There are so many signs of a coming rout in the House in November that’s it’s almost impossible to envision any way for Republicans to hang onto their 24-seat majority. And yet a faint outline of how the party might pull it off is nevertheless taking shape.
It’s not readily obvious. There are a record number of GOP retirements—42, so far—including many in the kinds of suburban districts that will be hardest for the party to hold. Democratic energy and enthusiasm are stratospheric, whether measured in polling, small-donor fundraising, turnout in special elections or sheer number of candidates running for office.
Republicans must also contend with historical precedent. Looking back over the past quarter-century, four of the last six midterms produced wave elections against the party in control of the White House. And the two that were kind to the party in power came in the wake of extraordinary circumstances: the Clinton impeachment and 9/11.
Change the aperture to the last half-century, and there’s still more ominous news. In nearly every midterm election where a president’s approval rating was below 50 percent—the zone where Donald Trump lives—a shellacking followed. (The lone exception was 2014 in President Obama’s second term, when Democrats lost only 13 seats.)
It’s not clear House Republican incumbents recognize how bad it is. Members typically have finely tuned political antennae, but more than 40 of them were outraised in the final quarter of 2017 by their Democratic opponents. They’re either oblivious to the forces swirling around them or have flat-out given up.
But here’s the surprising thing. As dire as the situation seems for Republicans, the elements of a skin-of-their-teeth escape are coming into focus.
Beginning in late December, both the generic congressional ballot and Trump’s approval ratings began ticking upward. These numbers, apparent across almost all polls, were enough to curtail growing talk of a Democratic wave election on the horizon. Even Priorities USA, the biggest Democratic super PAC, took notice.
“In the last few weeks, Democrats turned their attention to other issues while Trump has continued to promote his economic policies, and Trump’s numbers have incrementally improved as a result,” the super PAC announced in a memo. “While still on track for a successful November, the extent of Democratic gains will be blunted if Democrats do not reengage more aggressively in speaking to the economic and health care priorities of voters.”
The snapback in the polls may be short-lived. Over the past two weeks, the generic ballot numbers have moved slightly in a Democratic direction. The Republican uptick in the polls could represent a sign that the president and his party are beginning to get credit for the economy and tax cuts, or it could be simply a dead cat bounce. Either way, if the party can keep the generic ballot deficit under about 9 percentage points and the president’s approval ratings can remain in the mid-40s, the GOP is in the range of where it needs to be to have a fighting chance of holding its House majority.
The cavalry will be arriving in force for the members who can hold out. It’s not just the National Republican Congressional Committee that’s cash-flush and ready to rescue hopelessly outgunned candidates. There’s the Congressional Leadership Fund and its sister group, the American Action Network, which together raised $66 million in 2017. That money will be spent on bolstering candidates and promoting the tax cuts to voters. The Koch network has promised to spend between $300 and $400 million during the 2018 election cycle on conservative political and policy campaigns.
The reliable a-noun-a-verb-and-Nancy-Pelosi strategy will still work. But then comes the hard part. To a large degree, the fate of House Republicans will be decided in the places where the party’s brand is weakest: in suburban districts Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, or where Trump ran well behind past Republican nominees, or where the new tax bill could hurt more than it helps.
Democrats, in fact, would be in reach of a majority just by running the table in California and a few Northeastern states. There are at least 6—and as many as 10—realistic pick-up opportunities in California alone. And there are another 10 to 12 seats that are gettable under the right conditions in New York, New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania.
Republicans will have to embrace, fund and protect their blue-state colleagues, not to mention allowing them to get distance from the president and his policies. None of that will come naturally to the red-state dominated Republican conference. It won’t be easy for the party to acknowledge its fate in the House might be tied to the Vichy Republicans of the Acela corridor.
The other essential ingredient of the Republican survival plan is largely out of the party’s hands: Democratic self-immolation. Naturally, it’s already underway.
Trump has re-engineered the laws of candidate supply and demand, leading to Democratic primaries that are teeming with viable prospects. Yet that’s also raising the odds of bruising, cash-draining contests before the general election, which could force some candidates to adopt positions that will haunt them in a general election.
In one of those primaries, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has thrown an incumbent, Chicago-based Rep. Dan Lipinski, under the bus, by declining to provide its endorsement to him against a top challenger, Marie Newman. Across the border in Wisconsin, the longshot bid to knock off House Speaker Paul Ryan has been sidetracked by a primary between progressive favorite Randy “Ironstache” Bryce and another progressive, Cathy Myers, who raised $183,000 in the latest fundraising quarter.
Various Democratic and liberal groups are already taking steps to cull the primary herds. That work, in turn, is leading to the kind of intra-party bitterness and acrimony that proved costly to Clinton after her 2016 primary with Bernie Sanders. In Texas, for example, the DCCC dropped an oppo research bomb last week on a leading progressive candidate it judged to be a sure loser in November. She won’t forget that, and neither will her supporters.
In California, the primary problem is acute. Democrats are approaching flop-sweat status over a nightmare scenario: the state’s unusual top-two primary system could mean that no Democratic candidate at all appear on November ballots in several key races. Under the system, the top two vote-getters move on to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. With big fields of Democratic candidates threatening to splinter their party’s share of the vote—there are eight Democrats, for example, running in the seat left open by the retirement of Rep. Ed Royce, an Orange County Republican—it’s a very real prospect that two Republicans will face off for a seat or two in November.
“We have a population problem,” Eric Bauman, the California Democratic Party chairman, warned delegates at the state convention on Saturday. “We may be aced out of seats that are primed, set and ready for us ... where the voters in those districts are ready to elect a Democrat.”
The first election of the campaign season doesn’t take place until next week in Texas, so it’s too early to know whether the Democrats’ demolition-derby primaries are a problem or merely a consequence of the party’s health. But for now, they offer hope for the Republicans in a year when there isn’t much of it.