WASHINGTON, DC – In American politics, the next election is all that matters. Despite the Republicans’ big win in November 2016, US President Donald Trump’s ability to pass legislation still depends on what congressional Republicans expect to see happen in the November 2018 midterm election. Owing to a major shift in public sentiment in the past few months, many Democrats are now convinced that they will win seats, and potentially reclaim control of the House of Representatives.
One can already see grassroots activism gaining momentum in congressional districts that would not have seemed competitive just five months ago. For example, in California’s 45th district (in the traditionally conservative Orange County), University of California, Irvine, law professor Dave Min is taking on the incumbent Republican, Mimi Walters. This past November, Walters was reelected with 58.6% of the vote, but her district favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by two percentage points.
This kind of House seat can easily flip to the Democrats in 2018, if a candidate like Min can persuade voters that Walters is out of touch – and too close to Trump. So Min has highlighted Walters’ support for Trump’s attempt to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), as well as her backing for his broader budget-cutting agenda. Moreover, her positions on many social issues seem quite distant from those of her constituency.
Min’s catchphrase has become “Where’s Mimi?”, because Walters has always seemed to avoid town hall meetings with constituents, even before growing anti-Trump anger made such occasions especially awkward for Republicans. And the anti-Trump protests occurring throughout the country have been sustaining their energy.
Indeed, recent special elections in Kansas and Georgia showed that no Republican seat is necessarily safe. In the race for Kansas’s 4th district seat, the Republican candidate Ron Estes won by less than ten percentage points in a constituency that Trump carried by 27 – and only after the national party was forced to mobilize massive resources on his behalf. And in the race for Georgia’s 6th district seat, Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, gained more votes than any other candidate, falling just short of the 50% threshold that he needed to win outright.
The Georgia special election will now be decided in a runoff. And yet the ultimate result doesn’t really matter, because the general swing in support away from Republicans is already evident. The Democrats need to flip only 24 seats to regain control of the House. Right now, that seems entirely feasible.
Trump, meanwhile, is unwittingly energizing the opposition by doubling down on his policies. He may attempt, yet again, to repeal Obamacare. He is proposing tax cuts for the rich that will significantly increase deficits and the national debt. And he is pursuing various forms of financial deregulation – either through legislation, or by appointing regulators who are prone to capture – that will favor big banks.
In the early days of Trump’s presidency, it looked as though he could receive some support from congressional Democrats who were worried about 2018. Now, that dynamic has been completely reversed. Any Democrat who is up for reelection in 2018 will be standing firmly against Trump.
Without Democratic support, Trump will have a hard time passing the legislation that he has chosen to define his presidency. If parts of his legislative program do pass, they will become a further source of grievance, and candidates like Min will likely receive more donations. At the same time, if parts of his legislative program fail, Republican incumbents like Walters will look weak and ineffective.
To be sure, Republican incumbents will be raising a great deal of money, so the outcome of the 2018 midterm election is not a foregone conclusion. But Democratic fundraising will also be strong, and Democratic challengers in places like California’s 45th district will attract money and volunteers from around the country, not least with the help of new political technologies.
Groups such as Credo Action – the advocacy arm of a progressive mobile-phone company that uses its revenues to support five million activists – are already showing the way. Credo Action’s website includes an easy-to-use menu to express one’s support on a range of issues.
Likewise, Run for Something is working to fill the pipeline of Democratic candidates at all levels. Flippable is focusing specifically on seats that can be reclaimed (although they might want to add California’s 45th district). And Indivisible is distributing an already widely read guide for resisting Trump, with an emphasis on grassroots advocacy and community organizing.
These and many other progressive voter-mobilization efforts overlap in certain ways, and they are all competing for attention. The buzz of new organization and strategies recalls nothing so much as a dynamic start-up industry with many new entrants, which, in a sense, is exactly what the anti-Trump resistance has become.
The difference, of course, is that, rather than competing to make money, these organizations are encouraging civic engagement, and trying to get more people to vote for Democrats as a rebuke to Trump. This competitive process is already laying the groundwork for more effective political activism not just in 2018, but also in 2020, when the forces emerging today will seek to disrupt Trump himself.
Simon Johnson is a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the co-author of White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You.
By Simon Johnson