Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

Remember when Republicans were going to make their tax cut the centerpiece of their strategy for the midterm elections? That plan is no longer operative. The new plan: Bet that President Trump’s race-baiting attacks on Democrats for coddling immigrant gang members, and on football players protesting systemic racism, energize the GOP and Trumpist base just enough to enable Republicans to hold on.

There are multiple reasons why this may get much, much worse, in effect producing a midterm election that is to no small degree a referendum on Trump’s racism and authoritarianism.

Last night’s results out of multiple states confirm that the hot takes pronouncing Democrats dead and buried were premature. Democrats appear to have avoided getting locked out of any House races in California. They nominated strong candidates in New Jersey, meaning they have retained numerous pickup opportunities in both states. Democrats also flipped a state Senate district in Missouri in a landslide, swinging it by more than 20 points, suggesting that maybe the tightening generic House ballot, while certainly a cause for worry, isn’t the only metric that matters.

Meanwhile, this morning, the Washington Examiner’s David Drucker reports that Republicans are increasingly planning to rely on Trump’s culture-war attacks — particularly those involving MS-13 and football players kneeling during the national anthem — to goose the base in the midterms:

Trump’s habit of ignoring the economic message preferred by House and Senate Republicans in favor of the culture war tropes that propelled him to the White House is increasingly seen as an asset. Though provocative, the president’s rhetoric resonates with the base, offering Republicans a vehicle for matching the Democrats’ critical voter enthusiasm edge.

The Examiner notes that Republicans are privately cheering Trump for claiming that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) loves MS-13. And as GOP consultant Brad Todd put it, Republicans believe that “cultural cudgels” like Trump’s attacks on African American football players as anti-American and anti-military are “all upside for him.”

There are multiple reasons why this may intensify. Republicans have already shown that they don’t think messaging on the tax cut works, having cycled out of it during their loss in Pennsylvania’s 18th District. Trump himself appears persuaded that the race baiting of kneeling football players will work: Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that Trump plans to periodically “revive” these attacks, because he believes doing so “revs up his political base.”

Meanwhile, various circumstances may bring immigration to the fore. Centrist House Republicans are pushing a discharge petition to force a vote to protect the “dreamers,” and GOP leaders are trying to find a compromise that Trump might sign — protecting the dreamers, plus cuts to legal immigration — to avert that outcome. It’s unlikely that Republicans will find this compromise, and if the discharge strategy does force a House vote protecting the dreamers, Trump will insist that Senate Republicans block it. Whatever is to be in this debate, as it comes to a head, Trump’s demagoguery about immigrants will veer headlong into his usual modes of xenophobia and hate.

It’s possible more young people will try to cross the border in the warming weather, which we already know triggers Trump — and more news may emerge about children getting separated from their parents, thanks to Trump’s “zero tolerance” border policies — further polarizing the country on these issues. On these things, GOP candidates may echo Trump to energize his voters.

On another front, Robert S. Mueller III’s probe may hit a climax of sorts soon, as he is expected to produce a report on whether Trump obstructed justice. As it is, Trump — with his claims of absolute power to pardon people associated with the probe, himself included, and his legal team’s insistence that he cannot obstruct justice by definition — is already descending into new authoritarian depths. Trump’s attacks on Mueller are dramatically eroding Mueller’s credibility with Republican voters, and we’ve already seen some GOP candidates start mimicking Trump’s authoritarianism, aping his calls for locking up Hillary Clinton and ending the Mueller investigation. If we learn more about Mueller’s findings, setting off Trump, all this could get louder.

As Ron Brownstein reported for the Atlantic, Republicans are basically betting their majorities on the idea that such racial and cultural provocations will boost turnout just enough among aging, blue-collar and rural white voters unhappy with the evolution of the country to enable them to prevail. The embrace of Trump’s latest attacks underscores that point. Of course, we’ve also seen Trump’s racism, xenophobia and authoritarianism trigger a massive backlash on the other side of this cultural divide, among younger and more diverse voters, and college-educated and suburban whites (see, for instance, the Virginia gubernatorial race). And the GOP’s embrace of Trump’s cultural attacks could keep fueling it through election day.

Of course, it’s not clear if the anti-Trump backlash will be enough to deliver the House to Democrats. Indeed, Republicans, emboldened by their somewhat improved fortunes, appear to believe it might not be. Last night’s results suggest that confidence may be premature — as one GOP strategist commenting on the Missouri loss tells the Kansas City Star: “Every suburban Republican should be petrified tonight. This devastating loss signals they could lose this fall.” That would comport with the story we’d been seeing before GOP fortunes ticked up, suggesting the new GOP confidence is overstated and that the previous dynamic is still in force. But either way, the GOP embrace of full Trumpism means they’re going to bet it all on this gamble.

