Against the Grain

Mixed Signals in the Battle for Congress

Some of the most vulnerable House Republicans are in good shape, but the map of vulnerable GOP seats is still expanding.

Rep. Leonard Lance
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
June 24, 2018, 6 a.m.

Amy Walter of The Cook Political Report wrote a thought-provoking column this week contrasting the current political environment to the 2006 Democratic wave that swept the party back into power over a decade ago. In the piece, she notes that President Trump and congressional Republicans are in somewhat better position than their predecessors. Trump’s job-approval rating is notably higher than George W. Bush’s was at the time, Republicans are more energized to vote now (at least based on new Pew Research Center polling), and optimism about the direction of the country is significantly higher.

All told, looking at some of the key political indicators for the midterms, Republicans should be in solid shape. Take Trump’s unpredictability out of the picture and some political pundits might even declare Republicans the favorite to hold control of both branches of Congress.

The piece reminded me how contradictory many of the key indicators are for the midterms. I’ve long been convinced that Democrats hold the edge in winning the House, based on special-election results, the historic energy of the anti-Trump Democratic base, and the suburban exposure in the battleground map of vulnerable GOP House seats. On a race-by-race basis, just look at the Cook Political Report roster of the seats most vulnerable to flipping—56 held by Republicans, six held by Democrats—and it paints a picture of an unmistakable Democratic wave.

But I’ll admit to some second-guessing, especially after Democrats released some of their own polling this week from battleground districts that should be trending in their favor.

In a Southern California district that Hillary Clinton carried by 8 points in 2016, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released internal polling showing Democrat Gil Cisneros trailing by 2 points (45-43 percent) to Republican Young Kim. After GOP Rep. Ed Royce retired, this district looked like a must-win for Democrats to retake the majority. And while they still have a good chance of winning, it’s a bit surprising that Cisneros starts out behind in an open-seat race.

Another batch of polls from the Democratic firm Global Strategy Group also paint a picture of GOP resilience in a tough political environment. The firm released three surveys designed to show the unpopularity of Trump’s family-separation policy. But two of the three battleground-district surveys showed targeted Republican congressmen with solid favorability ratings back home—with Trump faring respectably in both an affluent suburban district and a majority-Hispanic one.

One poll, taken in the New Jersey district of Rep. Leonard Lance, showed the congressman with a respectable 44/30 percent favorability rating. Republicans in Congress were viewed significantly more favorably (-10) than Democrats (-21) within the district. Most surprisingly, Trump’s job-approval rating was above-water (49 percent approve, 48 percent disapprove)—in a district that Clinton narrowly won in 2016.

The second one, in the diverse Florida district of Rep. Carlos Curbelo, also found the GOP congressman was fairly popular back home (42/27 percent favorable/unfavorable), while Trump again had a decent job-approval rating (48/49 percent approve/disapprove). Indeed, for a survey purporting to show mass revulsion over Trump’s immigration policies, the survey found minimal backlash (at least early on) in a district filled with Cuban-American immigrants.

At the same time, there are plenty of competing surveys that show Democrats expanding the map and running competitive races in GOP-friendly seats. The third GSG survey painted a worrisome picture for Rep. John Culberson, whose traditionally Republican Houston district is noticeably anti-Trump. DCCC polling shows the party neck-and-neck in a conservative New Mexico House district and in the lead against embattled Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia. Meanwhile, a new Monmouth poll shows a populist Democrat in the lead in a West Virginia district that backed Trump with 73 percent of the vote.

There is one aspect to this election year that is shaping up to be similar to 2006: the unpredictable path of the wave. That year, some of the most battle-tested House Republicans—well-liked members such as Mark Kirk, Dave Reichert, and Deborah Pryce—managed to survive an otherwise treacherous tide. But many others, especially unprepared candidates in otherwise favorable seats, ended up getting swept out of office.

If Republicans had the luxury of just focusing on defending the most obvious targets, they’d have a good chance at holding their House majority. But when seemingly safe members get added to the list of potential targets, it’s worth remembering just how large the map of competitive GOP-held seats is this year. Because Democrats are showing up to vote in droves in red and blue districts alike, there will be plenty of surprise outcomes in November. That alone should still give Democrats a clear edge for House control, even if the path to winning the 23 seats they need remains bumpy.

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