Yesterday in Kansas, in a congressional district that Donald Trump won by 27 points, Republicans managed to eke out a win in a special election by less than seven points. And in the special election in a GOP-held Georgia district next Tuesday, a first-time Democratic candidate, Jon Ossoff, has raised a huge amount of money, leads in the polls, and could win the seat outright in the first round of voting (if he gets to 50 percent and avoids a runoff).
While it’s dangerous to read too much into a couple of special elections, there’s something larger going on. To put it simply, Donald Trump is in some respects exactly what the Democratic Party needed.
In ordinary circumstances, being in the opposition is good for a party. Everyone’s grievances get pointed at the president, and the opposition usually makes gains at all levels of government. They almost always pick up seats in midterm elections for Congress, and they usually win more at the state and local level too. The ruling party’s voters get a little complacent, while the opposition’s voters get angry, and thus more active. You can even see it in things like magazine subscriptions: liberal magazines do well when there’s a Republican in the White House, and conservative magazines see a boost when there’s a Democrat in the White House.
But Donald Trump has turned it up to 11.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that Trump’s election is on balance a good thing. There are some leftists who take that view (or at least who did during the election), but that opinion can always be found someplace, that if we “heighten the contradictions” and hope for the worst possible outcome, then it will bring us a step closer to the ultimate triumph of righteousness. I don’t believe that for a moment. Trump still terrifies me on a daily basis.
What I am arguing is that it’s possible — not certain, but possible — that Trump could end up proving much better for Democrats, and eventually for progressive goals, than a replacement-level Republican like, say, Marco Rubio might have.
The first reason why is that most of the things the Trump administration is doing and will do are exactly what any Republican administration would do. Another Republican would seek to restrict reproductive rights, cut taxes for the wealthy, slash environmental and worker protections, reduce regulations on Wall Street, undermine the safety net, and so on. Another Republican would have appointed Neil Gorsuch, or at least someone very much like him, to the Supreme Court.
But while another Republican would have made Democratic voters mad, it’s safe to say that another Republican wouldn’t have energized Democrats in the same way. They wouldn’t like a Rubio or a Jeb Bush or even a Ted Cruz; they might even grow to hate him. But they wouldn’t have same sense of urgency and even panic. So we’ve seen a huge upsurge in liberal activism, with town halls packed to the gills and local Democratic Party organizations unable to accommodate all the new people eager to get involved. The “Indivisible” movement started by a few former Democratic congressional staffers has spread across the country; the group says there are now 5,800 local Indivisible groups, including at least two in every congressional district.
Then there’s recruitment. Democrats have also put a new focus on convincing people — especially women — to run for office at all levels, including in places where they previously conceded elections to Republicans. And they say they are succeeding.
Meredith Kelly, the communications director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told me today that they’ve had 275 “serious conversations” with potential candidates in 68 districts, some of whom they reached out to and some of whom approached the committee.
“It’s absolutely moving much more quickly and with higher quality candidates” than in previous cycles, including in 2006 when Democrats took back the House. She also noted that they’ve had particular interest from “outside the box” candidates, including women, military veterans, and small business owners who want to run for Congress as Democrats.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which focuses on state races, brags that in Virginia, one of two states with regularly scheduled elections in 2017, “More than half of the 76 Democratic candidates running in 48 GOP-held seats are women.”
On other fronts, the Affordable Care Act is more popular than ever, and Rachel Maddow is beating Bill O’Reilly in the ratings, something that was unimaginable a few months ago. (Also, O’Reilly just might be losing his job.)
It’s true that the Republican Party holds all the institutional power, but Republicans seem like it’s on the defensive about everything. While some people (like me) predicted that as soon as they had control of the White House and Congress they’d quickly begin an orgy of legislating that would codify all their many priorities into law in a matter of weeks, Congress has accomplished almost nothing. They failed to repeal the ACA, they can’t seem to figure out how to do tax reform, and Congress is consumed with how it will investigate the Trump administration’s ever-widening Russia scandal.
While we can’t re-run history, you can make a strong case that if an ordinary Republican were president, he wouldn’t be running such a spectacularly incompetent White House, he’d be getting more done, and his approval ratings wouldn’t be as low as Trump’s are. A Democratic base that wasn’t so energized probably wouldn’t be able to deliver a “wave” election that wins Democrats the House in 2018 — which both parties now consider a genuine possibility.
If we pull back to the long view, we can see a scenario in which Trump produces a reinvigorated Democratic Party winning elections at all levels, fails to get many of the GOP’s substantive goals accomplished, delivers the House to the Democrats in 2018 (thereby ending the possibility of any further legislative accomplishments), then loses in 2020. If that were to happen, it would constitute as rosy a scenario as Democrats could have hoped for, given a Republican in the White House, even if we grant all the progress his administration will make in undermining progressive goals as long as Trump holds office.
To be sure, it’s also possible that Trump will destroy America’s reputation in the world, roll back the clock on every social advance of recent decades, drive the economy into crisis, and start World War III because someone made fun of him on Twitter.
But if we can avoid all that, things might work out better than liberals ever hoped.