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2018 could be game-changer for the GOP

Republicans are facing some daunting numbers. Democrats are favored by 11.1 points in the general congressional ballot, in the RealClearPolitics average. The pattern for Democrats in special elections should encourage their voters, according to Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight:

"The Democratic margin has been 12 percentage points better, on average, than the partisan lean in each race. Sometimes this has resulted in a seat flipping from Republican to Democratic (e.g. in the Alabama Senate face-off on Tuesday or Oklahoma's 37th state Senate District contest last month). Sometimes it has meant the Democrat barely lost a race you wouldn't think a Democrat would be competitive in (e.g. in South Carolina's 5th Congressional District in June). Sometimes it's merely been the case that the Democrat won a district by an even wider margin than you'd expect (e.g. in Pennsylvania's 133 House District last week).

"The point is that Democrats are doing better in all types of districts with all types of candidates. You don't see this type of consistent outperformance unless there's an overriding pro-Democratic national factor ... . So even if Democrats do 7 points worse in the national House vote than the average swing so far suggests, they'd still win the national House vote by 9 points, which would likely mean that they reclaim a House majority next year."

Couple that with a historically unpopular president, and Republicans have every reason to be nervous about their midterm chances. (President Donald Trump's approval rating in the RCP average is at 37.9 percent, with disapproval at 57.1.) While it's true that Trump could stage a comeback, the special counsel's report could fuel impeachment talk and/or bring indictments of close associates. A betting person would favor a rockier 2018 for Trump compared with 2017, itself a historically awful year for a new president.

In the Senate, many Democrats from red states who were supposed to be at risk don't look all that much at risk right now. The Associated Press reports that "the GOP is struggling to land a big name in North Dakota to run against Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in 2018."

Meanwhile, most pollsters put three GOP Senate seats — Tennessee (where former governor Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, will seek to replace retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker), Arizona (where Jeff Flake has announced he is retiring) and Nevada (where incumbent Republican Dean Heller got himself tied up in knots on Obamacare repeal) — in the gettable category for Democrats. With the potential for more retirements or empty seats (due to health and/or the unpredictable series of sexual harassment revelations), Republicans may find even more Senate seats at risk.

The prospect of losing both the House and Senate majorities should be sobering for Republicans as they contemplate their agenda. They are likely to face a series of unpalatable choices. Fix the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and set off a firestorm with their anti-immigrant base — or allow DACA to lapse once and for all, thereby energizing the Democratic base? Cut entitlements to stem the gusher of red ink opened by their tax bill, thereby socking it to their own constituents — or risk the consequences of massive accumulation of debt on the economy? Continue on their deregulation jag to please their donors — or risk a populist backlash?

The tension between the party's populist rhetoric and its plutocratic policies will be strained not only because of the impending midterms but also because the GOP's margin in the Senate will be down to 51-49. Any retirement (forced by health or scandal) will leave the body with a 50-50 tie, making every GOP vote potentially decisive.

It is in this context that we are likely to see the special counsel's final report. Trump has said that he won't fire him — but another indictment of a top adviser or acquisition of sensitive financial data could provoke Trump to lash out, just as he did with former FBI director James Comey. With all that Republicans are facing — the very real possibility of losing both House and Senate majorities — they will have to decide whether they really want to circle the wagons around a failing president. If not out of principle or decency, Republicans may nevertheless find that their survival instinct overwhelms partisan loyalty.

— Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.