Against the Grain

Why Democrats Are Still Favorites to Win the House

President Trump’s job approval is up and polls show GOP’s fortunes are improving. But Democrats are still well-positioned to win back control of the lower chamber.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and other Democrats gather on the steps of the Capitol to advance their "Better Way" agenda May 21.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
May 27, 2018, 6 a.m.

This column strives to take a contrarian posture on all things politics, but sometimes it’s hard to know where the conventional wisdom stands. For a while, many pundits assumed a Democratic takeover of the House was a very likely proposition—a near fait accompli. But more recently, some of the sharpest election analysts have started downgrading the odds of a future Democratic House majority to a toss-up. Despite encouraging economic news for Republicans, and GOP gains in national polling, I’m not quite as confident about the prospects of a GOP comeback.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been writing about the extreme, not-ready-for-prime-time candidates that Democrats have nominated—or are close to nominating—in several pivotal contests. The top-two California primary system could cost Democrats at least one very winnable seat in next month’s primaries. Trump’s job-approval rating is inching upwards, while the Democrats’ edge on the generic congressional ballot is narrowing. House Republican groups are flush with cash, thanks in part to Sheldon Adelson’s beneficence. All those setbacks are factored into my overall analysis.

But fundamentals matter—and so many of them are locked into the Democrats’ favor, big-time. It’s impossible to ignore the consistently supercharged Democratic turnout in election after election, from swing districts to those fought on conservative turf. Even if you look to the larger contests (like last year’s governor’s races) as a stronger indicator, the results are highly encouraging for the Democratic Party. If in our polarized times, Democrats simply win most GOP-held Clinton seats and pick off competitive open-seat races where Republicans retired, they’re well on their way to a narrow majority.

To that end, the results of an August special election outside Columbus, Ohio (home to National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Steve Stivers) will be a crucial test of whether Republicans have made gains in recent weeks. On paper, the exurban district is a bit more competitive than the Pittsburgh-area seat Republicans lost in an embarrassing upset two months ago. But Republicans also nominated their strongest candidate as their standard-bearer—state senator Troy Balderson—giving them no excuses if they badly underperform again. Early polling suggests the race between Balderson and Democratic Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor will be highly competitive.

Meanwhile, Republicans are hardly playing offense to mitigate any of their losses—a dynamic that always appears in wave-election years. Their best chances are picking up two seats in rural Minnesota, where Democratic retirements have opened up districts that Trump comfortably carried in 2016. Their other chance is to hope Democrats botch complicated primaries in California, by failing to get a candidate through in the elections. But relying on the opposition to screw up is a risky proposition. The GOP’s nomination of some exotic and extreme candidates in 2010 didn’t deprive the party of an epic congressional landslide. A few—like Texas’s Blake Fahrenthold—even got elected to Congress.

History doesn’t bode well for House Republicans, either. In a president’s first term, the party in power typically loses a large chunk of seats, especially when a president’s approval rating is languishing as badly as Trump’s. That holds true this year, even with Trump’s job-approval rating ticking up into the low 40s. There will be enough persuadable voters who reluctantly backed Trump—as a balance to an expected Clinton victory, perhaps—who will cast their ballot for Democratic candidates simply as a check on Republican control of government.

The actions of many respected GOP lawmakers also tell a clear story about this year’s political mood. Thirty-nine House Republicans have announced they’re leaving instead of running for reelection this cycle—the highest number of departures for the party since at least 1930—depriving the party of incumbency, their greatest asset in many competitive districts. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s abrupt decision to leave Congress was the biggest signal of GOP political panic, but many of his colleagues are making similar calculations. About half (20) of the Republican retirements have led to a potentially competitive race in their district, according to The Cook Political Report’s ratings. (The only silver lining: Since the day of Ryan’s retirement, no more House Republicans have announced that they’re stepping down.)

All told, the tightening generic-ballot numbers suggest that while Democrats may have a high floor of likely pickups (around eight to 10), the odds of a seismic wave toppling dozens of Republicans are looking less likely. Democrats have a great chance to win at least 20 seats, but it’s a lot harder to see them netting more than 40. The GOP’s best-case scenario: many battle-tested congressmen survive a tough year and weak Republican incumbents representing safer seats are spared because of Trump’s late surge. Even if that happens, it’s worth remembering just how big the map is for Democrats: 85 GOP-held seats are in play.

I’ll put Democratic odds at winning the House at 70 percent, with the number dipping a bit if the party blows some of their best opportunities in next month’s California primaries. With so many battleground districts in the suburbs where Trump is deeply unpopular, I’m not convinced that the political mood has changed in these key races as much as the national polls suggest.

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