This is, says Charlie Cook, a really difficult time to talk about American politics.
“We are evenly, narrowly and bitterly divided. What once was stable, now isn’t,” Cook, founder and contributor to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report With Amy Walter, told a standing room-only Legislative Summit session on the midterm elections.
We are evenly, narrowly and bitterly divided. What once was stable, now isn’t. —Charlie Cook
Cook cited surveys showing 80% of Democrats agree with the statement that the GOP has been taken over by racists, and 82% of Republicans agree that the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists. Perhaps most telling, he said, was a survey showing 60% of Democrats and 63% of Republicans would not want their son or daughter to marry someone of the other party.
And that old bromide that all politics is local? “It’s not true. Almost all politics are national.”
Cook believes the Biden administration “has made some really big miscalculations that are going to cost Democrats a whole lot.”
“First is that it was a waste of time to negotiate with Republicans; that they weren’t going to negotiate in good faith and you lose valuable time,” he said. “In the House that probably was true, but in the Senate I’m not sure it would have been true. But the optics of having one pro forma meeting with (Sen. Mitt) Romney and eight other Republican senators and the next day starting the reconciliation process looked terrible given the way Biden had campaigned and became self-fulfilling. Even if there was a chance they might negotiate, if something was middle of the road, they wouldn’t now because of what you did at the front end of the process.”
Second, Biden’s team assumed the 2009 Obama stimulus package was too small, Cook said. “Most economists agree, the Obama people said that’s all we could get. Their assumption was because the last one was too small, we’re not going to make that mistake again. They went as big as they could even though the economy had improved.”
Third, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. People’s attitudes toward government spending had changed because of the coronavirus, Cook said, and Democrats assumed it was a green light to move forward with their agenda. Add to that the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters, and Democrats further assumed “Republicans would be on the defensive—that they could get more done because Republicans wouldn’t be able to oppose it as much.”
“(They made) the mistake of thinking they got a mandate,” he said. “The folks in the White House were somewhat arithmetically challenged. They seemed to think they had 60 seats in Senate when they only had 50.”
Look at the president’s low approval numbers, Cook said, and it’s easy to think things “are going to be biblical in the House.”
But past elections resulting in huge congressional gains “usually were coming off small numbers, but Republicans are coming off about as many seats as you could possibly have while still being in the minority. There is less growing room and because of redistricting, there are far fewer competitive districts. I think it will be rough losses for Democrats (in the House), but I’d be surprised if it was over 50 or 60 (seats), even though the macro numbers would suggest something like that.”
The Senate, deadlocked at 50-50, is more interesting to Cook.
“Democrats have four incumbent races (Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire and Nevada) where incumbents are not terribly problematic people. They don’t tend to be particularly accident-prone, not bringing in a lot of political baggage. Their problem is they’re wearing blue jerseys in a year that’s kind of bad for Democrats and a terrain that’s kind of bad.”
For Republicans, Cook said, the challenge is that in places where they are trying to gain seats, the geography is pretty good for them and the year is pretty good, “but they have some really problematic candidates, and their primary voters haven’t done the party any favors in some of the people they’ve nominated.”
The Former-President Factor
And no political discussion would be complete without weighing the effect of former President Donald Trump’s potential candidacy in 2024.
“I think 50% (of people who vote in Republican primaries) would vote for him because they would jump off the Grand Canyon and assume (a) he would catch them or (b) the experts are wrong and it’s really not that deep,” Cook said.
He said 20% of Republican voters would not vote for Trump in any case, and 30% of GOP voters who supported him in the past and approved of his policies are starting to have real questions about whether he is the best vehicle for the Republican Party going forward.
“I think you’re going to have a bunch of people running against him,” Cook said. “I’d still bet on him over any other individual person. But if I were him, I’d think twice about getting in because he’s going to have to fight like hell to get the nomination again for someone who probably thinks he ought to be coronated rather than win a primary.
“This 30% that have grave reservations about whether he should be in their future, if I were him, would give me real cause for concern.”
Winner-take-all Republican primary rules mean the more candidates who are dividing the non-Trump vote, the higher the percentage that he would ultimately prevail, if he runs.
“For him it’s certainly the more the merrier. I think you’re going to have a whole bunch of people running, and if I were him, I’d think twice about. But you can go broke betting on what Donald Trump is going to do.”
Mark Wolf is a senior editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.