Tomorrow's Battle Over The 2018 Midterm Narrative

[ Posted Monday, November 6th, 2017 – 17:37 UTC ]

Tomorrow is Election Day in certain parts of the country. As usual in odd-numbered years, the handful of major contests to be decided tomorrow night will be seen as a harbinger of what is to come in the 2018 midterm congressional elections. These off-off-year elections always seem to have an outsized effect on the narrative used by the political chattering class, as one party or another once again claims "the wind is at our backs" heading into the midterms. Sometimes these narratives prove to be correct, but other times they are later seen as nothing short of wishful thinking on a national scale. Figuring out the accuracy of the narratives which tomorrow's elections will breed won't be possible for another year, of course, but it won't stop the narratives from spreading in the meantime. Such narratives will certainly have an effect on the midterms, whether correct or not. So even if they prove to be false narratives in the end, they're worth paying attention to for the time being.

The election cycle which takes place one year after the presidential race has two big races that get the most attention: the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. Both of these could produce interesting narratives, but currently most pundits are only paying attention to the Virginia race (which is much closer, therefore much more fun to analyze and predict). This is rather myopic, though, because the New Jersey race could produce an interesting narrative that has some warning signs for both sides of the political divide.

Governor Chris Christie has had a rather remarkable political career in New Jersey, with many parallels to Donald Trump's rise to power. Their political styles are similar, which has always led me to wonder what the 2016 Republican primary race would have looked like if Trump had declined to run. Would Christie's "proto-Trump" style have reaped him the same devoted voter base as Trump managed? Christie's brash-talking rejection of political correctness and embrace of a "counterpunching" political persona (remember all those videos of Christie yelling at constituents in town hall meetings?) didn't really have a chance next to Trump on a debate stage, because Trump took the caricature to such an extreme. If Trump hadn't been standing there, though, who knows how Christie would have done in the GOP primaries? Watching Christie body-slam weak candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio would have been almost as entertaining as watching Trump ridicule them, in other words.

Christie was also plagued by scandal right in the midst of the presidential race, but as Trump successfully showed, if the voters are angry enough and entertained enough by your style, they can overlook all kinds of things. "Bridgegate" was pretty small potatoes when stacked up against all of Trump's campaign-trail antics, after all.

But Christie's presidential bid eventually flamed out, leaving him in a desperate attempt to rebrand himself as the biggest Trump sycophant walking the planet. This, also, didn't really work out so well for Christie, who failed to get a cabinet appointment or even any sort of plum job in the Trump administration. He was tossed the political crumb of being included in an opioid crisis task force, which is a rather large step down from his true ambitions (he reportedly would have been more than happy to be Trump's attorney general).

The narrative of Christie's term as New Jersey governor, however, is a cautionary tale. At one point, Christie had some of the highest public approval ratings of any governor in the country. Donald Trump certainly has never been able to claim that sort of broad-based support. The cautionary note for Republicans in this narrative, though, is the steepness of Christie's eventual fall from grace. From his initial apex of public approval, Christie's numbers plummeted to Earth in one of the most notable dives since Icarus flew too high. Christie's job approval now polls regularly below 20 percent, with his disapproval numbers at times topping 80 percent. He went from "most popular governor in the country" to "least popular governor in the entire history of polling in New Jersey" in only a few short years.

This is the big reason why tomorrow's race isn't all that close. The Democratic candidate is going to skate to an easy victory. New Jersey is a pretty blue state in presidential elections, so this isn't really all that surprising. Rampant corruption among Garden State Democratic politicians paved the way for Christie's initial win, but Christie's massive unpopularity is now paving the way for Democrats to take back the governor's mansion. So the political pendulum swings, in other words. But there's also a cautionary note for Democrats in this narrative, because equating Christie's rise and fall with the hoped-for fall of Donald Trump ignores one basic fact: Christie was overwhelmingly re-elected. So anyone making too much of the narrative of "Christie equals Trump" would have to prepare themselves for Trump's second term, where his poll numbers would tank. This only goes to show the limited usefulness of such narratives in general. Christie's record isn't the same as Trump's -- Christie reached approval polling highs that Trump can only dream about, after all, so drawing parallels is probably not too wise in this particular case. Caveat emptor, in other words (or possibly cave canem?).

