Few Democratic leaders in 2006 dared imagine they would capture the U.S. Senate in the midterm elections. Yet there they were on the morning of November 9, celebrating on the Capitol steps after ousting six Republican incumbents. President George W. Bush lamented, “It was a thumpin’,” and indeed it was. Many factors fueled the thumpin’—including broad grassroots opposition to the bloody Iraq quagmire—but Democrats also managed to convince voters that Bush and his congressional allies needed to be held accountable for spawning “a culture of corruption.”
Democratic midterm strategists in 2018 are seeking to repurpose that buzz phrase—fueled anew by the arrest of Representative Chris Collins for alleged insider trading, the Paul Manafort bank-fraud trial, the Michael Cohen tax-fraud investigation, and the latest fervent attempts to protect Donald Trump from the Russia probe. But even though prospects look bright for a House takeover, the current Senate map seems more daunting for Democrats than it was in 2006. A net gain of only two seats, sufficient to win the upper chamber, may be as tantalizingly elusive as a mirage.
The past two years should remind us that conventional wisdom is dead, that the deck is stacked with wild cards, that what seems politically plausible in the moment can be rendered moot by unforeseeable events. To borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, we’re living in a time of “unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” What we do know is that Democrats are suddenly competitive in House districts that Trump won by double-digit percentages. What we do know is that Democrats won a special Senate election in Alabama last December, the first blue Senate win in that red state since 1992. What we don’t know is what wild cards await us. What we don’t know is whether or what Special Counsel Robert Mueller might report between now and November, and how his findings might feed or deflate the Democrats’ corruption theme.