Off to the Races

Troubling Signs for the GOP on the Electoral Horizon

The Democratic turnout boost in Texas, the California filing deadline, and the Pennsylvania special election could all foreshadow problems in November.

Pennsylvania Republican House candidate Rick Saccone
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
March 8, 2018, 8 p.m.

It’s hard to remember a week when there were so many interesting or important political developments. Some are getting less attention than warranted, others perhaps too much.

In no particular order, let’s start with Tuesday’s Texas primaries and the 84 percent increase in Democratic turnout compared to the last midterm election in 2014. That jump was yet another metric of heightened Democratic enthusiasm and intensity, key elements when partisan wave elections occur. Having said that, some Democrats are overhyping what happened, forgetting that Texas is still Texas, and that for every two Democrats who voted, three Republicans cast ballots. GOP turnout increased as well, by 13 percent. Democrats represented 29 percent of the primary electorate in 2014 and 31 percent in 2010; this year, it was about 40 percent, according to calculations by David Wasserman, House editor of The Cook Political Report. The Democratic increase was substantial but hardly gargantuan; it turned out to be somewhat less than some had expected.

This uptick is similar to the over-performance by Democratic candidates in five congressional special elections in GOP-held districts last year. All five districts were very strong Republican areas, all won by both Mitt Romney in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. According to Wasserman’s figures, Democrats over-performed by 6 points in Georgia’s 6th and Utah’s 3rd districts, by 7 points in South Carolina’s 5th District, 8 points in Montana’s at-large seat, and by 12 points in Kansas’s 4th District. But while Democrats beat the point spread by an average of 7.8 points, they didn’t pick up any of the five. They did capture the Alabama Senate seat, but for the House, as they say, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades; beating the point spread is a moral but not electoral victory.

This coming Tuesday, Democrats will have an opportunity in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District to finally get a pickup.

Conor Lamb, the Democratic nominee and a 33-year-old Marine veteran and former prosecutor, is given a narrow edge over Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone, a former Air Force counterintelligence officer, in this Pittsburgh suburban District. There is little doubt that Saccone is an underwhelming candidate while Lamb is much stronger than Democrats are usually able to field in a district like this. But the fact that Donald Trump won it by 19.6 percentage points in 2016, and Mitt Romney beat President Obama by 17 points in 2012, means that even with a lousy candidate, Republicans should win this one. If Democrats pick this seat up, a lot of Republican House members sitting in districts that they have thought of as fairly safe may not be so safe after all.

Some Republican strategists are privately worrying that there are quite a few GOP House members who don’t really understand how much danger they are in. Of the 238 Republican members of the House, 174 were elected after 2006, meaning they were not in the House for President George W. Bush’s second-term midterm election—the last time that Republicans faced a substantial headwind. Bush’s 38 percent Gallup job-approval ratings going into that midterm election were roughly what Trump’s are now (39 percent), and the GOP lost both their House and Senate majorities that year.

Republicans benefited from gale-force tailwinds in both 2010 and 2014, years when it was relatively easy for a Republican to prevail in many districts. These are members who have never had to swim with a substantial undertow and may have far more confidence than is warranted. If anywhere near what happened in the five special congressional elections last year occurs in November, with Democrats running almost 8 points better than normal, we are looking at a bloodbath.

Given that the California filing deadline is Friday (March 9), what is getting less attention is the down-ballot impact if Republicans get shut out of both the gubernatorial and U.S. Senate general elections in the state. As Tony Quinn, editor of the highly regarded California Target Book newsletter, wrote in January: “Republicans desperately need a viable statewide candidate in November to bring out their voters.

“If it is two Democrats running off for governor and two Democrats running off for US Senator,” Quinn suggested, GOP voters will have little reason to show up. “In 2016, hundreds of thousands of Republicans did not vote in the all Democratic Senate race. If they stay home in those numbers in 2018, Republicans could easily lose half the congressional delegation and a third of their legislators” assuming Democrats turn out in high numbers, he wrote.

The Los Angeles Times’s ace political reporter Mark Z. Barabak wrote on March 1, “There is a good chance, under the state’s top-two voting system, [Republicans] won’t have any candidates running for governor or U.S. Senate in the fall, leaving vulnerable House members stranded with no one atop the ballot to spur Republican turnout.”

Republicans already have two open seats in California that are rated by The Cook Political Report as “Lean Democrat”: Rep. Ed Royce’s 39th District and Rep. Darrell Issa’s 49th District. Three incumbents’ districts are rated as “Toss Up”: Reps. Jeff Denham in the 10th, Steve Knight in the 25th, and Dana Rohrabacher in the 48th. Another is rated “Lean Republican”: Rep. Mimi Walters in the 45th. And three more are on the “Likely Republican” list: Reps. Tom McClintock in the 4th, David Valadao in the 21st, and Duncan D. Hunter in the 50th. So Republicans have a lot at stake in the Golden State.

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