How Cohen and Manafort will redefine this fall's 'corruption' campaign. (Plus: A reality check on Trump's 'red wave')

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
President Trump at a campaign rally in Tampa, Fla. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Siren: The ‘Corruption Campaign’ Heats Up. Will More Dems Call for Impeachment As Well?  

It’s not every day that the president’s former campaign chairman is convicted on eight counts of bank and tax fraud; that his former lawyer and fixer pleads guilty to tax evasion, bank fraud and campaign finance violations while telling prosecutors that his ex-boss ordered him, in the midst of a presidential campaign, to pay off two alleged extramarital paramours — a porn star and Playboy model — “for the principal purpose of influencing the election”; and that one of the first congressmen to endorse the president is indicted on charges of illegally using a quarter of a million dollars in campaign cash to pay for vacations, dental work, gifts and more.

But all of that happened Tuesday, as Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen and California Rep. Duncan Hunter simultaneously found themselves in tangled up in legal troubles that could ultimately affect Donald Trump himself.

The immediate analysis focused on the president’s own legal jeopardy, as the latest developments in both the Cohen and Manafort cases left “strong indications that the[se] courtroom dramas … are far from over,” while advancing “the sharp edges of legal danger toward Trump and members of his inner circle,” as Hunter Walker and Luppe Luppen of Yahoo News explained overnight.

Michael Cohen; Paul Manafort. (Photos: Mary Altaffer/AP; Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

But the news could shape the 2018 midterm elections as well. For months, D.C. Democrats have urged their candidates to avoid talking about impeachment on the trail, even though a recent Quinnipiac poll found that 65 percent of Democratic voters want the House to begin impeachment proceedings if their party wins back the House. This is because Democratic strategists worry that campaigning on impeachment could trigger a Republican backlash and boost GOP turnout in November, given that the same survey also showed that just 39 percent of all voters and 42 percent of independents support removing Trump from office.

At the same time — much to D.C.’s chagrin — Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer has been pressuring his party to put impeachment front and center through his $50 million “Need to Impeach” petition drive, which has so far amassed 5.6 million signatures. Currently on a 30-city tour, Steyer released a statement Tuesday saying that Cohen’s “admission of guilt is further proof that Donald Trump has long been intimately engaged with deceitful, lawless, and corrupt associates” — and the California billionaire is only planning to ramp up his efforts in the wake of this week’s developments. New digital ads went up Tuesday, according to Need to Impeach, with a new TV ad to follow.

The official Democratic Party line still centers around “corruption,” not impeachment; the preferred message, especially in key suburban districts where crossover voters will decide November’s elections, is that Manafort, Cohen and Hunter are symptomatic of Trump’s failure to drain the swamp in Washington, D.C.; in fact, they represent further proof, the argument goes, that the president has only deepened it, and that electing a Democratic Congress is the best way to reverse the trend.

Yet as the fall campaign heats up — and as Cohen and Manafort appear again and again in court, with the final act of Robert Mueller’s FBI investigation looming — it remains to be seen whether Democrats across the country can stick to a careful message about corruption, or whether they follow Steyer’s lead and start speaking openly about impeachment now that Cohen has directly implicated Trump in illegal activity.

On Wednesday, at least one Republican predicted the latter outcome — and hinted that it might not help his party as much as some Trump loyalists hope.

“I think impeachment is now squarely going to define the midterms,” strategist Rob Stutzman told The New York Times. “It’s inescapable now that Democrats can legitimately raise that issue.” As for the GOP, he added, there are “a lot of Republican members of Congress sitting in tough districts that are going to have to really think hard about how they’re going to finesse this in the days ahead.”

 

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It’s Donald Trump’s latest catchphrase, a refrain so familiar to followers of the presidential Twitter feed that earlier this month Trump decided he could simply post it — in all-caps, with an exclamation mark for emphasis — as a standalone tweet:

RED WAVE!

Trump didn’t bother to elaborate, but everybody knew what he meant. For weeks now, the president been making the same prediction on Twitter: The polls and the pundits may be predicting big Democratic pickups in November’s midterm elections — a so-called blue wave. But the polls and the pundits were wrong about me in 2016. And this year, they’ll be wrong again.

Does the president have a point?

