Making political predictions, and plotting campaign strategies, is a sucker’s game in this surreal political environment. That’s well understood; and yet, with an important year of mid-term elections unfolding, pundits and consultants have little choice but to press on as if the past holds some predictive power over the future.
But the truth is, by the time many states hold their primaries—including most of New England—there is a very good chance Robert Mueller will upend everything.
Mueller’s special counsel investigation of Russian election interference, collusion with the Trump campaign, and other potential crimes has been working for more than a year now. Its ever-growing staff and scope—not to mention indictments and plea deals—suggests that it has found significant wrongdoing of some type. Speculation varies about what and who that involves, and what Mueller chooses to do about it. But he clearly has some story to tell.
And, most observers agree that Mueller will either tell that story—or at least some part of it—by Labor Day, or hold his tongue until after the general election in November. He’ll want to avoid accusations of influencing the mid-terms with any Fall bombshells.
But, that’s five months away—a long time for Mueller to postpone any high-level indictments, or other moves that might become complicated the longer he waits. And, he might not want to open himself to the criticism levelled at former FBI Director James Comey by Hillary Clinton supporters—that keeping quiet until after the election is itself a way of influencing an election, by depriving voters of information.
So, while the investigation as a whole might not reach an end, it’s very likely that Mueller will play at least some of his cards this summer.
By avoiding the charge of influencing the November election, however, he will be dropping a huge bomb in front of the late primaries, including those in Massachusetts on September 4th, and in New Hampshire a week later. That could have a monumental effect—but of what kind?
Running in a parallel universe
The primaries to date, including eight states this week, seemed to cast a blind eye on the Mueller probe.
Democratic candidates, and primary voters, have focused primarily on health care, gun reform, and other progressive wish list policies. Criticism of Trump, while harsh and nearly ubiquitous, has mostly been confined to policies, not collusion or obstruction of justice.
Republican candidates and their voters have acted in mirror-reflection manner, showing powerful loyalty toward the President, emphasizing those same policy areas but as a point of pride rather than condemnation. There is little talk of the investigation Trump regularly calls a “witch hunt.”
Polls suggest that voters across the board are in synch on that point. Their top issues, according to a recent NBC poll, are health care, the economy, guns, taxes and spending, and immigration.
Those are the issues emphasized in ads, on web sites, and in media interviews by candidates in competitive primaries so far this year. There has been very little talk of Russia or Mueller—or the third-rail topic of impeachment.
It’s created a strange disconnect, between the news cycles and the election cycles. Just 24 hours before polls opened Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted “I have the absolute right to PARDON myself,” followed by a declaration that Mueller’s entire investigation is “UNCONSTITUTIONAL” (capitalization his).
Those remarkable claims dominated news coverage and conversation on television and web sites for hours and hours—until returns started coming in, and the primaries in eight states were discussed as if they were taking place in an entirely different universe than the one facing a potential constitutional crisis.
Last week, the New York Times ran a lengthy article about the crowded Democratic field to succeed Niki Tsongas in the Massachusetts 3rd district. In all the descriptions of issues the candidates have in common, and how they are trying to stand out from one another, the words “Russia,” “Mueller,” and “impeach,” never surfaced in the article.
Several of the underdog candidates in that race have expressed support for impeachment proceedings. But the leading candidates have not, and you can search their web sites in vain for any mention of Russian collusion or the Mueller investigation.
That’s despite an April poll, for the Boston Globe and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, showing that 55 percent of the district’s likely Democratic primary voters favor impeachment.
The same is playing out just north of that district, where Carole Shea-Porter is retiring from the New Hampshire’s open 1st congressional district. Only one of the 10 Democratic candidates there has come out in favor of impeachment proceedings—even though Shea-Porter herself has suggested she would support that course of action. Sticking out on the issue doesn’t seem to have helped Lincoln Soldati gain traction against better-known candidates who have avoided the issue.
In the hot Boston race, neither incumbent Michael Capuano or his challenger, Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, have been emphasizing the investigation or impeachment. Capuano, who had cautioned against impeachment a year ago, voted in favor of considering it late last year. Pressley, who has not spoken publicly about it on the campaign trail, provided a statement saying that she would vote for impeachment—but emphasized that it is just one aspect of a much bigger conversation about “the actions of this draconian administration.”
Some of that is the result of coordinated effort. National party leaders and organizations have aggressively counseled candidates to stick to issues, warning that impeachment talk in particular could hurt Democrats’ chances.
But it’s not just the Democrats. None of the three Republican candidates for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts—Geoff Diehl, John Kingston, and Beth Lindstrom—has said or tweeted anything about Trump’s claim to self-pardon power, or his declaration of Mueller’s investigation as unconstitutional.
If a focus on Trump’s ongoing clash with Mueller had the potential to sway primary voters, in either party and in either direction, you can bet more candidates would be talking about it.
And you can bet they will, if that changes.
What if the Mueller bomb hits?
Where primaries have been held so far, the general trend has been toward safe, if solidly ideological candidates—with an advantage for women among Democrats, and for proven Trump loyalty among Republicans.
Outsider candidates trying to storm the gates—including those backed by Bernie Sanders, for example—have not done as well. And there have been very few instances where incumbents running for re-election have been made to sweat through primary challenges—except for the occasional Republican who has expressed dissent from Trump.
All of that would suggest good news for Capuano in his September primary; perhaps state senator Barbara L’Italien in the Massachusetts 3rd district; Trump-backer Diehl; and maybe Maura Sullivan or Chris Pappas in New Hampshire.
But, those projections are based on a mood that could change dramatically among primary voters.
If Mueller does drop a major bombshell over the summer—if he indicts more high-level officials, or lays out a timetable of collusion in a report or court documents—it could have a dramatic effect, particularly among the party faithful who tend to vote in primaries.
What that effect would be is hard to predict. Among Democrats, perhaps voters will flock toward those candidates who had the gumption to speak up on impeachment early on. Maybe they’ll flee the safety of “establishment” candidates and seek out the ones who can reflect and articulate their own internal rage.
Or, maybe just the opposite: maybe, in potentially competitive districts such as the New Hampshire 1st and Massachusetts 3rd, primary voters will cling to mainstream candidates who have the best chance to win a general election and help assure a Democratic majority in Congress.
And what about Republicans? Would they demand that candidates defend Trump in the face of what they consider a corrupt special investigation? Or would large numbers defect from Trumpism and look for candidates to save the GOP from him—or just retreat and sit out the primaries altogether?
Or, perhaps, the campaigns will forge ahead as they have so far, in a separate world where the news of the day barely intrudes on the political discourse.