At the very end of 2017, the Republican party finally passed its first major piece of legislation since the Trump administration came to power.
After a year in which its opponents criticised it again and again for a lack of new policies, the party managed to push through the biggest overhaul of the tax system since Ronald Reagan.
It was a formidable accomplishment. Yet senior Republicans will not be looking at the 2018 midterm elections with any enthusiasm.
The party’s majority in the House of Representatives is under threat. It will probably keep control of the Senate, but were it to lose the House, the prospect of further major policies would vanish. This, in turn, would curb the re-election prospects of President Trump.
In spite of the tax reform, Republicans have found governing much more difficult than being in opposition.
The party has found the obstructionist tactics that it deployed successfully against Barack Obama hard to shift. It was telling that the Republicans’ first big push was to attempt to dismantle Obamacare, rather than to craft healthcare legislation of their own.
Discipline is also fraying.
For two decades or more, the Republican party has been rigid and controlled in its message to voters: it offers small government, low taxes, and personal liberty. But the hostile takeover of the party by Trump has emboldened its far-right members, and suddenly there is a lack of agreement on what the party stands for.
Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, whose inflammatory comments on the President have made international news in recent days thanks to the new book on the administration, wants to overthrow party leaders and will challenge Republican senators up for re-election in 2018.
And then there is Trump himself.
No other post-WW2 President has ended his first year in office with negative approval ratings. His stirring up of the culture wars on subjects such as Confederate monuments and sportspeople kneeling during the national anthem plays well with his base, but less so with moderate voters.
He presents Republicans in Congress with a dilemma: he regularly brings the party into disrepute, but he will also sign off on its legislative agenda.
Consequently, we expect Republicans to continue to tolerate Trump in the run-up to the midterms. Few will speak out against him, except in districts where it is politically expedient.
Meanwhile, the Democrats have been locked out of power since the 2016 elections.
Looking ahead, it is unclear who will succeed the Clintons and Obama. The party is split between a generation that voters may consider to be too old to be electable (like Bernie Sanders, who will be 79 in 2020, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden), and a younger cohort without deep experience of leadership (such as Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker).
It must also decide which voters it wants to pursue. Sanders has argued it should embrace a more populist economic message to woo back the rust belt voters in Pennsylvania, and Michigan that it lost to Trump, while Obama acolytes, such Harris and Booker, would look further south to the increasingly racially diverse sun-belt states of Florida, New Mexico, and North Carolina.
Democrats also have to overcome the disadvantage of gerrymandering. Following the 2010 census, Republicans used their congressional majorities to redraw the political map at constituency level, so that as many Democrats as possible were packed into a small number of seats, limiting the power of their vote.
Pollsters estimate that Democrats could be disadvantaged by as much as six percentage points in the House election 2018 as a result of gerrymandering.
Yet the Democrats are currently buoyant. Significant wins in the Virginia governor’s election and especially in the Alabama Senate special election in December have galvanised the party. Generic polls have the party around 12 points up, which would be more than enough to win back the House and derail Trump’s agenda, even after accounting for gerrymandering.
The wildcard for 2018 (and possibly beyond) is the investigation into potential links between Trump and his leadership team and Russia that is being conducted by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Several of Trump’s aides and advisers have already been charged, and offered their co-operation.
It is still unknown whether Mueller has a smoking gun that demonstrates unarguably that the Trump team colluded with Russia or otherwise obstructed justice. However, were he able to show this, Trump’s future would be far more precarious if Democrats held the House than Republicans. Impeachment proceedings require the support of the House, after all.
The 2018 midterms matter not just for America’s political direction, but also for the identity of its President.