It's always likely that a president's party will lose seats in his first midterm election. Even if the president is popular, those who won tight races on his coattails often face stiff opposition without him on the ballot. It doesn't always work that way, of course: Republicans actually won seats in George W. Bush's first midterm, a year after 9/11.
No matter who became president last year, 2018 was always assumed to be a tough election for Democrats. The GOP has successfully gerrymandered the House of Representatives to the point that Democrats can fail to win a majority even if they win the popular vote by a significant margin. The Senate favors Republicans, in any case, because of the undemocratic system that gives states with more cows and rocks than people the same number of senators as New York and California. This looked like a particularly brutal year because Democrats would be forced to defend 25 of their 48 seats (now 49), while Republicans only had eight seats up for election. And it's an ancient truism that older, white Republicans tend to vote more consistently in midterms, while Democrats often have trouble turning out their base.
But nothing about politics is predictable in the age of Trump, and so far the winds are blowing strongly in the Democrats' direction. Midterms are always somewhat of a referendum on the president, and Donald Trump is historically unpopular. The so-called generic ballot has favored the Democrats all year and the off-year elections have overwhelmingly gone Democratic, even in deep red states like Oklahoma and Alabama, or in districts Trump won easily.
Furthermore, Trump has just released a slash-and-burn budget with some items in it that could be lethal for Republicans if Democrats can exploit them. Obviously, his base will not be bothered by the deficit projections or the cuts to the safety net. His promise to spend wildly on unnecessary military hardware and his total lack of compassion for the poor are some of the things they like best about him.
But there are also a couple of items in there that should cause some serious heartburn for any Republican running in 2018: The Trump budget proposes $25 billion in cuts to Social Security and a staggering $554 billion to Medicare. It's one thing to take the food out of the mouths of low-income pre-schoolers, needless to say. But nobody cuts an old, white Republican's benefits and lives to tell about it. Nobody. The Democrats really don't have to get creative about this at all. They can simply repurpose Republican ads from the Tea Party election of 2010:
Considering the danger here, it's small wonder that Mick Mulvaney, the head of Trump's Office of Management and Budget, told reporters that the budget isn't to be taken literally. He described it as a "messaging" document, which is par for the course for a president who treats the job as a TV performance rather than a serious responsibility.
The Trump administration is, needless to say, a target-rich environment. That can be a mixed blessing. Former Trump campaign CEO and senior adviser Steve Bannon recently told Bloomberg's Michael Lewis: “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” He's wrong about saying that the Democrats don't matter, but he accurately describes what Trump is doing. And it's an important part of his strategy to win in 2018, to the extent he has one.
According to Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan of Axios, the Republicans all understand that Trump's $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan (actually just a $200 billion federal outlay, with the rest coming from the states) will never pass and that his $4 trillion budget reads like "science fiction." A Democratic strategist calls these initiatives "Potemkin legislation," which is roughly the same as Mick Mulvaney calling them "messaging documents."
Allen and Swan report that Trump is eager to get back out there and contribute in that special way only he can. He's going to rile up the base:
A source close to the White House tells me that with an eye to getting Republicans excited about voting for Republicans in midterms, the president this year will be looking for "unexpected cultural flashpoints" — like the NFL and kneeling — that he can latch onto in person and on Twitter.
This is all Trump really knows how to do in politics. And let's face facts -- he's good at it. He has a feeling for white America's ugliest impulses and he gives millions of people permission to let their freak flags fly. It brought him to the White House, so he almost certainly believes he can save the GOP majority by getting out on the road on behalf of members of Congress. It's unclear how many of them actually want his "help" during campaign season, but a lot of them seem to like his style and are backing him enthusiastically.
The question is what sorts of "unexpected cultural flashpoints" might give him the opportunity he needs. Obviously a terrorist attack would be a godsend for this purpose. He has reportedly wistfully mused about the aforementioned George W. Bush midterm of 2002, perhaps thinking ahead to how he might exploit a replay.
He would certainly be ready to react to any big Black Lives Matter or pro-immigrant demonstrations with angry rhetoric about "law and order" that would resonate with his older, white conservative base. The fact that his administration may be the most lawless in all of American history is irrelevant -- this slogan is, and always has been, about keeping control of protesters and people of color.
The NRA is working on its plan to make the whole country vulnerable to any state's inane concealed-carry laws. And who knows? Maybe House Republicans can even unleash their own special counsel dedicated to prosecuting Hillary Clinton. Nothing would thrill the base more than that.
It's possible this tactic will work for the Republicans again. But I wouldn't count on it. Flooding the zone with this ugly, angry rhetoric has an effect that Trump doesn't seem to understand. It riles up the base, for sure. But it also riles up the opposition. If the special elections of 2017 are any indication, every time Trump gives his base the red meat they crave, the Resistance says "bring it on" and signs up 20 new voters.