Politicians routinely decry hypotheticals. They indignantly proclaim they won’t answer a reporter’s speculative question because it’s contingent upon a “hypothetical” turn of events.
And yet, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was in full prognostication mode when she met with reporters Wednesday, divining what will unfold in American electoral politics next month.
“Donald Trump is not going to be president of the United States,” Pelosi augured.
When asked later about Hillary Clinton, the Pelosi forecast that the Democratic nominee “will be a great president.” She also declared Clinton “will be the leader of the free world.”
It’s unknown if a Magic 8 Ball assisted Pelosi in her soothsaying. It is decidedly so. Signs point to yes. But she also predicted something else as congressional Republicans abandoned the top of the ticket to focus efforts toward preserving GOP majorities in the House and Senate.
Pelosi invoked the Republican gambit in 1996 when it became apparent former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kansas, wouldn’t defeat incumbent President Bill Clinton.
“Republicans started talking about ‘checks and balances.’ And you know what that translated into? Impeachment of the president of the United States,” she said.
But when it came to foretelling which party might win the House, and, thereby, if Pelosi might again clutch the speaker’s gavel should Democrats prevail, the oracle of Pacific Heights was not as clairvoyant.
“I think we are in a good place,” Pelosi offered. “I think we will be within single digits either way.”
Ask again later. Cannot predict now. Concentrate and ask again.
Democrats need 30 seats to recapture control of the House for the first time since early 2011. Republicans are scrambling to diminish losses and hold seats all over the map. They’re leery as the Republican nominee Donald Trump’s campaign seemingly disintegrates and he crows about not accepting the election results.
So why cannot Pelosi -- or anyone for that matter -- project what might happen in House contests?
In 2012, Democrats commanded 1.4 million more votes than Republicans for House contests. Yet Democrats picked up only eight states in the House and still stared at a 25 seat deficit.
When the GOP won the House in 2010, Republicans also scored hundreds of victories in state and local races across the country. Those locales determined how to draw new lines for congressional districts following the 2010 Census and the reapportionment of seats. As a result, Republicans drew lines to favor their own.
This created a firewall. Democrats took their best shot and still came up short.
“It’s an obstacle but not insurmountable,” Pelosi said of GOP gerrymandering.
She notes that when Democrats won the House in 2006, they did so despite redistricting that favored Republicans. In particular, she cited efforts in 2004 by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to redraw lines in the Lone Star State tilted toward the GOP.
This is why the best political handicappers -- Magic 8 Ball or not -- are only willing to commit to a Democratic gain of 20 or so seats on the best of nights. It could be higher. But it is really hard to determine. Turnout is hard to model with Trump at the top of the ticket.
Reply hazy. Try again.
That said, there is one clear item on the Magic 8 Ball. If Republicans do maintain the House, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., faces a challenging path.
Trump has repeatedly knocked Ryan in recent days after the speaker yanked the nominee’s invitation to appear at a Wisconsin political rally. Trump now appears poised to partly blame Ryan if he loses the election.
Moreover, Ryan faces internal party squabbles about how he handled Trump. Ryan took heat early last week during a conference call for saying he would focus only on congressional contests.
“He grossly miscalculated the situation,” said one GOP lawmaker to Fox. “This was a big mistake for Paul the way he played it. You can’t give a middle finger to primary voters.”
Fox is told that rank-and-file Republicans perceive Ryan of having “unnecessarily waded into this. He thought he was being nuanced and he got his head ripped off.”
Some pro-Trump lawmakers will hold the Trump clash against Ryan. There’s an increasingly likely scenario that Trump devotees may not be chastened by a loss in November.
Ironically, Trump supporters could emerge emboldened, believing the system is “rigged,” the outcome is invalid and Ryan represents the core of the “Washington establishment.”
At the very least, House Republicans will hold a smaller majority. The House Freedom Caucus will comprise a larger percentage of the GOP. That’s why members of the Freedom Caucus held a call Friday to discuss the possibility of fielding a challenger to run against Ryan.
The House Republican Conference would first vote internally in mid-November. The actual vote for speaker wouldn’t take place until January 3 before the full House.
But what does Ryan do if he’s speaker in the next Congress and dealing with the possibility of a President Clinton? Does he pull a page out of the GOP’s 2009 playbook and vow to oppose everything the incipient president proposes?
That could ingratiate the speaker to Republican skeptics -- in both the Trump camp and the Freedom Caucus camp. But Ryan will need to work with Democrats to keep the government open and also sidestep a potentially calamitous melee in March over the debt ceiling.
Of course, daring to work with Democrats could be a death knell for Ryan. Then again, it could be an opportunity for smart politics if Clinton runs up the electoral college scoreboard and trounces Trump.
The question centers on what sort of an agenda a potential President Clinton may propound.
Just as The Magic 8 Ball labors to predict the House, control of the Senate is also murky. A Clinton shellacking could have Democrats up several seats in the Senate. Or, the party’s might be separated by just a seat or two.
And come January, everyone could have Georgia on their mind.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is not expected to lose in November. But what if he loses in January?
If things are tight, Senate control could come down to a race decided not this fall but early this coming winter. Washington could realize such a scenario if the Senate is potentially held by one party or another by a single seat.
The Peach State requires candidates secure 50.1 percent to avoid a runoff. GOP sources tell Fox they are sure Isakson will struggle to top 50 percent against Democratic challenger Jim Barksdale in November. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll out Friday shows Isakson scoring 47 percent and Barksdale clocking in at 32 percent. Libertarian Allen Buckley could be the spoiler, polling at 11 percent.
That helps propel the runoff scenario. Moreover, Hillary Clinton is making a push to flip Georgia this fall. Democrats are gaining traction, bolstered by changing demographics in the state.
Here’s the rub: The runoff for Georgia is January 10. That’s a week after the start of the 115th Congress. Thus, there’s a possibility that in such a closely contested presidential election year, the Georgia runoff could either settle control of the Senate or tie it up. It’s plausible one party could start with a majority on January 3 and face relegation to the minority a week later.
Fox rates the seat as a solid Republican hold. But both sides could pour every possible nickel into a runoff if it determines which side controls the Senate.
Georgia’s been down this road before in presidential years. The late GOP Sen. Paul Coverdell unseated Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler in a 1992 runoff. And Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss managed to hold his seat in a 2008 runoff against Democrat Jim Martin.
Regardless, political analysts interpret a runoff as the first referendum on the new president.
A potential President Clinton wouldn’t be able to propound much of a “liberal” agenda with such a narrow margin in the Senate -- or perhaps no majority at all. What happens in the first few months of 2017 will impact the midterm elections of 2018.
A Clinton administration would be mindful to protect vulnerable Democratic incumbents from battleground or conservative states facing reelection in two years: Sens. Sherrod Brown, Ohio; Claire McCaskill, Missouri; Jon Tester, Montana; Joe Donnelly, Indiana; and Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota.
That’s to say nothing of inoculating an appointed Democratic senator to succeed vice-presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who would face a special election in 2017. The Virginia seat would also be up in 2018 should Kaine matriculate to the vice presidency.
So what will happen?
Cannot predict now. Better not tell you now. Ask again later.
Perhaps on November 8?
Even then the answers may remain elusive.