A close watcher of Missouri and national politics contends the current preoccupation among pundits and the media with the 2018 election is missing the bigger picture.
Columbia College Political Scientist Terry Smith thinks leadership in both parties will be focused on the 2020 election, despite the attention now being payed to next years races.
He says Democrats have been outmaneuvered by Republicans, who have prevailed in decade elections, after which the party in control gets to redraw voting districts.
“That’s one of the reasons why they now have more state legislative seats, and actually in Congress it’s the biggest that they’ve had in many, many years,” said Smith. “It’s because they control that redistricting process.”
Voting districts are redrawn every 10 years. In most states, the state legislature controls the process for state and congressional districts. District lines are approved just like legislation (Legislative committees are used in Missouri) and are subject to a governor’s veto.
There are currently lawsuits seeking to alter the redistricting process known as gerrymandering, which is legal. The U.S. Supreme Court heard a case in October brought by Wisconsin Democrats, where following redistricting, the party prevailed in the popular vote, but won a third fewer Assembly seats than Republicans in 2012.
A separate case is also being considered by the high bench. It was filed by Maryland Republicans, who contend their numbers were diluted by redistricting in 2011.
Missouri has been trending toward the Republican Party in elections, regardless of the redistricting process. President Trump won the state by 19 points, and Republicans swept all five statewide seats in play in the 2016 election.
Heading into the 2018 cycle, Smith believes the unpopularity of the tax cuts just passed by Republicans could have a limited impact on races in Missouri. He thinks the GOP will continue to hold six of the state’s eight House seats, while Republican challenger Josh Hawley will have a good shot at unseating two-term Democratic Senator Clair McCaskill.
“You know, I don’t think Republicans are particularly worried about Missouri,” Smith said. “And they certainly are going to spend as much money as they can to get Hawley elected.”
Hawley is the state’s Attorney General, having been elected to the position in his very first race for public office in 2016.
The tax overhaul passed with only Republican support and signed into law by President Trump just before Christmas hasn’t been well received by the public so far.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll recently found that 63% of Americans think the tax plan will benefit the wealthy and corporations, while 22 percent say the plan will help all individuals equally. The survey also found that 24 percent of Americans think the measure is a good idea, while 41 percent say it’s a bad idea.
A recent CNN poll found that 55 percent polled oppose the tax-reform plan, while 33 percent said they favored the plan.
Republicans contend the legislation will become more popular when citizens discover they have more disposable income after a reduction of taxes in their paychecks.
They also say the large corporate tax cut will lead to job creation. Smith thinks that if the scenario plays out, it could backfire on the GOP.
“The problem is that we’re, according to the traditional measure, close to full employment right now. And so, there are potential problems for the economy as in overheating and inflation if more jobs are created.”
The unemployment rate in the U.S. has held at 4.1% for the past two months, the lowest it’s been in 16 years.
The big winners in the tax overhaul, according to Smith, are big money donors to both parties, although Democrats voted against the bill. “One of the great lines from American cinema, from “All The President’s Men” right there at the end, Deep Throat said ‘Follow the Money’,” Smith said. “And that’s what you need to do with this tax bill, because a lot of this is rewarding donors.”
The tax rate for the highest income earners will drop from 39.6% to 37% beginning in 2018.
The tax plan is projected by non-partisan research groups to create a $1.5 trillion deficit. Smith thinks Republicans, who generally want to reduce the national debt and deficit, will be at risk if they focus on the deficit after passing the tax overhaul.
“They might say they’re going to get serious again about the deficit. And that will result in entitlement cuts – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. We will see. That’s where the Republicans are playing with fire, I think.”
An automatic $25 billion cut to Medicare in 2018 was averted when the House and Senate voted to waive a rule known as PAYGO for the tax cut bill. Under PAYGO, spending cuts are triggered when the deficit is increased.
Dr. Terry B. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Honors Program at Columbia College in mid-Missouri’s Columbia.