Noah Harrison: Election wins should embolden Democrats

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 - 2:06am

Save for a special Senate race in Alabama, the 2017 election cycle has come and gone. With only a handful of governorships and state legislature seats up for election, the 2017 cycle will ultimately have a minimal immediate impact on the balance of power. Yet, it nonetheless provides a significant gauge of current political sentiments nearly a year into Donald Trump’s presidency. Furthermore, it validates the Democrats’ opposition to President Trump and congressional Republicans as a legitimate strategy. 

The Democratic Party assuaged many of the lingering concerns from their string of special election defeats earlier this year with a dominant performance. In the two most high-profile races of the night, the party reclaimed and retained the New Jersey and Virginia governorships. Though victory in New Jersey was widely expected, in Virginia, Democrat Ralph Northam won by nine points despite polls projecting a closer race.

Though less covered by the media, Democrats made massive gains in state legislatures, retaking the Washington state Senate and possibly gaining control of the Virginia House of Delegates, depending on the final vote tallies in several still-uncalled districts. This success in state elections is of particular interest to the Democratic National Committee, given the Democratic Party’s loss of over 1,000 state legislative seats nationwide since 2008.

Collectively, these victories will potentially yield dividends in 2020, when congressional districts are redrawn. Perhaps a more meaningful, if less tangible, result is the validation of the Democrats’ vigorous and unified opposition to the legislative agenda of President Trump and congressional Republicans.

This strategy most visibly manifested itself in the Democrats’ loud and bitter opposition to the Republican Party’s many efforts over the past year to “repeal and replace” Obamacare. None of the plans put forward by the GOP garnered any Democratic support, but rather prompted Democrats to launch a massive publicity campaign aimed at mobilizing the populace against the bill and securing the opposition of moderate Republicans like Susan Collins, John McCain and Lisa Murkowski.

Though it was the opposition of these moderate Republicans that ultimately doomed every iteration of the GOP’s health care bill to be put before the Senate, the coordinated and unified opposition of congressional Democrats certainly contributed. In fact, Sen. McCain, R-Ariz., whose eleventh-hour opposition killed one of the GOP’s most promising attempts, the “skinny repeal,” cited the universal opposition of Democrats as a reason for his position. He asserted that health care legislation should not be passed on “a party-line basis.” 

Furthermore, the extended battle over health care drew voters’ attention to the issue and sharply increased public opposition to GOP repeal-and-replace plans. Though GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare limped on into September, at this point, Obamacare portends to remain the law of the land for the foreseeable future.

Trump’s historically low approval ratings, coupled with the GOP’s equally abysmal favorability marks, had already lent credence to the tactics employed by Democrats during the health care debate. However, the past week’s elections further justified this strategy of defiant opposition and should give Democrats confidence in upcoming political battles, including the GOP’s proposed tax plan.

That tax plan, in which the Congressional Budget Office projects will add $1.7 trillion to the national debt and primarily benefit the wealthiest Americans, is ripe for criticism. Since the House and Senate have already passed budgets for 2018, Republicans do not seem poised to enact conservative tax reform.

Though tax reform would greatly please top Republican donors, it likely will be less well-received by the electorate as a whole, especially given that the bill could actually raise taxes on many middle-class Americans. Its potential passage portends to develop into another political liability that Democrats can exploit in 2018.

Though the notion that Democrats would be united and resolute in their opposition to Trump may seem obvious, Democrats often splintered during contentious debates over Trump’s nominees — even in the earlier months of the Trump administration, when Trump’s mandate was arguably at its peak. Understandably, red-state Democrats considered vulnerable in 2018 — such as Sens. Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — felt a need to protect themselves. They broke themselves party ranks to vote in favor of some of Trump’s more controversial Cabinet nominees like Jeff Sessions, Scott Pruitt and Ben Carson. These three senators were also the only Democrats to vote to confirm Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to Supreme Court.

Since these confirmation battles, Sens. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have successfully kept the party united. This task will presumably only get easier in the wake of last week’s elections, which should dispel notions about the Democratic Party’s supposed inability win elections.

The Democratic Party emerges from the 2017 elections with only marginally more political power, but a clear blueprint for the 2018 midterms and beyond. The Democrats are by no means guaranteed to perform well in 2018 — continued party infighting or unforeseen political developments could easily derail Democratic momentum. But the party can move forward emboldened with the knowledge that appeasing President Trump is unnecessary and perhaps even counterproductive to achieving electoral success.

These races were not direct referendums on the Trump administration or the GOP-controlled Congress, yet the Democratic sweep still reflects the President’s mandate to govern is weakening. Those dissatisfied with the current balance of power appear motivated, representing an ominous sign for Republicans. The Democratic Party should enter 2018 confident that their unwavering opposition to President Trump and his agenda will yield both legislative and electoral victories.

Noah Harrison can be reached at noahharr@umich.edu.