Photo: Carlos Barria/Reuters

His fans certainly believe him. Sean Hannity has been pushing the red wave concept on his shows. Breitbart has been claiming for months that a blue wave is overhyped. And the message seems to have trickled down to voters. “We’ve seen it in focus groups, with Republican base voters, where you’ll come up with a hypothetical that the Democrats win, and people are like, ‘That’s not going to happen, that’s stupid,’” a Republican strategist told Axios over the weekend. “They’re like, ‘Oh, to hell with this crap, we were told Trump wasn’t going to win. It’s bullshit.’”

Or, as the president said elsewhere, What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

But what if we exit Trump’s partisan echo chamber for a moment and return to a world where facts, evidence and data still matter — a world where, you might say, truth is still truth?

What do the actual numbers tell us?

Mostly that that Trump’s red wave is likely to remain a figment of his imagination — with one potential exception.

It’s worth noting at the outset that Trump & Co. do try to make a case here. It’s just not a very convincing one. The idea, according to the president, is that “Republicans have now won 8 out of 9 House Seats” in special elections this cycle, “yet if you listen to the Fake News Media you would think we are being clobbered.”

Trump’s accounting is correct; of the nine partisan House special elections this cycle, Republicans have won eight. But what Trump doesn’t mention is that all nine took place in heavily Republican districts, and that Democrats wildly overperformed every time.

In one instance — the March 13 election in the blue-collar Pittsburgh suburbs of the Pennsylvania 18th  — Democrat Conor Lamb overcame the district’s massive partisan lean (+21 R) to eke out a narrow victory.

Conor Lamb celebrates with supporters at his election night party in Canonsburg, Pa., in March. (Photo: Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Elsewhere Democrats fell just short. But the overall win-loss record doesn’t tell the whole story, or even the most important story. That’s because the districts in question started out leaning Republican by an average of 22 percentage points, according to data gathered by FiveThirtyEight — and wound up swinging toward Democrats by an average of nearly 14 percentage points.

That’s not good news for Republicans, no matter what Trump says, because November’s midterms will be fought on far less favorable terrain. According to the Cook Political Report, there are only 83 House districts where Republicans have an advantage of more than 14 percentage points; the rest of the House GOP’s current fiefdom — all 157 remaining districts — is less lopsidedly red.

That doesn’t imply Democrats are likely to pick up 157 seats. Far from it. But they don’t have to. To regain control of the House, Dems must only flip 23 seats, and all the data says that’s well within the realm of possibility.

Take the generic congressional ballot (i.e., the question pollsters ask about which party voters would support in a congressional election, without considering specific candidates): Democrats currently lead Republicans 47.7 percent to 39.9 percent, a gap that’s consistent, historically speaking, with gains that would put them back in the majority.

Or consider the president’s current approval rating, which, at 42.2 percent approve to 52.4 percent disapprove, is among the lowest on record at this point in a presidency. Exactly eight years ago, Barack Obama’s split was 45-50; his party went on to lose 63 House seats the following November. Sixteen years before that, Bill Clinton was stuck at 39-50 and Democrats wound up losing 54 seats; a dozen years before that, Ronald Reagan slipped to 41-45 and Republicans wound up losing 26.

Meanwhile, if you pay attention to the pundits — or at least expert forecasters like Cook, who rate individual races and actually have an impressive track record of predicting the final election results — you’ll notice that they consider far more Republican seats than Democratic seats to be “at risk.” Right now, Cook characterizes 64 GOP-held seats as vulnerable — a count that’s been rising in recent weeks, as more Republican primaries are being won by candidates from the extreme Trumpian wing of the party. To date, only five Democratic-held seats have earned the “at risk” designation. That’s a pretty stark imbalance.

Finally, here’s what happens if you compile all this data into a sweeping statistical forecast that also accounts for fundraising, candidate quality, in-district polling, incumbency, district voting history and a bunch of other factors, as FiveThirtyEight just did: Democrats end up with a 7 in 10 chance of winning control of the House, with an average gain of 31 seats.

Donald Trump looks on as Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., speaks at a campaign rally in Fargo, N.D., in June. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

As for Trump’s red wave? The FiveThirtyEight model gives Democrats a better chance of flipping 67 seats — the biggest wave since 1938 — than it gives Republicans of picking up even one.

In short, it’s extremely unlikely that a red wave is going to rip through the House of Representatives this year. But what about the Senate? That’s the bright spot for Republicans we mentioned earlier. While reporters have focused on clear Democratic pickup opportunities in the purple states of Nevada and Arizona — and increasingly in the red states of Tennessee and Texas — less attention has been paid to the seats that Dems are in danger of losing in states Trump won in 2010: Florida, North Dakota, Indiana, West Virginia, Montana and Missouri.

