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Mueller probe a political time bomb that could detonate in 2018

David Goldstein, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- Republicans enter the new election cycle already carrying the weight of Sisyphus: Rarely does the party in power gain seats in midterm congressional elections. But in 2018, they have an additional burden to bear, as Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into whether Donald Trump's team colluded with Russia drags into the campaign season.

As the recent indictments and guilty plea of three Trump campaign aides foreshadow, Mueller's expansive inquiry will put Republicans who have been supportive or at least tolerant of Trump's behavior on the defensive as they try to win re-election and maintain control of Congress.

"Certainly if we're in a scenario where it's totally consuming the news cycle, it will be very hard for Republicans to point to accomplishments," said Kevin Madden, a Republican communications strategist and top adviser to Mitt Romney, the party's 2012 presidential nominee. "You could have a very animated opposition that could help Democrats really energize their base to show up on Election Day."

John Weaver, the chief strategist for Ohio Gov. John Kasich's unsuccessful fight against Trump last year to top the GOP ticket, offered a more lyrical description of the prevailing Trump-Russia climate: "There will be a blue wind blowing that will make it difficult for the party in power to win anyway, much less with Siberian clouds moving in."

Mueller's investigation is likely to continue through next year, if not longer. Several veteran prosecutors have said that the guilty plea and cooperation of George Papadopoulos, an obscure, low-level campaign foreign policy adviser who sought out Russian contacts, shows that Mueller is pursuing a tried-and-true legal strategy of starting with the minnows before gradually reeling in the trophy fish.

More politically explosive revelations are likely looming, they say, as Mueller painstakingly ascertains that every nail in the cases he is building is secure, every screw tightened.

"It would come as no great shock to me that we hear about some other sealed pleadings," said David Weinstein, a former U.S. attorney.

On paper, Democrats remain at a disadvantage heading into the 2018 midterm elections. In the Senate, they have to defend 25 of their 48 seats, while Republican need to hold off challenges in just eight of their 52 seats. In the House, the GOP holds a 45-seat majority.

But it doesn't help Republicans that Trump's approval rating right now is 34 percent, according to the latest Pew Research Center survey. Other polls show that if the 2018 midterm election were held today, voters would prefer Democrats over Republicans by anywhere from 6 to 16 percentage points.

Still, much can happen over the next 12 months. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 58 percent of the public supports Mueller's investigation. But Trump's core support won't budge even if Mueller finds that he did, in fact, collude with the Kremlin to win the presidency, according to yet another poll, this one by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling. Moreover, his support among Republicans overall nears 80 percent.

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