The Parties Are Already Preparing For The 2018 Midterms
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
If you're still recovering from the blood sport that was the 2016 election, may I remind you that the 2018 midterms are just around the corner and both parties are already preparing. It makes my heart sink just a little to say that. The GOP has faced a bumpy six months despite the fact they hold both Houses and the presidency. Can the Democrats take advantage?
Democratic strategist Guy Cecil and Republican strategist Kevin McLaughlin both used to work to get senators and their respective parties elected. And they're with me now to talk about where the parties are at and what they need to do. Good morning, gentlemen. Thanks for coming in on a Sunday.
KEVIN MCLAUGHLIN: Good morning.
GUY CECIL: Thanks for having us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, I want to start with the party in power. Kevin, that would be you. One would think that the Republicans are in the strongest position. One would think. They're only defending 10 seats in the Senate. But they've been having a hard time. How big a deal is the failure to pass the GOP health care bill?
MCLAUGHLIN: You know, I think the bigger deal here for Republicans is if they don't have a vote. We have promised for seven years - we won a lot of elections based on repealing Obamacare. So if we don't do that - if we can't even hold a vote, we're going to lose our base. And as I believe Guy would agree with me, if you don't have a base going into an election, you have - you are dead in the water. So the number one most important thing to do is to hold the vote, to me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Guy, can the Democrats capitalize on the health care issue if indeed the GOP fails to pass anything?
CECIL: Absolutely. I think the two things that Democrats have going for them in the 2018 election is simple and straightforward. One is history. The president's party has always had a challenge in midterm elections. But second, I mean, you're hearing the Republicans continue to lower the bar on what success means. Remember, Mitch McConnell said the number one goal for Republicans was to rip Obamacare out by root and branch. Now the goal is to have a vote. And so I think as we move forward, what voters are going to find is that the promises that Republicans have been making for seven years really are empty promises.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm curious about, Kevin, specifically looking at the race coming up. How do you think the senators who are coming up, you know, on the ballot will deal with President Trump? His popularity is at historic lows. But he has a passionate base. Do the Republicans use him in their campaigns or not?
MCLAUGHLIN: His popularity might be at a low. But I will say that his popularity is actually about the same as it was on Election Day in 2016. So, you know, I don't know if that's a good indicator of where it is. But I would also say that the one problem that Democrats have - Guy did outline a couple of good things that Democrats have going for them. One issue they have is mathematics. And they actually are victims of their own success in 2012. So if you look at this, there are two vulnerable Republicans, really - Arizona and Nevada.
MCLAUGHLIN: And then you get into the rest of those seats that are up. And they're Texas, Tennessee, Utah - very, very target poor environments for Democrats. You need three seats to get the majority. So if Texas is your number three pickup opportunity for Democrats, that's not a very good place to be going into the 2018 midterms.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, Guy, that's right. The Democrats have got 23 seats to defend. Two more if you include independents like Bernie Sanders and Angus King. You know, 10 senators are up for re-election in states that voted for Trump. A new Bloomberg poll shows the Democrats haven't become more popular. People are confused about what they stand for. How do you shape the message?
CECIL: Well, one of the reasons I am actually optimistic is - take the one state that was mentioned, Nevada. Is there a better example of a Republican tying themselves in knots over health care than Dean Heller, who the president is now openly threatening to provide a primary challenge or not to fund in his race?
The fact of the matter is, though, that many of the Democrats that are up already won in Republican states. Heidi Heitkamp won her election in 2012 in a state that President Obama lost by double digits. And so my advice to Democrats is simple - be authentic. Be who you are and focus like a laser beam on the economy and on jobs, which I think Democrats are starting to do. And we're seeing signs of that, in fact, this coming week as Democrats introduce a large broad economic plan looking forward.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, Kevin, Guy brings up something here. The president has, as we know, holds grudges against lawmakers that speak against his interests. And he is recruiting candidates to run against Senator Jeff Flake. And he's been outspoken against Senator Dean Heller. How do you feel about these challenges against sitting Republican senators?
MCLAUGHLIN: You know, personally, I obviously don't like them. I spent the last four years of my life actually trying to beat back the insurgency inside our party. But I think that's the other thing I would look at with this is that, you know, regardless of what Dean Heller does on health care, regardless of what Jeff Flake does, President Trump has made it clear. He's already spent money, actually, in his super PAC against Dean Heller. He's already said he will spend up to $10 million against Jeff Flake.
So I feel like they actually - it frees them from having to worry about it. He has put his marker in the ground. So they should go out. And I would agree with Guy 110 percent. The best thing any candidate can do is be authentic and be yourself and stand by what you said and what you've done. And when you start to waver on that, that's when you're going to start to have electoral problems.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, Guy, the Democratic Party is facing its own split - ideological struggle between progressives and moderates. Is that - is the fact that people are united against Trump and the Republican Party enough to unite the party into a winning message?
CECIL: I think it's required. But it's not sufficient. I mean, there's no question that Democrats must have a forward looking agenda. And I think that much of the split between our party is actually a bit overplayed. I mean, take the Virginia governor's race for example. There was so much attention given to the Democratic primary in that race that there was two factions of the party, that the race was going to be incredibly close. And what happened? In fact, the race wasn't that close. The Democrat who lost endorsed Ralph Northam from the very next day.
And what happened on the Republican side? The race was incredibly close. The loser has not endorsed the winner in that race. And what you're finding is that the split in the Republican Party between those that are incredibly loyal to Donald Trump and those that are questioning votes on things like health care is actually proving to be much more challenging for the Republicans than what Democrats are going through on our side.
MCLAUGHLIN: Well, yeah, I would - the only thing I would say is when you have the electoral process and what we've gone through, Republicans have gotten 4-for-4 in special elections. And I just think that one of the things that I think every single Republican senator on the ballot has to remember is - I would agree with Guy on one thing for sure is that, my God, the media overblew something and got it wrong.
I mean, I think that a lot of people, not only the media, but pundits and people in Washington, D.C., who do this for a living don't pay attention to what's going over - on over on fly country - in flyover country, excuse me. And so, I mean, I think that what - beware Republican senators on the ballot. I believe that Donald Trump and these red-state Democrats have a bigger problem with this - is extremely popular in these states like North Dakota, West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri. And, you know, it's going to be a different electorate than it was in 2012.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You think none of these controversies are hurting him?
MCLAUGHLIN: I don't - I mean - I don't - I have not seen any data that shows me as such. If you look at the Gallup poll that tracks what people care about out in the world, Russia didn't even, like, register until last month. It was at 1 percent. I don't think people in flyover country are really paying attention to it the way that everyone else here is.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your thoughts?
CECIL: Well, I think the fact of the matter is when you look at the polling that's been done in Senate races so far, it is reflective of the fact that it's having real damage because it's limiting the opportunities that Republicans have. The fact of the matter is most polling shows that half of the voters that voted for Barack Obama and then voted for Donald Trump actually regret their decision - that most of them are concerned that he's going to get us into war, that there's significant concern about health care. And really, what we're seeing is health care has become a critical issue and whether or not Donald Trump is going to live up to his promises. And the answer so far is no.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, Guy Cecil is the head of the Democratic PAC, Priorities USA. And Kevin McLaughlin is a principal at the lobbying firm the Podesta Group. Thanks for coming in.
CECIL: Thank you.
MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.