President Donald Trump is close to being impeached by the House. His party just lost two gubernatorial races in conservative states and control of the Virginia Legislature. House Republicans have been stampeding toward retirement.
It looks like Democrats are on a roll, but you wouldn’t know it from the high-anxiety mood of the party.
Republicans are no calmer. They worry about their mercurial president and the impact he could have on races down the ballot in 2020. Party strategists doubt they can win back a majority in the House. Some fear they could lose control of the Senate.
The result, as Washington moves toward an impeachment showdown, is a rare chapter in American politics when members of both parties seem wracked with insecurity.
Among Democrats, there’s been no dancing in the streets to celebrate this month’s off-year elections nor giddy relief after the impeachment hearings, which ended Thursday, went about as well as Democrats dared hope.
Instead, some Democrats are wringing their hands about their presidential candidate field, encouraging new candidates to jump in. Former President Barack Obama has warned Democrats that they risk losing it all in 2020 if they tack too far to the left, while progressives fear Trump will win if Democrats nominate a “safe” but uninspiring centrist.
Throughout the party, people are still spooked by Trump’s upset victory in 2016 and don’t want to take anything for granted.
“People are terrified, and we don’t want to mess up again,” said Jane Kleeb, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party. “We have learned our lesson. So you see people in all the states knocking on doors, and not high-fiving each other.”
Republicans are sifting through off-year election results that spotlighted the party’s rapid decline in suburbs that were once a cornerstone of their coalition. Democratic victories in Virginia, Kentucky and Louisiana were powered by strong showings in the collar counties of places like Richmond, Louisville and New Orleans.
“The suburbs are burning,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president of Republican Main Street Partnership, a group that backs the dwindling band of GOP moderates. “We see more and more suburbs going Democratic, and we are not giving them a reason to vote for Republicans.”
The anxiety on both sides is a departure from the political norm. Usually one party or the other has a clear upper hand – especially when an incumbent is running for reelection. Trump is one of the most vulnerable incumbents to seek reelection since the Great Depression in the 1930s: His approval rating has remained stuck below 50% for the entirety of his presidency.
Jeff Horwitt, a Democratic pollster with Hart Research, said the 2016 election results gave both parties cause for concern because, while Trump won the Electoral College, Hillary Clinton got more votes.
“Democrats lost the White House, and Republicans lost the popular vote,” said Horwitt. “If 2016 was a referendum on Hillary Clinton and the establishment, 2020 promises to be a referendum on Donald Trump, and Republicans have good reason to be anxious about their chances next year.”
It is too soon to say whether the impeachment hearings will affect that, but it is already clear that the deepest political fears of both sides have not been realized.
Democrats have not experienced the political backlash some feared from launching their impeachment inquiry. Neither have the hearings produced narrative-changing revelations that Republicans feared could force them to abandon the president.
Support for impeachment is higher than it was when Presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon were facing removal. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that Horwitt conducted in October found that 49% supported his impeachment, compared with 24% for Clinton and 38% for Nixon at comparable points. Trump’s job approval rating, 45%, was lower than Clinton’s but higher than Nixon’s.