Against the Grain

GOP Slackers Endanger House Majority

Many of the most vulnerable House Republicans may end up winning reelection. That doesn’t mean the GOP’s control of the chamber is secure.

Rep. Dave Brat speaks with a reporter just before passage of the Republican tax-reform bill in the House on Dec. 19, 2017.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Feb. 6, 2018, 8 p.m.

For House Republicans, the pathway to salvaging their majority looks a little bit clearer. Economic optimism has trimmed the Democratic edge on the generic congressional ballot to around 6 points. President Trump’s job-approval rating, in most polls, has ticked up to around 40 percent. The Democratic Party has been catering to the whims of its progressive base at the expense of more-pragmatic voices.

But the spate of encouraging news should be tempered by one uncomfortable fact: There are a whole lot of Republican slackers in the House, representing GOP-friendly districts that will be vulnerable in a down year for the party. There doesn’t need to be a Democratic tsunami to win some of these seats. All it takes are unprepared Republican members, overconfident about their reelection prospects and ideologically cocooned in their hard-right caucus.

Here’s how vulnerable many of these members are: Of the 23 Republicans representing seats that The Cook Political Report rates as “likely Republican,” 12 were outraised by at least one Democratic challenger in the most recent fundraising quarter. By contrast, only one Democratic member in the same “likely Democratic” position was outraised by a GOP challenger.

Many of these newly targeted Republicans posted unusually low fundraising numbers. Ethically challenged Duncan Hunter of California brought in just $51,000 and only has $291,000 in cash on hand. Freshman Ted Budd of North Carolina posted less than one-third ($183,000) of the money that upstart Democratic challenger Kathy Manning did ($564,000). Dave Brat brought in just $137,000 in the quarter, and was outraised by two Democratic challengers in a suburban Richmond seat. Six of the 23 members in the “likely Republican” category didn’t even raise $150,000 last quarter, a low baseline for anyone facing a competitive race.

The sheer number of unprepared members should be a major warning for Republicans looking to hang on to their House majority. It’s very possible that outside GOP money and political savvy will keep many of the most-vulnerable Republicans from losing. After all, a lot of the Republicans on top of the Democrats’ target list have survived wave elections before. Many, like Mike Coffman of Colorado, Erik Paulsen of Minnesota, and Will Hurd of Texas, have routinely beaten predictions of political doom despite representing Democratic-leaning seats. Others, such as Peter Roskam of Illinois and Jeff Denham of California, hold strong brands back home.

But there’s little outside help that Republicans can give to the growing number of members who look entirely unprepared to run a tough reelection campaign. Outside groups can’t play a game of Whac-A-Mole, repeatedly having to bail out members who should be secure. The previous two wave elections in the House (2006, 2010) featured plenty of members who lost because they didn’t do much to help themselves.

What makes Republican officials especially alarmed this time is that the threat of a Democratic takeover has been apparent for nearly a year. In recent landslide elections, many losing members got caught flat-footed when the political mood turned south as the midterms approached. This year, they’ve had time to read the political tea leaves and prepare accordingly—yet plenty of them haven’t. While Trump carried most of their districts, they are far from safe seats.

Making things more challenging is that some of these potentially-vulnerable members are catering to their hardcore base instead of appealing to persuadable swing voters. Many aren’t acting like they’re in a tough race at all.

Lee Zeldin of New York is taking the side of conservative hard-liners, calling for a special counsel to investigate the FBI for alleged abuses. His Long Island district, which voted for President Obama in 2012, is filled with law enforcement officials who may not look kindly on his rhetoric. Virginia’s Tom Garrett, who represents Charlottesville, compared Robert Mueller’s investigation to birtherism in a CNN interview this week. North Carolina’s Robert Pittenger, who represents suburban Charlotte, accused individuals in the Justice Department of “obstruction of justice” at a recent town hall.

If there’s one constant that strategists in both parties acknowledge, it’s that Democratic turnout will be sky-high, fueled by deep-seated antipathy towards Trump. It’s a pattern that’s repeated itself over the last year, even in some of the most conservative constituencies in the country. For Republicans to mitigate the impact, they need to persuade enough independent voters to support them and turn out their own voters in similar numbers. Candidates who lack the resources or political standing in their districts will find it particularly challenging to pull off the trick.

Even if the growing economy spares Republicans from a midterm disaster, they still have a lot to be concerned about. They could hang on to many of their most-vulnerable seats, but still see the bottom fall out because of red-hot Democratic intensity and lackluster GOP preparation. It’s why Democrats still hold the edge in the battle for House control, even if the anti-Trump tsunami never materializes.

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