Recap: Charlie Cook on the 2018 Midterms

“All politics is local.”

So said former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil. The phrase means that, to succeed in politics, a politician must appeal to the mundane, everyday, and indeed local concerns of his or her constituents.  

But political analyst Charlie Cook, who spoke to National Journal members on March 7th, has a variation on the old adage: “All politics is local, except when it’s not.”

This year may be a time when it’s not.

Download Charlie Cook’s Midterm Update

As Cook pointed out, the fundamentals of the upcoming midterm elections suggest a good year for Republicans. The economy is strong, and we aren’t at war. Historically speaking, these two factors should be enough for the party in power to maintain, if not expand, its position.

However, in the current political environment, there is one factor that supersedes local concerns, economic prosperity, and peace: the unpopularity of Donald Trump. Almost half the populace strongly disapproves of the president, and no amount of GDP growth is going to change their minds. Because of this intense opposition, the ceiling on President Trump’s approval rating is low.

As Cook also noted, midterms are a referendum on the party in power, and many voters won’t differentiate between Congress and the president. This means that an unpopular president will weigh down his whole party on election day. That, along with strong Democratic enthusiasm (Democratic candidates are registering in record numbers), means a blue wave could be in the making.

“A Democratic wave vs. the Republican sea wall”

There is reason for Republicans to not despair. Although momentum is behind them, Democrats still have an uphill battle to take control of Congress. In the Senate, many more Democrats than Republicans must defend their seats, including 10 in states that Trump won, and  five in states that Trump won by double digits. There is only one Republican senator running for reelection in a state that Clinton won: Dean Heller of Nevada. Charlie Cook puts the Democrats’ chances of flipping the Senate at 25-35 percent.

Because all House seats are up for election every cycle, chances of flipping the House are higher. Cook puts the probability at about 60 percent. Still, there are mitigating factors. Population distribution favors Republicans, because Democratic voters tend to live in urban areas and are therefore not efficiently allocated across districts. Gerrymandering also favors the GOP, as a strong electoral performance in 2010 meant Republicans had the opportunity to draw most of the current congressional districts. All of these factors amount to a Republican sea wall, standing tall against the wave.

The question is, which will be higher: the wave or the wall?

If you’d like more analysis from Charlie Cook, click here to download this presentation on the 2018 midterms.