Against the Grain

Democrats in Commanding Position to Win House

Republicans knew they would have trouble in swing suburban districts. Now they’re worried about a GOP collapse in some solidly Republican seats.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
AP Photo/Denis Poroy
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
March 13, 2018, 8 p.m.

President Trump is famous for avoiding responsibility, regularly blaming his predecessors for his administration’s shortcomings. Congressional Republicans have learned from his lead, making a sport of blaming lackluster candidates for their own political misfortunes. It’s become a running joke that before every competitive election under Trump, Republican operatives manage—like clockwork—to trash their candidate to the press.

It’s remarkable to see the lengths party leaders will go to avoid the elephant in the room: Trump. The reality is that plenty of mediocre, uninspiring candidates get elected to the House from typically safe districts. The difference this year isn’t the caliber of candidates. It’s that Trump is driving the Republican Party rank-and-file off the proverbial political cliff.

At this point, there have been enough off-year elections, polling data, and candidate-recruiting successes to render a clear verdict: Democrats are solid favorites to retake the House this year. Conor Lamb’s performance in a conservative, blue-collar Pennsylvania congressional district is simply the latest evidence that the makings of a perfect political storm are in play for 2018: energized Democratic turnout, apathetic Republican engagement, and suburban independents (particularly women) running away from the GOP.

The race-by-race tally also suggests the potential of a significant Democratic wave. There are now a whopping 47 Republican-held House seats that are rated as vulnerable by The Cook Political Report; Democrats need to win only around half of them (24) to take back the majority. Pennsylvania’s new congressional map could easily net Democrats five or six seats in the state. Without a competitive gubernatorial and Senate race in California, seven GOP-held seats in the state are at risk of flipping. Those two states alone get Democrats halfway back to power.

There are other glaring indicators that Republicans are in deep trouble. Over 1,200 Democratic candidates are running for Congress this year, more than any other election since the records were first tracked in 1977, The Washington Post reported. More Republicans have announced they’re leaving the House (42) than in any election cycle in the last 90 years, according to The Almanac of American Politics. The previous high of House GOP retirees was a mere 27 back in 1958. The record level of retirements is a clear vote of no confidence in the GOP’s fortunes, especially since these members are leaving when their party is at its apex of power.

At the beginning of the year, the growing economy and improved popularity of Trump’s tax cuts brightened the GOP fortunes. The generic ballot, which had favored Democrats by double digits throughout 2017, narrowed considerably. But once the energy behind a shared Republican mission dissipated, Trump’s self-destructive impulses returned. In recent weeks, Trump has been freelancing on policy, losing and firing top staffers, while struggling to deal with national crises. His job-approval rating has trickled downward yet again, with the Democratic polling advantage inching back up. Americans are voting on their values, not their economic self-interest.

Most critically, the president’s newly announced tariffs on steel and aluminum imports threaten to divide the Republican Party at the worst possible time. House Speaker Paul Ryan, along with 107 of his GOP colleagues, publicly criticized the president’s decision. Far from improving the party’s chances in the Pennsylvania special election (where one district-wide survey found the tariffs only mildly popular), it threatens to depress GOP turnout in the affluent suburbs that make up so many critical House battlegrounds nationwide.

The GOP’s underwhelming showing Tuesday in the heart of Trump country underscores just how punishing the midterm elections are shaping up to be. This is a district that was hardly on the Republican radar when it opened up. GOP groups invested nearly $10 million in a race for a candidate they’ve privately mocked in a district that won’t even exist past this election. The Democratic gains in blue-collar parts of the country also suggest the House map will be even bigger than anticipated. Even if well-prepared Republican members in swing seats are able to survive, there are many others in safer districts who are at risk of being blindsided by the depth of Democratic anger.

Democrats have their own well-publicized challenges: inexperienced candidates, overly crowded primary fields, and progressive activists out of step with what it takes to win in many winnable districts. But if the 2010 tea-party victories offer any lesson to the #Resistance movement of 2018, it’s that small setbacks don’t mean much in the face of a looming tidal wave. Republicans fumbled away winnable Senate seats with several exotic nominees but still netted 63 House seats that year.

It’s ironic: Republicans have been featuring House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in much of their House race advertising, with varying degrees of success. But she’ll have the last laugh if Democrats retake the House majority. Less than eight months away from the election, that outcome is looking as likely as it’s been in years.

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