PHOENIX – Opening up a legislative affairs briefing with jokes about sniffling and conspiracy theories might seem strange — but in this year’s political season, it seemed totally normal. SMACNA called its annual politics and policy discussion “The Roller Coaster Ride of 2016,” and few would argue.
The Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association brought in Dana Thompson, its political affairs director, and Stan Kolbe, the association’s legislative director, for a discussion Wednesday on the state of Washington, D.C., three weeks before Election Day. Thompson admitted that her predictions on the election a year earlier at the association’s 2015 conference in Colorado were not even close.
“When the Republican primary started, I really thought the contest would be between an establishment candidate and an outsider,” she said, adding that she was referring to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. “I didn’t realize how far it would go outside the system.”
In her 2015 presentation, Thompson also mentioned former Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, or maybe former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as Republican possible nominees. She was quick to add her predictions on the Democratic side were much better.
“I was so very wrong about the presidential primary, but I was right about election,” she said.
In her 2015 presentation, she did not think Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders would be able to appeal to a wide section of the country – “Bernie Sanders could not get elected president if he ran unopposed,” she said at the time – and that the election was Hillary Clinton’s to lose, even though she is a flawed candidate who gives opponents plenty of ammunition.
Fortunately for Clinton, businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump is even more flawed. His erratic behavior only helps solidify her lead, she said. The debate scheduled for Wednesday evening would not change that, she predicted.
“Even if he stays focused tonight, he can’t stay focused for long,” Thompson said.
And the early voting now underway in much of the country means he has likely already lost the election, she added.
Kolbe, SMACNA’s other lobbyist, agreed, saying he had heard talk a year ago from GOP lawmakers worried what a Trump candidacy would mean for the party. He thinks 2016 could be a “wave” election, where the GOP loses both the House and Senate due to Trump’s poor showing as a candidate. And many people today choose straight-ticket voting, where they only vote for candidates from one party.
The trend is dangerous to Republicans. Even if a wave doesn’t materialize, Trump is done, he said. He cannot expand his support beyond the 40 percent or so who make up his core supporters.
“(In) every race since 1992, the person behind after the conventions does not win,” Kolbe said.
It doesn’t help the GOP that Trump ran the worst presidential campaign in modern history, he added. He relied on family and political outsiders for advice, eschewing and, in some cases, insulting the party experts who could have helped him close the gap.
So what does it mean for the down-ballot races? Kolbe thinks the U.S. Senate will change control, and Democrats could secure up to eight seats — a comfortable margin. Thompson was more cautious in her prognostication.
“I think it’s possible the Republicans may hold on — by their fingernails,” she said.
But a more likely scenario is Democrats will secure a 51-seat majority to take control. As for the U.S. House, Thompson and Kolbe agreed it is unlikely to go Democrat, although the GOP’s majority will be narrowed.
“I give the Democrats a one-in-five shot to take over the House,” Kolbe said.
Thompson predicts the Democrats will take 13-16 seats from Republicans, short of the 30 they need to take the gavel from House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
“I think the House is safely under the Republicans,” she said.