Midterm Wildcards to Watch

Almost four and a half months out from Election Day, here is a list of potential October surprises that could play a role in determining the outcome. Because Republicans control the White House and both chambers of Congress, most of these developments would probably work against them politically.

The President’s Trade Wars

The United States government has been involved in an escalatory tit-for-tat feud with Canada, Mexico and the European Union on the subject of tariffs. They haven’t taken effect yet, but their impact (or lack thereof) should be known by November.  The available evidence from early news reports suggests that the tariffs imposed on the United States will specifically target states and voters Donald Trump won in the presidential election.  Here’s an example: according to the Des Moines Register, China’s tariffs on U.S. soybeans could cost Iowa farmers as much as $624 million, according to projected estimates from an Iowa State University economist.

The economy is currently at almost full employment, and there is little or nothing the U.S. government can do to stimulate it further in light of last year’s tax cut.  If it takes a tumble in the late summer or early fall as a consequence of trade wars, voters may take it out on President Trump or his party.

The Mueller Investigation

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is now in jail after charges of witness tampering, will go on criminal trial in two jurisdictions in the second half of this year.  As of this writing, his trial in Virginia is scheduled to begin on July 25, and his trial in Washington DC is scheduled to begin on September 17. Assuming he goes through with both trials and does not work out a plea deal with federal prosecutors, potentially embarrassing revelations about the Trump presidential campaign could come out during the course of testimony and cross-examination in either trial.

Beyond that, it is not known if more indictments or plea deals are coming in connection with the case. Mueller’s office has been notoriously leak proof. Most reporters have gotten their scoops from talking to witnesses or lawyers involved in the case, or from keeping a close eye on the case docket for new legal filings from Mueller’s office.  Journalists and pundits who have been following the case are expecting an indictment in connection with the 2016 hacking of the Democrats’ emails and communications.

It’s unclear if the 60-day rule that James Comey ignored during the Clinton email investigation would apply here. If it does, that means Mueller can’t issue any indictments or take any other major actions in the case after early September. However, since (as far as we know) he isn’t investigating or about to indict anyone running for elected office in November, it’s possible the rule doesn’t apply. If Manafort’s DC trial begins as scheduled on September 17, assuming it takes several weeks it could potentially wrap up in October with a grand jury decision shortly after, before Election Day.

There is also an army of journalists working around the clock trying to find new scoops to report on the investigation, and they aren’t bound by any 60-day rule or fears of impacting an election.

North Korea

President Trump invested an enormous amount of political capital in his summit with Kim Jong Un, and tries to tout it as a great success that he can run on in the midterms. However, the North Koreans have a long reputation for not upholding their end of previous bargains. Most North Korea observers wouldn’t count on much of anything on the basis of Kim Jong Un’s word, though it is unlikely he would do anything to antagonize Trump in light of what was a very successful summit from the North Korean perspective.

For what it’s worth, North Korea has previously done three nuclear tests (2006, 2016, 2017) in the weeks leading up to U.S. elections, although there is no evidence that the timing was politically motivated in terms of influencing a U.S. domestic audience. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the 2016 test coincided with the 68th anniversary of North Korea’s founding.

Separation of Immigrant Families

This story has exploded within the past week or so and is only going to get bigger. The optics and morality of this policy have been condemned by members of both parties. Former first lady Laura Bush explicitly compared it to Japanese internment policy during World War II.  Making it worse is the messaging incoherence of the administration, which is simultaneously arguing that 1) it’s the Democrats’ fault (President Trump), 2) it is a policy that is explicitly meant to deter illegal immigration (Attorney General Jeff Sessions, White House aides Stephen Miller and John Kelly), and 3) there is no policy (Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen). The optics of members of Congress being blocked from inspecting facilities are also not good. Remember, they have a right and responsibility to do so because these facilities are run by the Department of Health and Human Services.

More of these detention centers are being set up, just as peak summer temperatures are about to hit in border states like Texas. One senior administration official projected that as many as 30,000 children could be in these facilities by the end of the summer. If this situation isn’t resolved before November, assume that like the airports during the Muslim ban controversy, these detention centers will become flashpoints for public protests.  There are also key elections in border states which could be impacted by the politics of this issue – House races in California, the Senate and governor’s races in Arizona, and the Senate and House races in Texas.

School Shootings

Historically, young voters have been the least reliable age demographic in getting out to the polls. That may change this year in no small part because of the efforts of the Parkland shooting survivors, who have made it their mission to take on the gun lobby and politicians who won’t pass gun control measures. They are currently focusing on registering young voters who will be of voting age for the November midterms. If (God forbid) another shooting happens during the runup to Election Day, the gun control issue could become highly salient and a very powerful closing argument.

If you want proof that the Parkland students have had an impact in reframing and reshaping the gun control debate in ways that others haven’t, here it is: the NRA took down from its website the old grades it had given to lawmakers.

Supreme Court Vacancy

As was the case in 2016, a surprise vacancy on the Supreme Court – especially if it’s swing justice Anthony Kennedy or a liberal justice like Ruth Bader Ginsburg – would fire up conservative voters who might otherwise have stayed home. Few issues mobilize conservatives like judges, which will be one of Donald Trump’s lasting legacies long after he leaves the presidency.

Author: David de Sola

Editor/Publisher Political Wilderness

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