Latin snarkiness aside, this brings us to the Virginia election, which is going to be the most over-analyzed of the 2017 cycle. It's pretty easy to draw the parallels in this contest to the 2016 presidential election, which is why so many are so interested in the outcome. On the Democratic side, the Democratic establishment candidate beat out a progressive upstart (endorsed by Bernie Sanders) in the primary. Ralph Northam is seen by many as an uninspiring candidate who is running a pretty milquetoast campaign. Does any of this sound familiar?

On the other side, a Republican establishment candidate narrowly defeated a full-on Trumpian rabble-rouser, and then he immediately reinvented himself as his own Trump-style rage-induced candidate. Ed Gillespie was always a Republican insider, an operative behind the scenes who loved the wonkery of politics. It is becoming rather traditional for such party insiders to move to Virginia and become politicians themselves rather than continuing as mere party operatives. The outgoing governor, after all, is Terry McAuliffe, the ultimate insider from the Clinton crowd. He was previously chair of the Democratic National Committee and was prominent in both Bill and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaigns. Gillespie is trying to walk a path already pioneered by Democrats, in other words.

But just being a party wonk isn't nearly exciting enough, these days. Gillespie has adopted Trumpian belligerence and embraced the demagogic Steve Bannon campaign style that got Trump elected. The ad wars have been brutal, with Gillespie scapegoating immigrants and championing the cause of Civil War monuments of Southern heroes. Which has led to the question so many are asking: will a Trumpian campaign work for someone not named Donald J. Trump?

If Northam wins tomorrow night, the narrative will instantly become one of Democratic resistance to Trump-style politics winning the day. Virginia will be seen as a pickup for the Democrats (which is actually inaccurate, since McAuliffe is a Democrat). With the expected win in New Jersey, though, holding on to Virginia will result in an overall improvement for Democrats in governors' offices nationwide. Democrats will celebrate such an outcome and declare that they've got the wind at their back heading into the 2018 midterms. They will gleefully warn Republicans that Trump-style campaigns don't always work, in an effort to make Republican candidates think twice about using such tactics. This is how the narrative can change the dynamics of the race, whether it proves to be accurate or not after the votes are counted next year.

If Gillespie wins, however, the narrative will be one of continuing triumph for Trump followers. On the Democratic side, this will lead to despondency and recriminations over running bland establishmentarian candidates rather than full-throated economic populists. It'll be a re-run of the fallout from the Jon Ossoff defeat in Georgia, but on a much larger scale. This schism has already erupted, days before the election. Progressive groups have pointedly "unendorsed" Northam, and even called him a "racist." The Democratic "what went wrong in Virginia" narrative has already begun, in other words. On the other side, Republican candidates across the country may become emboldened to fully embrace Trump tactics and Steve Bannon-style scapegoating. Which would mean a 2018 midterm cycle that could be more brutal than has been seen in quite some time.

Local elections (even statewide ones) rarely if ever accurately predict the mood of the national electorate at large. Rightly or wrongly, however, they do give rise to political narratives that are hard (if not impossible) to ignore, for any politician. Which is why so much attention will be paid to the Virginia race's outcome. If Gillespie loses, then Democrats will begin (cautiously) predicting a "wave" election in 2018. This may intimidate more Republicans in Congress to decide to hang up their spurs -- a trend which has already begun. Why go out in an electoral defeat when you can quit on your own terms, after all? If Northam loses, however, Democrats may spend an inordinate amount of time and energy fighting amongst themselves. As the release of Donna Brazile's book proves, there are still some awfully raw feelings between Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton's backers. Party unity will become a lot harder to achieve, heading into midterm election season.

No matter the outcome, the narrative which emerges immediately afterwards (soon to become ossified as inside-the-Beltway "conventional wisdom") is going to be important to the 2018 midterm cycle. One side or the other is going to pick the narrative up and attempt to run with it as far as they can. Of course, as I said at the beginning, the narrative might prove to be wrong. A Democratic sweep tomorrow does not in any way guarantee a Democratic wave election in 2018. A Republican victory in Virginia, conversely, in no way means that such a Democratic wave election won't appear next November. Either way, though, the narrative will impact the way politicians on both sides of the aisle see 2018, and they'll likely adjust their strategies and tactics accordingly. So even if the narrative proves to be illusory, it will indeed have a major impact on next year's politics.

