Tuesday’s blowout in Virginia gave Democrats yet another indicator that a wave is on the horizon, but the hurdles to a 24-seat net gain are still there, too.
The party’s sweep of statewide offices and potential to take control of the state House on a GOP-drawn map in Virginia offered an illustration of what Republicans could face next year with a Democratic base motivated by a distaste for President Trump.
In interviews with over a dozen top House strategists from both parties, many agreed that the combination of a flood of well-funded Democratic candidates, Trump’s abysmal approval ratings, and encouraging generic-ballot polling provide an earlier signal that the House is in play than has been apparent in past cycles that ended with more than two-dozen seats changing parties.
Still, several strategists also cautioned that taking a 30,000-foot view of the playing field misses the headwinds blowing through individual districts, which could limit Democratic results even amid profound anti-Trump energy. Democrats must still secure electable nominees from costly and contentious primaries, hone a cohesive narrative, withstand the disparity in outside spending, and navigate a map drawn to ensconce the GOP in the majority for a decade.
“Republicans took control of redistricting specifically to survive the environment that they are now in,” said former Rep. Steve Israel, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2012 and 2014 cycles. “They have built a redistricting levy to withstand the wave. We’ll see whether they were successful in 2018.”
Democrats have plenty of reasons to be bullish.
Trump’s average approval rating has consistently been below 40 percent since midsummer; President Obama’s was still above 50 percent at this point in the 2010 cycle, though it fell to the mid-40s by the midterms. As harmful as that could be to congressional Republicans, an even brighter warning signal is that national polling has shown independents preferring Democratic candidates on generic congressional ballots by double-digit margins.
“The reason that there were waves in 2006 and 2010 was because independent voters voted for the Democrats in 2006 and against the Democrats in 2010,” Democratic pollster Jef Pollock said.
The path to winning the majority requires putting dozens of seats in play, and Democrats could be on track to do so. More than 100 seats had appeared to be up for grabs by November 2010, when Republicans ended up netting 63 seats. When Democrats picked up 31 seats in 2006, that number was around 60, according to John Lapp, the DCCC’s executive director that cycle. That’s closer to the range this time, though optimistic Democrats see additional vulnerable Republican seats possibly growing the number beyond that.
“They have easily twice the number of recruits and twice the number of districts in play than we had at this point in 2005,” Lapp said, praising the current committee’s success in drafting “top-notch candidates.”
DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan said in an interview that the party now has strong recruits in 75 districts, though some of its dozens of targets include heavily Republican districts, such as Rep. Martha Roby’s in Alabama.
“You can’t bring a seat on the map just by making it a target. They’ve got some preposterous ones on there,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers, pointing to Republican Reps. Bob Gibbs of Ohio and French Hill of Arkansas. Stivers said he sees only 40 seats in play, including 10 held by Democrats.
A handful of recruitment holes could complicate Democratic prospects in competitive territory, such as in California’s Central Valley. But several GOP retirements have turned previously out-of-reach targets into toss-up races, including Rep. Frank LoBiondo’s exit this week from a southern New Jersey seat where Democrats had previously struggled to find a candidate. The results in Virginia could prod more vulnerable Republicans to retire rather than face a costly reelection.
The outcome of primaries—which kick off in early March—will be a determinant of the final size of the map. Some Democratic strategists expressed anxiety over the caliber of their nominees who might emerge from unpredictable nomination fights. Crowded fields could pose more of a problem in some new or recently elusive targets, such as in Upstate New York and Southern California.
“You need to make sure, in that part of the extended battlefield, that you have really good candidates,” former DCCC executive director Kelly Ward said. “And in the absence of those good candidates, I do think those districts fall off the battlefield.”
Democratic battles will play out in nearly all of the top 10 media markets, which could leave nominees with depleted war chests. Democratic strategists insisted the base’s enthusiasm ensures the money will be there, noting that the DCCC has outraised its GOP counterpart in each of the past five months. Still, Republicans contrasted the situation to 2010, when their intraparty fights were concentrated in the rural South.
“They’re going after races where it costs $800,000 to put up one ad,” said Guy Harrison, who was the NRCC’s executive director in 2010. “We had many races where we spent $800,000 total in the entire race and put up 10 ads.”
The Virginia results gave Democratic strategists hope that Trump-averse suburban districts in costly markets are now firmly in reach. Privately, some House GOP operatives said they are most concerned about senior Republicans whose districts fit that bill and aren’t used to tough races, particularly Reps. Dana Rohrabacher of California, John Culberson of Texas, and Leonard Lance of New Jersey.
With a total of 23 Republican-held seats won by Hillary Clinton, winning the majority will require adding at the very least one seat that Trump carried—and likely many more. So Democrats must also entice working-class voters, which could complicate the president’s role in the party’s midterm messaging. Lujan stressed that House Democrats’ focus will be on the effect that Speaker Paul Ryan and House Republicans have on each district.
“There’s going to be a national narrative of which President Trump is going to be a part of, I’m certain,” Lujan said. “But what’s going to be most important is having local conversations.”
Republicans see themselves as their own biggest obstacle and legislative accomplishments as a panacea. A normally GOP-friendly midterm electorate will not show up to protect an incompetent majority.
“The health care thing hurt us politically. The failure to do that could depress our turnout,” said former NRCC Chairman Tom Cole. “We can’t afford that to happen again, so we need this tax bill.”
A sluggish Congress can lead to disenchanted donors, cutting off the spigot that generates Republicans’ massive spending advantage. The House GOP-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund has touted plans to raise $100 million this cycle, and executive director Corry Bliss said the group is on track to surpass that by a significant amount.
For comparison, Charlie Kelly, the executive director of House Majority PAC, the main Democratic outside group for House races, said it is on pace to exceed the $56 million it raised in the 2016 cycle.
Last year, CLF’s massive war chest allowed it to sandbag the perimeter of the map. Some Democrats conceded that a massive spending disparity has the potential to stave off a wave, but Kelly insists the playing field is too large for Republicans to replicate that strategy.
“They could do that if we didn’t have the candidates and races that we have,” he said. “They can’t plug enough holes.”