Trump’s the issue, but congressional math matters – especially Maine

Last week, President Trump traveled to Europe, jumped into British politics, patronized the Irish Prime Minister and attacked House Speaker Pelosi while he sat in front of American war graves at Normandy.

It’s no surprise that Democrats and “Never Trumpers” want to see him defeated next year.  But Trump won’t be the sole focus of the 2020 campaign.  Most Democratic presidential hopefuls are trying to keep voters’ attention on issues.  And much will depend on congressional races.

In fact, Republicans may focus more on Trump than will the Democrats.  Because he has broad backing within his party, they strongly support his reelection with its possible coattail effect for their congressional candidates.  If the party controls the presidency and the House or Senate, it rules.

For the Democrats, there’s a dilemma.  Should they try to unify around a progressive platform or seek to draw moderate voters away from Trump Republicans?  It’s less about Trump than a focus on the political math.  In that calculation, Maine matters.

Looking at the House of Representatives, in 2018 the Democrats picked up a surprising number of seats in formerly GOP districts.  Not only was the vote about Trump, but it reflected reduced ability of Republican state legislatures to gerrymander, resulting in more fairly designed districts.

The GOP will target first-term Democrats like Maine’s Second District Representative Jared Golden.  He has remained independent of his party’s liberal wing in hopes of boosting his narrow margin in last year’s election.

Even state legislative races will matter to congressional math.  The new legislatures will draw House district lines for the next 10 years.  Republicans have benefited in recent decades, but their gains could be reduced or erased by Democratic legislatures or neutral redistricting commissions.

Politically influenced district lines exist all over the country.  Even with just two districts in Maine, redrawing the line could improve Democratic chances of holding both House seats.  Moving some of the party’s voters into the Second District could also reduce the chances of the GOP picking up one of the state’s electoral votes.

As for the U.S. Senate, Democrats held 25 of the 35 contested seats in the 2018 elections.  They surprised the pundits, losing only a net two seats.  The GOP gained only a 53-47 majority.

Next year, the situation flips with 22 GOP seats up for grabs out of 34 to be contested.  The Democrats may find that picking up the four seats needed for a safe majority will be difficult.  Much depends on the mood of the voters, incumbents’ records and turnout, especially among African Americans, women and the young.

Sen. Susan Collins is considered vulnerable because of her vote to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the plentiful Democratic money that could match her large war chest.  She remains popular, so much depends upon whether the Democrats can field a strong candidate.

Collins’s election could prove to be a key factor in the battle for the Senate control.  If the Democrats fail to win a majority, Mitch McConnell would remain in charge, assuming he holds onto his own seat in Kentucky.  He needs Collins’ support.

This congressional math suggests that there will be more to the elections next year than an up-or-down vote on Trump.  But the media will keep him the focus.

The Democrats seek to win by attacking his trade tactics that cost jobs and raised prices and the GOP tax cuts favoring the wealthy.  They believe his backing can be stripped away by showing his supporters that they have been hurt by his policies.

That means Democrats may avoid making their main focus his lack of truthfulness or treatment of women, because such arguments will not necessarily move his backers.

The Republican Party is now almost totally Trump’s and he enjoys overwhelming popularity within his party.  His political challenge is how far beyond the party, whose supporters number less than either Democrats or independents, his appeal extends.  He cannot win without votes from more than Republicans.

Trump relishes the challenge and stays on message.  While he must avoid alienating his congressional allies, he pushes the limits of traditional constraints on presidential action.

His brash style seems to remain popular with many voters.  Still, Trump’s 2016 victory may owe more to a Democratic candidate who failed to inspire her party’s faithful in key states like Pennsylvania and Michigan than to his appeal.

In 2020, while the Democrats’ policies emphasize women, the young, consumers and the environment, he believes he could benefit from the extended economic recovery, immigration fears and nostalgia for the America of yesteryear.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.