* DEMS AVERT DISASTER IN CALIFORNIA, FOR NOW: Democrats feared being locked out of the general elections in California’s 39th, 48th and 49th districts. But, while there are still votes to be counted, that didn’t happen:

In the 48th District … Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher was in first place, with 30 percent of the vote, but the race for second place was tight: Democrats Harley Rouda and Hans Keirstead were both at 17 percent, but Republican Scott Baugh was just behind at 16 percent. … Democrat Gil Cisneros has a big cushion in second place in the 39th District. And … in the 49th District, three Democrats were bunched behind Republican nominee Diane Harkey. If the current vote totals hold, Democrats would avoid their most feared scenario.

This does look likely to hold, and if so, the blow to Democrats’ prospects for taking the House that so many feared didn’t materialize.

* CALIFORNIA REPUBLICANS ARE VULNERABLE: NBC’s First Read lays out the vote totals that House GOP incumbents in California won last night (because of the state’s top-two-advance system, these could be predictive of the fall):

  • David Valadao (CA-21): 63 percent
  • Devin Nunes (CA-22): 58 percent
  • Mimi Walters (CA-45): 53 percent
  • Steve Knight (CA-25): 52 percent
  • Duncan Hunter (CA-50): 49 percent
  • Jeff Denham (CA-10): 38 percent
  • Dana Rohrabacher (CA-48): 30 percent

So those last three would appear to be very vulnerable. And then there’s California’s 49th District, which is an open seat and also considered a Toss Up. That puts four seats in California and possibly more in play for Dems.

* DEMS FLIP 42nd STATE LEGISLATIVE SEAT: Last night, Democrat Lauren Arthur won a special election for a GOP-held state Senate seat in Missouri, winning by 60-40:

Both Trump and Mitt Romney won this seat by a four-point margin, so the Democratic victory amounts to a 24-point improvement … across 70 special elections in 2017, Democrats ran 10 points ahead of Clinton and 7 points ahead of Obama’s 2012 results. Those numbers have accelerated into 2018. Across about 50 races, Democrats are running 13 points ahead of Clinton.

So perhaps that tightening generic House ballot polling isn’t the only metric we should be looking at.

* IN NEW JERSEY, DEMS PICK COMPETITIVE CANDIDATES: In four House primaries in New Jersey, voters picked the candidates that national Democrats view as most competitive to flip key GOP seats:

Well-funded former assistant secretary of state Tom Malinowski emerged from a three-way primary to win the right to challenge 7th Congressional District incumbent Rep. Leonard Lance (R). In the race for the 11th Congressional District … Navy veteran and attorney Mikie Sherrill won an overwhelming victory. And in the 2nd Congressional District … Democratic voters nominated Jeff Van Drew … whom the party had recruited for years.

The Cook Political Report rates the first two as Toss Ups and the third as Lean Democratic, making this more good news for Democrats.

* HOUSE GOP GROPES FOR COMPROMISE ON DREAMERS: Bloomberg reports that centrist House Republicans who want to protect the dreamers may agree to cuts to legal immigration in exchange:

The plan would eliminate the diversity visa lottery program and limit the kinds of relatives that citizens can sponsor for residency … [a] lawmaker said White House officials told congressional Republicans that Trump could support a bill that includes both the pathway to citizenship and cuts to legal immigration. Stephen Miller … helped design the contours of this compromise, the member said.

Good luck getting this through the Senate. If it fails, centrist Republicans may still force a vote on something far less draconian via a discharge petition.

* GOP SENATORS WANT TO LIMIT TRUMP ON TRADE: NPR reports that Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is set to try to put the brakes on Trump’s escalating trade hostilities:

Corker, who plans to retire at the end of this year, joined with Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey to draft legislation that would allow Congress to review and approve tariffs that are based on national security concerns. … they said it is a limited effort to prevent any White House from misusing the national security justification to crack down on imports.

Still, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is not saying whether it will get a vote. Will Republicans fail to rein in Trump even in service of free trade? We’ll see.

* AND REPUBLICAN WHO CRITICIZED TRUMP IS PUNISHED: GOP Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama called for Trump to step aside after the “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced. Buzzfeed reports on the results of her primary election last night:

Her words came back to haunt her. She drew four well-known primary opponents seeking to oust her in this campaign. And while none of them were able to match her in fundraising or spending, the number of candidates in the field kept her vote share below 50 percent, forcing a runoff.

The idea that Trump’s open boasts about sexual assault are disqualifying in a president really is pure heresy. Can Roby possibly survive?