Friday, June 23, 2017

The Real Reason Mitch McConnell is Rushing the GOP Health Care Bill

Tom thinks Mitch is crafting a winning strategy.  By losing fast.

Mitch McConnell, as canny a pro on Capitol Hill as there is, has developed a novel strategy for the Senate version of the GOP health care bill – the long bomb. 

If you get football, here it is.  We’re in overtime after seven years of playing.  Mitch finally has the ball.  He takes over on his own 20-yard line and has decided he is going to run only one play, going for broke, the bomb.  No sustained drive for him.  He’s not even calling a huddle.  He’s hoping his team is on the same page and everything breaks correctly, and the Opposition is caught flatfooted.  If he wins, he wins, if he loses, he’s not even going to try another play.

If you don’t get football, here are the politics.  Draft the bill in private in a working group (13 white guys); spring it on the rest of the Senate as late as possible; don’t allow a committee to touch it and hold open hearings; and push for a vote in a week, that is, before the July 4 recess.  Assuming you can get your 50 votes, losing at most two of your own, then you use the summer to work out a compromise on the bill with the House, not lose anyone from either the Senate or the House in the process, and get a final bill on Trump’s desk for signing.

The presumed reason for such a process has been widely reported.  Everyone knows the bill is a dog, that 20+ million Americans will lose coverage under TrumpCare over time, that premiums will soar in the early years, and that the GOP would face, in 2018, ad after ad featuring real Americans who lost coverage with TrumpCare and were either economically ruined or died for lack of care.  Twenty million stories are a lot to choose from.  The McConnell process is based on the premise, the less said about it the better.  And more to the point, the less scrutiny, the fewer horrific headlines about the bill, and, if you avoid a hurricane of blowback, you just might entice enough Senators to sign on based on the notion of “promises kept.”

It’s cynical and appalling, but nobody ever mistook Mitch McConnell for Gandhi or King.  This is not about righteousness.  He is a sneaky bastard, and he wants to win.  Very badly.  And winning, for him, means:  1) winning reelection, 2) keeping his post as Majority Leader, which implies 3) holding on to the GOP majority in the Senate.  And he will craft precise legislative strategies to, in his cold assessment, maximize his odds of achieving these goals.

But there is another reason for the "going fast " strategy, that is not receiving any play, and that is, going fast is the best strategy for McConnell in the event the bill fails.

McConnell has said the vote will be by July 4, and if it fails, there will be no other attempt.  Because if he pursues this strategy and loses, then it’s all over.  McConnell can say the GOP gave it the good fight, and while the defeat stings, ultimately no one gets hurt by this monstrosity of a bill, and I’ve still got 16 months to get tax reform and infrastructure reform done, and the GOP faithful will surely conclude two out of three ain’t bad.  He wants to get on to win/win legislation, and get away from lose/lose losers like health care has proven to be.

By moving fast, and cutting his losses, McConnell might win even if he loses.  In fact, knowing full well what a rotten bill this is, he may even prefer that outcome.  Here’s why.

In 2018, the GOP has an incredibly friendly Senate map.   They have 52 seats right now, and one might think they are at a huge risk of losing three or more seats and thus losing control to the Dems.  But actually it is not likely they are going to lose the Senate at all, even with a weak Trump.  There are only nine GOP Senators that are up for reelection in 2018 and, realistically, only two of them are truly vulnerable, Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake in Arizona.  The other seven won their last race by +17 or more points, and all are in Deep Red states.   Even if Heller and Flake lost, the Dems have to hold onto all of their seats (including 10 in states Trump won), and even then it would not be enough – that would result in a 50/50 split with Pence still the tiebreaking vote.  So it would take an utter catastrophe for the GOP to lose the Senate.

So, if you are McConnell, which health care bill scenario is more likely to result in catastrophe, among the two bad options?  Failing to pass the bill (very disappointing!) or passing the bill (20 million Americans actually lose health insurance!  Huge premium increases actually happen!  All those horrible ads get aired!)?  It is no contest.  The better option is to lose.

And that is why there will be no second play. The bill will be voted up or down before July 4.  If the GOP loses, then they l will salvage the next 16 months and begin work on something – anything – that may hold more promise for a legislative win.  Because Mitch McConnell wants to be done with health care once and for all.  He wants to move on.  He does not want to tie up Senate time for months on end, for the balance of 2017, trying to solve a Rubik’s cube that has no answer. If he is going to lose, he wants to lose quickly.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Real Lesson From Georgia and the Special Elections

Tom goes to the numbers to take issue with the post-Georgia spin.

Anyone who thinks the mainstream media relentlessly charges after the anti-Trump/liberal version of any political story is mistaken.  To wit – the coverage of the Democrats’ loss in Georgia’s 6th District, and South Carolina’s 5th as well. The headlines have been all about the GOP’s clean sweep of the four special elections, the disarray of the Democratic Party, the inability to translate Trump’s unpopularity into seat flips.  And they have juicy quotes from the anti-Pelosi faction of the Democratic Party, a group who were already screaming for her head.

