If you’ve listened at all to House Democrats in recent years, you couldn’t help feeling pessimistic about their prospects. The party downplayed its chances to win back a House majority—until 2022. They blamed gerrymandering for their problems, conveniently ignoring the fact that district lines in Illinois, Maryland, and Arizona were all drawn in the Democrats’ favor. For the first time in years, party leaders didn’t even go through the motions of saying they were going to capture the House in 2017, which has been the usual spin in recent election cycles. All this poor-mouthing has served to dampen recruitment, depress fundraising, and serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy that the GOP had a lock on the majority.
Suddenly, with the prospect that Donald Trump could head the GOP ticket in 2016, the mood has dramatically shifted. The party is scrambling to recruit candidates in diverse, GOP-leaning suburban districts that they wrote off earlier in the year. But it shouldn’t have taken Trump for Democrats to recognize that there was a possibility to compete for a House majority. It was always a challenge, but never impossible.
One of the main reasons Democrats downplayed their chances of taking back the House was that it served their own liberal ideological interests. If external forces were preventing Democrats from winning back a majority, there was no need to replace polarizing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi with a younger, more-moderate lawmaker. If gerrymandering was the main culprit for the party’s woes, there would be no pressure for President Obama to moderate his agenda. Rahm Emanuel won back the House in 2006 by recruiting an ideologically diverse slate of candidates, many of whom opposed gun control and immigration reform. But that’s ideological heresy for many Democrats these days, even if used in the service of winning GOP-leaning seats.
But it wouldn’t take culturally conservative positions for Democrats to compete across the country. Consider: There are 65 Republican-held House seats with Cook Political Report ratings of R+5 or less, meaning that in the past two elections, the GOP presidential candidate ran no more than 5 points better in those districts than his national average. Most of the seats are in the type of suburban areas where Democrats must be competitive to win the White House. They only needed to net fewer than half of them—30 seats in total—to regain control. Yet, as National Journal’s Kimberly Railey reported, Democrats never thought they had a chance in many of these GOP-leaning seats from the beginning, and they are now playing a desperate game of catch-up to recruit enough candidates before additional filing deadlines occur.
Under President Obama, Democrats decided that restoring their majority depended on rallying the base while downplaying the importance of swing, centrist voters. They bought into the myth that midterms, with lower turnout from Obama’s core coalition, were a lost cause for them. That meant they had all but written off the House, where the average congressional district tilts ever-so-slightly to the right. Democrats should have long ago realized that relying on Trump wasn’t their only path to a majority. Promoting a more-moderate message—one that’s tougher on national security and less wedded to government regulation—was a way to win that didn’t rely on the opposition imploding.
1. Even as the threat of significant down-ballot losses looms with Trump at the top of the ticket, there haven’t been many signs of a wave election—at least not yet. Republicans and Democrats are still tied in the generic ballot, according to a new Public Policy Polling automated national survey. In this week’s Marquette Law School poll, GOP Sen. Ron Johnson is now within 5 points of former Sen. Russ Feingold among Wisconsin voters—a much smaller deficit than in past polls. Even optimistic Democrats involved in Senate races are seeing tight polling in battleground races in New Hampshire, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—states the party must win to take control of the Senate.
The main threat that Trump poses to congressional Republicans isn’t that moderate Republican voters would suddenly support down-ballot Democrats in November. The bigger threat is that he’d spur Democratic turnout (in particular, Hispanic voters) and discourage Republican women and suburbanites from even showing up on Election Day. And those turnout projections are difficult to model this far out from Election Day, without knowing who the GOP nominee will be.
2. If Trump loses the Wisconsin primary Tuesday, it will be the first time since the Iowa caucuses that he lost a state—and was unable to point to any other victories the same day to counteract the bad publicity. With another two weeks before the New York primary, Trump will need to come up with another diversion to avoid losing momentum.
3. A key test of President Obama’s remaining juice with Democrats will come in Pennsylvania, where Democratic voters will determine their party’s Senate nominee against Sen. Pat Toomey. The party leadership is squarely behind Katie McGinty, a former chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf, over former Rep. Joe Sestak, who nearly defeated Toomey in 2010. Despite Sestak’s past political success, Democratic leaders have been wary of his personal quirkiness and unwillingness to run a traditional campaign the way that party leadership wants.
So even though Sestak leads in the primary polling, President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden decided to put their weight behind McGinty last week. McGinty quickly put up a television ad touting Obama’s support. Obama hasn’t had much success in transferring his own personal likability to down-ballot Democrats, however. The president’s endorsement of party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter did him no good in 2010, as Specter lost to Sestak in the Democratic primary. And with the presidential primary grabbing more headlines than the Senate race in Pennsylvania, it’s very possible Obama will strike out again in a big way.
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"Even if House Republicans manage to get enough members of their party on board with the latest version of their health care bill, they will face another battle in the Senate: whether the bill complies with the chamber’s arcane ... Byrd rule, which stipulates all provisions in a reconciliation bill must affect federal spending and revenues in a way that is not merely incidental." Democrats should have the advantage in that fight, "unless the Senate pulls another 'nuclear option.'”
The House has passed a one-week spending bill that will avert a government shutdown which was set to begin at midnight. Lawmakers now have an extra week to come to a longer agreement which is expected to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year in September. The legislation now goes to the Senate, where it is expected to pass before President Trump signs it.
President Trump’s portrayal of an effort to funnel more Medicaid dollars to Puerto Rico as a "bailout" is complicating negotiations over a continuing resolution on the budget. "House Democrats are now requiring such assistance as a condition for supporting the continuing resolution," a position that the GOP leadership is amenable to. "But Mr. Trump’s apparent skepticism aligns him with conservative House Republicans inclined to view its request as a bailout, leaving the deal a narrow path to passage in Congress."
Democrats in the House are threatening to shut down the government if Republicans expedite a vote on a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, said Democratic House Whip Steny Hoyer Thursday. Lawmakers have introduced a one-week spending bill to give themselves an extra week to reach a long-term funding deal, which seemed poised to pass easily. However, the White House is pressuring House Republicans to take a vote on their Obamacare replacement Friday to give Trump a legislative victory, though it is still not clear that they have the necessary votes to pass the health care bill. This could go down to the wire.