Donald Trump is running for Congress – everywhere.
He is running on the outskirts of Sacramento and deep in the Central Valley. He’s running in four Orange County House districts and another that straddles Los Angeles and Ventura counties. He is running in suburban campaigns in New England and the upper Midwest, in newly-drawn districts in Pennsylvania and in hotly-contested races in Florida, Texas and Virginia.
While election law requires that the two parties put the names of the candidates themselves on the ballot, they are merely placeholders, political avatars representing the fiercest arguments for and against Trump. Every midterm election is a referendum on the incumbent president, but never in modern history has the nation’s chief executive so completely and overwhelmingly dominated the political landscape.
Trump is the single most motivating force in our politics –-- and in our culture and society as well. The question of whether he inspires his supporters or opponents more fervently will ultimately decide whether Republicans or Democrats control Congress for the next two years.
With rare exceptions, the party without the White House usually maintains a motivational advantage in midterm elections. Although the successful confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh could reinvigorate Republican loyalists, most traditional indicators suggest that Democratic voters are energized to turn out in unusually high numbers this fall.
College-educated women, who abandoned the GOP during the 2016 presidential campaign, are particularly enraged at Trump, and their growing focus on social and cultural matters over economic issues is pushing them hard toward Democratic congressional candidates.
But Trump has demonstrated a knack for motivating his own base, and he is fixated on rousing his white working-class male supporters with a steady diet of attacks against trade, immigration and other types of global engagement. It’s yet to be seen whether he will be able to build a physical wall on the U.S.–Mexico border during his time in office, but his rhetorical wall separating our country from the rest of the world was completed long ago.
In California, the greatest challenges for Trump’s Republican allies are clustered in the southern portion of the state. The seats vacated by the retirements of GOP stalwarts Ed Royce and Darrell Issa, as well as the competitive districts occupied by Mimi Walters and Steve Knight, are all in the types of suburban enclaves where mainstream conservative voters shied from Trump in 2016.
Perhaps the most endangered Republican seat is held by conservative iconoclast Dana Rohrbacher, whose unusual pro-Russia tendencies are causing him significant difficulties.
On the other hand, Central Valley Republican incumbents Jeff Denham and Tom McClintock benefit from a level of protection not available to their Southern California colleagues. Unlike the suburban districts where the GOP has relied on tax cuts and other economic measures to retain support in the post-Cold War era, Valley districts retain a cultural conservatism that Trump knows how to tap.
But the economy still matters: The question is whether Trump’s full-throated advocacy for oil drilling and coal mining and antipathy for environmental protection will matter more to these voters than his increasingly confrontational approach toward China on trade.
In the weeks before Nov. 6, congressional candidates in California and across the country will do everything they can to win over voters. But for most Americans, the two most important names will be Trump – and Not Trump.