U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly on election night 2016. His 2018 reelection campaign could get a boost if President Trump continues to struggle. (HPI Photo by Mark Curry)
U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly on election night 2016. His 2018 reelection campaign could get a boost if President Trump continues to struggle. (HPI Photo by Mark Curry)
WASHINGTON – The 2018 midterm elections are still a year and a half away, but Republicans in Washington are beginning to panic about their prospects. With questions about Russian interference and possible collusion connected to the 2016 Trump campaign on the rise, and the president’s approval ratings sinking, some political forecasters predict a big Democratic year.
President Trump’s Russia imbroglio alone might be enough to deliver Democrats big gains. The almost mind-blowing cascade of revelations has some rattled Republicans already distancing themselves from the new president. The president’s firing of FBI Director James Coming opened a floodgate of administration leaks that threaten to overwhelm his presidency. The naming of special prosecutor Robert Mueller to oversee the Russia probe may portent its eventual unraveling.
Republican congressional leadership is said to be sticking to Trump for fear of jeopardizing their agenda, specifically repealing Obamacare and overhauling the tax code. But it is those very policies that may prove to be their greatest liability in 2018. The Trump budget includes cuts so draconian that even Senate Republicans like Lindsay Graham have blasted it. Those cuts are to be paid for by yet more tax breaks for the wealthy. Meanwhile, the House Republicans’ version of “repeal and replace” will eliminate health care for 23 million Americans according to the Congressional Budget Office, and empower the big insurance companies to make key health care decisions rather than doctors and patients.
Republicans begin this off-year election at a distinct disadvantage. The president’s party typically loses seats in Congress. Success of the party out of power is tied to the popularity of the president. The average mid-term House pick-up by the party out of power is 36 when the president’s approval rating is below 50%. Trump’s approval rating has been hovering around the historically low 40%.
Democrats need to win 23 more House seats to regain the majority, which happens to be the exact number of seats held by Republicans that Hillary Clinton won.     
More importantly for 2018, as pointed out by the blog fivethirty-eight.com, Democrats don’t need to win over Trump voters. Trump won more than 50% of the vote in just 205 of the 435 House districts. If Republican candidates won every one of those 205 districts but lost the others, Democrats would win the House majority with a total of 230 seats. How independents vote in 2018 and whether Democrats turn out will be as important, if not more, than whether Trump’s base votes Republican.
Special elections in Montana and Georgia over the next several weeks for House seats that are traditionally Republican will provide a bellwether of how Trump’s presidency is playing outside of Washington.  Losses in one or both of those races could impact what names appear on ballots in key races next year. Incumbents who are considering retirement might call it quits if they sense a political wave.
While political handicappers are revising their forecasts for 2018, no Indiana House seats appear on lists of competitive races.  That is partly the consequence of gerrymandered districts. The 2nd, 8th, and 9th congressional districts in Indiana are historically competitive, but not much since Republicans redrew new lines in 2011. In addition, the 8th and 9th districts in southern Indiana have been trending away from their Democratic roots for more than a decade.
To get those races competitive again, Hoosier Democrats should look to the 1980s for models. State Republicans drew Indiana congressional districts in 1981 to protect their party’s candidates, just as they did in 2011. Nonetheless, Democrats used midterm and special elections to overcome the odds, ending up with eight of Indiana’s 10 seats after the 1990 election. One key in making those districts competitive was the quality of candidates.  Democrats Frank McCloskey in 1982, Jim Jontz in 1986, Jill Long in 1989, and Tim Roemer in 1990 were all strong candidates who skillfully ran against the incumbent party while generating high base-voter turnout. No Democrats of that caliber have yet emerged in the 2nd, 8th, or 9th districts. But if top-tier candidates run, those seats could be in play in 2018.
While Democrats appear to have a legitimate shot at retaking control of the U.S. House of Representatives, the odds of recapturing the U.S. Senate are long. That’s because Trump carried 10 states where Democratic senators are up for reelection. There are precious few Republican-held states where Democrats have a possibility of a Senate pickup, although Nevada, which Hillary Clinton carried, is a possibility.
One of those 10 states is Indiana, where Senator Joe Donnelly hopes to continue a streak of good fortune. Donnelly lost his first couple of attempts at public office. But after losing to incumbent Chris Chocola in 2004, Donnelly has ridden both Democratic waves and withstood Republican routs.  His 2012 win over the hapless Richard Mourdock for the Senate seat held by Dick Lugar was the first time a Hoosier Democrat won a Republican held congressional seat, House or Senate, in a presidential year since Lee Hamilton and Andy Jacobs were swept into office by the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964. Donnelly comes across as genuine, is likable, and has demonstrated independence from Democratic leadership. He is visibly a hardworking senator in a state that believes in hard work.
Donnelly’s apparent vulnerability has attracted interest from several Republicans. Two Republican House members considering challenging Donnelly, Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, are raising money for a possible Senate race, but might have second thoughts about giving up relatively safe seats if a Democratic wave seems to be developing. They have until January 2018 to decide. Donnelly would be a tough out even in a more Republican friendly environment.
Republicans are in a particularly peculiar place this cycle. They have been defending the indefensible, most particularly Trump’s attempts at covering up the Russia scandal. But they are also pushing unpopular policies, such a health care “fix” that takes away health care from millions and allows for the denial of care for pre-existing conditions.
The nation’s political dynamics are too fluid for either side to feel confident about the public mood in November 2018. For that reason, Democrats need to keep the heat on Trump. They also need to articulate a compelling positive message, something Hillary Clinton’s campaign failed to do in 2016.
But for now, the wind is completely at the back of the Democrats.

Sautter is a Democratic consultant based in Washington.