Now, the Dems may indeed need a coherent message; they certainly have to resolve their moderate/liberal-wing split; and perhaps Pelosi should step down as the too-San Francisco symbol of the Dems.  But none of those represent “lessons” of the special elections.

The real lesson of the special elections is this: the GOP is in big trouble in 2018, barring a dramatic turnaround in Trump’s performance or major legislative wins.

Why is that the true lesson?

Because the four districts in question were extremely Solid Red districts.  None was remotely contested last November.  The GOP candidate in November in each district won handily.  The real news was the dramatic narrowing of the margin in the special elections versus those November elections.

State/ Dist.
Nov. 2016 Winner
Nov. 2016 Outcome
Spring  2017 Winner
Spring 2017 Outcome
Margin Difference
Pompeo (R)
R + 31
Estes (R)
R + 7
Zinke (R)
R + 15
Gianforte (R)
R + 6
GA 6
Price (R)
R + 24
Handel (R)
R + 4
SC 5
Mulvaney (R)
R + 20
Norman (R)
R + 3

R + 23

R + 5

As you can see, the GOP won those four elections in November by an average of +23 points.  No one was targeting those elections for flips; these races did not occupy one second of Chuck Todd’s or John King’s coverage; no model was run at BTRTN or FiveThirtyEight to determine who was going to win; and no one had to stay up late to learn the outcome.

But in the special elections, the margin of victory dropped to single digits in each race, an average of only +5 points.  This means the gap narrowed by a full 18 percentage points, and each of these elections was, indeed, a contested race.  The fact that the GOP won them all is not the story.  The story is the margin.

How significant is that 18-point narrowing of the gap?  We all know that a great deal can happen in the next 16 months, before the midterms.  But things better improve for the GOP, because if that 18-point improvement holds for the Dems, they would pick up 49 seats and easily retake the House.  Yes, 49 GOP members won their elections by less than 18 points.  That is more than double the number of flips the Dems need.

As it happens, that number of flips – 49 -- is not far off what our models suggest based on the current generic ballot polling.  The most recent polls have the Dems up +6 over the GOP, and our model suggests this gap, if it is still +6 at midterm time, would result in a pickup of +45 seats for the Dems.  And this also is consistent with the lessons of history; unpopular first-term presidents have a tendency to get crushed in their first midterms:  Bill Clinton, with a 46% approval rating, lost 54 seats in 1994; Barack Obama, with a 45% approval rating, lost 63.  Note:  Donald Trump’s approval rating (using Gallup, for consistency), is now 37%.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Georgia on My Mind: Can the Dems Finally Flip a Special Election Seat?

The last two of five special elections in the House of Representatives will occur tomorrow, June 20, the very high visibility race for Georgia’s 6th District and the less publicized (and likely one-sided) contest for South Carolina’s 5th District.  To refresh, these elections are required because Trump named four House members to his Cabinet, and a fifth, a California Democrat, was named that state’s Attorney General.  Many eyes are focused on these races as referendums on the state of the Trump presidency (and this is a legitimate thought) and also as a predictor of the 2018 midterms (this perhaps far less so given we have 16+ months to go).  Here are the five in chart form:

State/ Dist.
Nov. 2016          Outcome
Trump vs   Clinton
General Election
Opponents                     (D versus R exc Cal)
Pompeo (R)
R + 31
R + 27
Apr 11
Thompson - Estes
R + 7
Zinke (R)
R + 15
R + 20
May 25
Quist  - Gianforte
R+ 6
CAL 34
Bacerra (D)
D + 100
D + 73
Jun 6
Gomez (D) - Ahn (D)
D +100
GA 6
Price (R)
R + 24
R + 1
Jun 20
Ossoff - Handel
SC 5
Mulvaney (R)
R + 20
R + 18
Jun 20
Parnell - Norman

The GOP has managed to hang on thus far, but the races in Kansas and Montana were far closer than their November counterparts.  Republican Ron Estes won Kansas’ 4th District by a mere +7 points, just six months after Mike Pompeo won the same seat by +31 and Donald Trump took the district by +27.  And in a race notable mainly for the winning candidate body slamming a reporter the night before Election Day, Republican Greg Gianforte managed to beat the less-than-optimal Democratic challenger Rob Quist by only +6 points, far closer than Ryan Zinke’s +15 point win and Donald Trump’s +20 margin in November.  Clearly, the GOP is on the defensive; both of those seats were considered “Solid Red” and would not have typically hit the radar screen as contested, “flippable” seats.

California’s 34th was truly uncontested, as two Democrats finished 1-2 in the primary and thus claimed 100% of the votes in the run-off election.  Jimmy Gomez beat fellow Democrat Robert Lee Ahn to succeed Xavier Bacerra.

