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Opinion: When the World of Politics Collides With the Real One

New political forces may impact midterms

The March for Our Lives rally demonstrated that millennials and young people may be a force to be reckoned with in the midterms, Mary C. Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The March for Our Lives rally demonstrated that millennials and young people may be a force to be reckoned with in the midterms, Mary C. Curtis writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It is months away from November 2018, but that doesn’t stop predictions not only for the midterms but also for President Donald Trump’s re-election chances in 2020. But while the world of politics is preoccupied with whether a blue wave is inevitable or a figment of hopeful Democrats’ imagination, events outside the bubble might shift the electorate in unpredictable ways.

My Roll Call colleague Walter Shapiro explains, with examples from recent history, how politically fraught these pre-election prognostications can be. It’s also wise to remember how life and politics can be determined by “moments,” despite what consultants who make a living steering candidates and campaigns may say. And right now, America is in the middle of moments that could challenge conventional electoral wisdom.

Take the millennials and young people who perpetually disappoint candidates to whom they pledge loyalty when that certainty turns to indifference and no-shows come election day, especially when that day occurs in a nonpresidential election year.

Will 2018 be different? I recently led a leadership and writing workshop of young women — from high school and middle school — who came into the room loaded with opinions and the facts to back them up; some had already worked on campaigns. They were well read and ready to lead, and vote, as soon as they were old enough.

A new force

That anecdotal evidence is backed up by the March for Our Lives for safer schools and gun control legislation, led partly but not exclusively by the survivors of the Feb. 14 shooting in a Parkland, Florida, high school. The diverse coalition of young people expanded the conversation to include the violence facing many in their neighborhoods as well as their schools. With voter registration tables, as well as planning for events to come, the day demonstrated the coalition-building and urgency.

Republicans and Democrats should also note one headline that few politicians from either party have commented on. When Starbucks reacted quickly to the viral video of two African-American men being led away in handcuffs from one of its coffee shops in a gentrifying Philadelphia neighborhood, it opened up yet another conversation on race relations in America and how far we have and have not come.

When the voters who twice elected President Barack Obama did not turn up in large enough numbers to push Hillary Clinton over the presidential finish line, it looked as though Republicans were wise to abandon their post-2012 strategy to reach out to communities of color. Instead, the GOP’s candidates concentrated on increasing turnout among white voters across geography and incomes to find a winning path, with white male voters and white evangelicals being their most supportive voting blocs.

Since then, Republicans have been mostly silent, with the occasional tut-tut, as the president has equated Nazis and counterprotesters in Charlottesville and continued to demonize Hispanics — native-born and immigrant alike — and has approved of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ push for ever harsher law enforcement and incarceration policies that fall most heavily on communities of color.

But video evidence increasingly reveals what people of color have long known, the troublesome and sometimes fatal interactions between police and African-American citizens. In Starbucks, witnesses, many of them white, asked aloud why waiting until a friend arrived to order has never resulted in a similar perp-walk.

Strong motivators

Gerrymandering and voter-ID laws won’t be enough to maintain overwhelming GOP congressional and state majorities if Americans of every race who crave honest discussion and leadership on racial inequity are motivated enough to vote. Of course, that would mean Democrats would have to show leadership, at least as much as Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson has stumbled into with his pledge of training for its employees. Or the GOP could actually start to hear the voices it has not bothered to listen to for some time.

The #MeToo moment is one that has morphed into a movement, with female candidates running for office across the country; it has also ensnared politicians in charges of wrongdoing. A recent beneficiary may have been former Republican state Sen. Debbie Lesko, who won the special election primary in Arizona’s 8th District in the race to replace Rep. Trent Franks, who resigned amid sexual harassment allegations. One of Lesko’s primary opponents, former state Sen. Steve Montenegro, married and a minister, was weakened when it was reported he once received nude images from a staffer.

In Missouri, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, facing an uphill re-election battle, must surely hope Gov. Eric Greitens, burdened with charges of blackmail and fundraising irregularities, hangs around long enough to damage the Republican brand for her opponent, state Attorney General Josh Hawley. (Considering Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment sealed the deal for her in the last election, McCaskill must be one of the luckiest Democratic politicians in a red state ever.)

Teachers marching for higher wages for doing what every politician professes is the most important job in the world is a “fed up” moment that seemed inevitable when it finally came. Who will speak to their concerns as they look poised to march to the polls as they have to statehouses?

Based on his own unpredictable track record, Trump can be counted on to provide yet more memorable “moments,” even as early primary voting begins or is about to begin in states across the country.

Managing personal Twitter spats with fired FBI chief James Comey, adult film actress Stormy Daniels, special counsel Robert Mueller and members of his own cabinet and staff while meeting with North Korean leaders, deciding the next course of action in Syria, and figuring out a complicated relationship with his lawyer Michael Cohen as well as Russian leader Vladimir Putin — all could provide a surprise or two or 37 a day.

Besides checking in regularly on Roll Call’s 2018 Election Guide by Nathan Gonzales to see who “leaning” and who’s “likely,” look for the moments up to and including Nov. 6. But don’t blink.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

Watch: Doing Nothing Is Doing Something: Trump, Congress and the Use of Force

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