The latter outnumber the former, and the danger for Democrats is real. In North Dakota, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp trails her Republican challenger, three-term Rep. Kevin Cramer, in recent polls. In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott leads Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson; in Missouri, Republican Josh Hawley is tied with Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — whose opponent got a Trump endorsement at a rally in Charleston Tuesday — seem to have a little more breathing room.  But no more than, say, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

In the end, Republicans could actually gain ground in the Senate, thanks to a favorable map and a solid crop of challengers —  even as they lose dozens of seats in the House.

After all, not every election has to be a “wave.”

 

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Best of the Rest:

Indictment Imperils Duncan Hunter’s Reelection: The charges against Hunter weren’t unexpected; he’s been under investigation for years. But the news has already imperiled his reelection bid and the GOP’s otherwise solid grip on California’s 50th Congressional District, inland of San Diego. Unlike New York, where Chris Collins, the upstate congressman facing federal charges for insider trading, will be removed from the ballot, California has no mechanism for replacing Hunter — or even allowing voters to write in another candidate’s name. As a result, the Cook Political Report has moved Hunter’s reelection race from “Solid Republican” to “Lean Republican,” boosting the chances of his Democratic challenger, 28-year-old former Obama Labor Department official Ammar Campa-Najjar.

Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif., speaking in San Diego in 2015. (Photo: Earnie Grafton/Reuters)

Campa-Najjar has some liabilities. His progressive views run far to the left of the military-heavy district, which voted for Trump 55 percent to 40 and reelected Hunter with 64 percent of the vote in 2016. He’s had to disavow his Palestinian grandfather, who masterminded the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes. And he wasn’t the first choice of D.C. Democrats. Yet so far Campa-Najjar has outraised the incumbent, and given the severity of the charges against Hunter — at one point he used $250 in campaign funds to fly a pet rabbit in the passenger’s cabin of an airplane — it’s not unthinkable that the Democrat could make this a real race.

No Surprises in Alaska and Wyoming: In case you missed it, both Alaska and Wyoming held primaries Tuesday — and all the favorites, frontrunners and incumbents won. That means Reps. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., will likely be returning to Congress, as will Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyo., who cruised to victory over self-styled outsider candidate Dave Dodson, a businessman who fueled his Trumpian campaign with $1 million of his own money and attacks on Barasso’s Washington connections. The Trumpier candidate also fell short in Wyoming’s gubernatorial primary, as state Treasurer Mark Gordon defeated GOP megadonor Foster Freiss, despite the president’s weighing in Tuesday on Freiss’s behalf.

The Return of the Soccer Mom: Could soccer moms swing the House? Democrats hope so. Yahoo News’ Laina Yost reports that even though “that 1990s term for politically moderate suburban women has fallen out of usage lately,” soccer moms are “still around, and a key voting bloc in the upcoming midterms” because they are “frustrated with Washington and turned off by President Trump.”

Out of this World: Republicans in Florida’s 27th Congressional District — a seat that encompasses Little Havana, most of downtown Miami and Miami Beach — have a problem. In November 2016, Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump there by nearly 20 percentage points. In May 2017, longtime GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen announced her retirement. And with an Aug. 28 primary looming, no particularly credible Republican candidates have stepped forward to take her place.

Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, a former Doral city council member and the city’s first economic director, will run to replace retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Congress in 2018. (Photo: Roberto Koltun/El Nuevo Herald/TNS via Getty Images)

And so, on Sunday, the Miami Herald’s editorial board took the bold step of endorsing Republican Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, a candidate who claims that she was once abducted by aliens. 

According to the Miami New Times, “in 2009, Rodriguez Aguilera appeared on the Spanish-language program Experiencias Extradimensionales (Extradimensional Experiences), in which she said she zoomed around the universe with three giant, blond beings in a quartz-powered spaceship. She also said the aliens, who resembled Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer statue, told her there are 30,000 ‘nonhuman’ skulls hidden in Maltese caves, the ‘energy center’ of the world exists in Africa, and South Miami-Dade’s mysterious Coral Castle was built by aliens.”

Rodriguez Aguilera is not the Republican frontrunner; that would be Maria Elvira Salazar, a former CNN, Univision, and Telemundo reporter. But whoever they nominate next week, Republicans are likely to lose FL-27 to whomever the Democrats nominate — likely Donna Shalala, the former University of Miami president and a Secretary of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration.

 

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Up Next:

August 28: Arizona and Florida primaries; Oklahoma primaries runoff

 


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