On to tomorrow’s races where virtually all of the national focus will be on Georgia.

South Carolina’s 5th District

Let’s start (and quickly dispense with) South Carolina’s 5th district, which does not appear to be following the Kansas/Montana pattern, though we will see on Election Day.  Mark Mulvaney vacated this district when he was named Trump’s director of the OMB.  It will be a contest between Republican Ralph Norman and Democrat Archie Parnell.

Norman is a former GOP state representative who had a doozie of a primary season with Tommy Pope, another former GOP state rep.  In the first primary, Pope finished ahead of Norman 30.4% to 30.1%, with neither coming close to hitting the 50% mark, thereby necessitating a run-off primary.  In that contest, Norman turned the tables and won 50.3% to 49.7%, a razor-thin 221-vote margin that required a recount to confirm.  Parnell, a tax attorney, handily won the Democratic primary with 71% of the vote.

Like the Kansas and Montana races, this is Solid Red country.  Mulvaney won his race by +20 points, and Trump carried the district by +18 in November, 2016.  But unlike those races, this one seems to be heading toward an easy win for Norman and the GOP.  There has been only one recent poll, and it had Norman up by +17 over Parnell.

Georgia’s 6th District

This is the heavyweight battle, featuring Democratic hopeful Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel in a race that has been both remarkably well-funded and exceptionally tight.

This was Tom Price’s seat, Trump’s director of Health and Human Services (yes, the same guy who has apparently yet to see the Senate’s version of the health care bill, even though he is allegedly the expert as well as the person responsible for national health care policy – but I digress).  Price won the seat in November by a comfortable +24 points margin.

But the Democrat’s initial optimism, and the reason it drew so much attention in the primary in April, was due to Hillary Clinton’s strong showing in the district in 2016 relative to that of Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008.  She lost to Trump by only a single point, 48/47.  Obama, on the other hand, was defeated by +18 points by John McCain in 2008 and +23 points by Mitt Romney in 2012. 

And even though Price won comfortably in November 2016, by +23 points, that margin was slightly tighter than his wins in 2014 (+32) and 2012 (+29).  All of this, plus the rather disastrous start to the Trump administration and Price’s own failure as a key player in the “replace and repeal Obamacare” debacle, led to initial Dem optimism that they could win here.

And how close Ossoff, a political neophyte who had been a Hill staffer and more recently a film documentarian, came to pulling it off in the April primary!  With the nation watching, he easily outpaced a bloated 18-person field, winning 48% of the vote, just shy of the 50% required to have taken the seat outright and obviate the need for a runoff.

Thus he and Handel, who came in second with a mere 20% of the vote, will go head-to-head tomorrow in the runoff.  Remarkably, the other Democrats in the primary won only a single other point collectively, while the GOP candidates after Handel garnered 31%, so the total GOP vote was 51% to the Dems 49%.  Hence Handel’s challenge is to unify the GOP voters and hold on to that edge.  Handel served as Georgia’s Secretary of State from 2007 to 2010 (please do not ask me to explain what a state Secretary of State actually does).

Georgia’s 6th is comprised primarily of northern Atlanta suburbs, which have higher median incomes than the state as a whole as well as greater educational attainment.  It also has a reasonably significant minority population, roughly 25%.  An astonishing $50+ million has been spent on the race, with Ossoff having the advantage, having directly raised $23 million overall this year to Handel’s $4 million, though Handel has a slight edge in outside money.

Polling has been extensive.  There have been nine polls since mid-May and Ossoff has led in eight of them, and the other was a tie. On average the margin is Ossoff by about +2-3 points.  Three of those polls have been in the last week and they are remarkably consistent, with Ossoff leading in each, 50-49, 50-48 and 50-47.  It is notable that he achieved the 50% mark in each.  Also worth noting is that 140,000 ballots have already been cast; there were 326, 000 votes cast in total in November.

BTRTN believes that Ossoff will win the Georgia 6th election by a nose, 51/49, and that Norman will win the South Carolina 5th election by a healthy 58/42 margin.  The Georgia outcome will be viewed as an important victory for the Dems, and will reduce the GOP margin in the House to 240-195, meaning the Dems will have to flip 23 more seats to regain control of the House in 2018.

While the Dems will do cartwheels over a Georgia win, caution must be taken with respect to 2018.  As mentioned, the midterms are still 16 ½ months away, as our countdown clock shows, more than 500 days of tweets, investigations, potential legislation and unknown earthshaking events.  There is plenty of time for all outcomes to emerge, from a startling Trump comeback to a somber Pence presidency.

Having said that, the Dems are in the driver’s seat right now.  They hold a +6 lead in the generic ballot, which, according to our proprietary BTRTN model, would translate to a gain of 45 seats for the Dems, about double what they would need to regain the House.