Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison appears to be the odds on favorite to win Saturday’s election to head the Democratic National Committee. That seems like good news for Republicans seeking to expand their congressional majority in 2018, a fact President Trump seemed to gleefully acknowledge this week.
“One thing I will say about Rep. Keith Ellison, in his fight to lead the DNC, is that he was the one who predicted early that I would win!” Trump said in a Wednesday message on Twitter.
It’s no secret that incumbent presidents usually have a tough time in midterm elections. President Obama lost the Democratic House majority in 2010; President Bush lost his congressional majority in 2006; and President Clinton lost Democrats’ House majority in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.
But with Ellison as chairman, Trump could buck history by emerging from the 2018 midterms with an even larger majority.
Ellison’s position on the far left end of the political spectrum is a fact that Republicans in his home state, used to losing deep-blue Minneapolis, have taken for granted. But that’s also part of the reason old controversies have been stirred anew during his bid for party chairman. Those include accusations of anti-Semitism stemming in part from old writings in which he complained about American foreign policy being “governed” by Israel — a “country of 7 million people” — and his comparison of the 9/11 attacks to the 1933 Reichstag fire.
Those positions have been met with indifference from Ellison’s voters in Minneapolis, which leans heavily Democratic. They’re going to receive a much different response from national voters, especially those most critical to determining the congressional majority map next year. Voters in deep-red Trump states – such as Indiana, Missouri, and West Virginia – as well those from states that Trump brought back to the Republican fold for the first time in years – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio – could hardly be more different from the voters Ellison has always relied on in his own district.
One big thing those Trump states have in common: They all have Democratic senators up for election in 2018. Democrats will be defending 23 Senate seats in all, and 10 in states that Trump won. Republicans are defending eight.
That kind of math doesn’t leave any margin for error. Republicans would have a filibuster-proof majority if they could win just eight seats. If they can simply maintain their majority, it will mean that Trump governs with a congressional majority longer than Obama – who held it for just two years – ever did, even if he doesn’t win re-election.
Ellison’s ideological peculiarities alone are enough to put his party at a severe disadvantage in the present political climate. That’s before even getting into his personal failings, which have also reemerged. There was the occasion in 2010 where he lost his temper during a debate with his Republican challenger, referring to him as a “scumbag” and “gutter-dweller.” There were the nearly half-dozen times between 1992 and 2000 that he failed to pay his income taxes, which resulted in a lien on his house, as well as the 14 traffic citations that he received but failed to pay. (He attributed the latter, in fairness, to a former wife, who said she failed to pay the fines due to illness.)
It is possible that Ellison has the ability to overcome his weaknesses and rebuild his party by reaching out to moderate and conservative voters, though it is unclear that he even wants or would seek to do either of those. And if he did, it would be for the first time in his political career.
We’ll find out on Saturday whether Democrats are ready to roll the dice on those odds. There’s a good chance Republicans are going to feel even luckier by the time they’re done.