation for midterm voters is to impose checks and balances on this tumultuous presidency, a sharp anti-Trump message may be all it takes to succeed.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.