-- Chris Weigant


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


9 Comments on “Tomorrow's Battle Over The 2018 Midterm Narrative”

  1. [1] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    I guarantee you, after 2016, and likely forever more, regardless of who wins any of the off-year elections, we'll quickly hear that it was because they had the backing of that newly dominant faction on the American political scene known as the Russski Hackski Party!

    I'm betting it's all a bunch of Bullski Shitski!

  2. [2] 
    neilm wrote:

    You are right, CW, the narratives, regardless of the results (with the possible exception of a Republican win in NJ) both sides will spin their story to their masses.

    You've hit the Democratic story line on the head (IMO).

    On the Fox News side, I'm sure the Virginia result will be either ignored (Texas Shooter was a Democrat! Sad stories about the TX victims; and Democrats politicize TX massacre just like they told Trump not to do after NY, etc.) or if the Republican wins there will be a full on 4th July parade and 45 will dial into some show to gloat.

  3. [3] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Progressive groups have pointedly "unendorsed" Northam, and even called him a "racist."

    Yep. There they go again.

    just a ruse to hook in Bernie supporters so they could eventually be absorbed into the Democratic establishment, a la Robert Reich?

    Why else would a prominent economist support the establishment, if not as a ruse to lure unsuspecting liberals into considering reading Galbraith?

    we'll quickly hear that it was because they had the backing of that newly dominant faction on the American political scene known as the Russski Hackski Party!

    Have a good laugh, because when the Russki's decide they've had enough of GOP bad faith promises, they'll come for your guys too, and thanks to the Trumpophants, we will have done nothing at all to stop them.

    All of the things that used to make me soft for Republicans is gone. They used to stand for responsibility and freedom. Not any more.

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    When did the Republicans stand for responsibility and freedom? Whose responsibility and whose freedom, by the way ... ??

  5. [5] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    [6] Good question, Liz.

    You have to first of all understand that like many young males, I tried libertarianism on for size in the 1980's, believing it to be, as many do still, a political antidote to the bonds of oppressive rule-makers, who at that time I perceived as impinging on my right to smoke, drink, and carouse at will.

    That led me to Republicanism, whence I dwelt until GHW Bush broke the spell, and it all deconstructed before my eyes, and I started to notice lie after lie after lie, and really quite obvious bullshit.

    So I can tell you what I thought before my conversion: that Republicans were the more 'responsible' party, interested above all else on balancing the books both intellectually and financially, while asking for more personal responsibility from citizens in return. William F. Buckley and George Will were my 'never miss' pundits.

    I also believed, as I've said, that Republicans believed that we should all have more personal freedom, not just to speak our minds, but to live as we please, without government dictating our actions. But I'd soured on that misconception when Ed Meese began attacking first amendment freedoms, and again when more rights came under attack during Bush's tenure. I used to joke that Bush ate shredded rights for breakfast.

    But since then, Republicans have abandoned all pretense to being guardians of decency, sobriety, or tradition. I can only imagine what Buckley would have thought of Trump, but I'd bet money that it wouldn't be good.

    I also know that George Will, once the very soul of sober Republicanism, has since declared his independence from the once Grand Old Party, because he doesn't recognize it anymore.

    So that was sorta my point. I've since come to realize that even Buckley's learned rationalizations were often predicated on inaccurate assumption, dogmatic theory, or righteous elitism, yet I find that I can still overlook his ideology and appreciate the rigorous logic and novelty of his arguments, as I might with Orwell, H.L. Menken, or Shaw.

  6. [6] 
    Paula wrote:

    Dems are winning BIG tonight: yay, yay, yay!!!

    Message: Trumpism is a LOSER.

    Message: the Resistance is real.

  7. [7] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    And it's all Donna Brazile's fault!

    tee hee.

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Well, in that case, allow me to rephrase the question(s) ...

    Did the Republicans of old believe in taxation?
    What kinds of things should taxes be paying for and what should tax dollars not be spent on?

  9. [9] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Obviously the Russki Hacker party must have switched their Facebook posts to favor Dems at the state level. Flat out amazing, the degree of gullibility those deluded FB aficionados have.

    Chris and I are the only two sane people left in the world!

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