Democrats are finding compelling evidence that a new set of Republican-held seats are becoming increasingly competitive, stretching an already expansive map.
Internal Democratic polling conducted in August and September revealed the party's candidate leading or trailing by small margins in a dozen seats on the outer edges of the battlefield. And outside money is already starting to flow beyond the 50 or so districts that initially drew major TV ad reservations.
The GOP's top House super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, funneled nearly $3 million into a few sleeper races that had previously received little national attention. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee booked more than $100,000 of airtime in Republican Rep. Mike Kelly’s northwestern Pennsylvania district, which President Trump carried by 20 points.
“For Republicans, this is a game of Whac-A-Mole,” said John Lapp, a Democratic strategist who served as the DCCC’s executive director in 2006. “With a battleground map this big, they simply can’t be everywhere. There are competitive races in blue, purple, and ruby-red districts popping up every day.“
The CLF launched ad buys last week in seats held by Reps. George Holding of North Carolina, Fred Upton of Michigan, and Rodney Davis of Illinois, where private Democratic polling has found tight contests.
Two or more internal Democratic surveys conducted in the past two months found single-digit races in seats held by Republican Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington, Rob Woodall of Georgia, Vern Buchanan of Florida, Ted Budd of North Carolina, Ann Wagner of Missouri, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, and John Carter of Texas, and in Florida's open 15th District.
And multiple Democratic polls have found a single-digit race in Montana, where former state Rep. Kathleen Williams is challenging Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte.
Several of these seats are in costly media markets, which can complicate the ability of outside groups from either side to make a serious investment. But nearly all are districts Trump carried by margins ranging from 5 points to 13 points, and the polling is a sign of increasingly unfavorable atmospherics for Republicans after a turbulent summer.
"Almost nobody should assume that they’re cruising," Republican pollster Glen Bolger said. "If the president won by 10 points or less, it's a competitive race."
A Democratic survey conducted this month in Washington’s 3rd District found Democrat Carolyn Long within 5 points of Herrera Beutler, according to a source familiar with the poll. The National Republican Congressional Committee recently posted opposition research on Long to a website that independent-expenditure groups use to craft ad messaging.
Democrats worked hard early in the cycle to land strong recruits even in districts with tough demographics, and dozens of them have been able to build credible campaigns.
Many of the GOP incumbents in districts where Democrats have recently found compelling polling were outraised by their opponent for at least one quarter. In Texas, MJ Hegar, Carter's Democratic opponent, has the airwaves to herself. And in Pennsylvania, George Scott, who is challenging Perry, has outspent the incumbent on the air.
At a briefing last week, EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock said candidates and their allies are reaping the benefits from months of investments. As an example, she cited Linda Coleman, Holding’s Democratic opponent in North Carolina, who is running a competitive race that’s “flown under the radar for a long, long time.”
Holding sounded the alarm on his own race in an August fundraising email revealing that his internal polling showed him trailing by just 3 points. Coleman later released a survey that found her ahead by 1 point.
“Some of these races are going to be late breakers, and to keep on top of those after months of work is going to be part of the fun,” Schriock said.
In Upton's southwestern Michigan district, Matt Longjohn, a former top health official at the YMCA, said his internal polling had always indicated a path to victory and revealed that the 16-term House member was unpopular. One poll found that Upton’s unfavorability rating was higher than Longjohn’s name ID.
But Longjohn said his phone was ringing constantly with congratulatory supporters after the CLF announced it would spend $400,000 in his race.
“It was at that point that I recognized that really both parties now see this as a top-tier race,” he said.
Republicans still have millions of dollars to spend on TV ads to disqualify Democratic candidates, and they have found some encouraging data as well. A few battle-tested incumbents in districts that Hillary Clinton won have comfortable leads in internal GOP polling, and despite unfavorable national conditions, some surveys indicate that Democrats haven't been able to put away several open districts that Clinton carried handily in 2016.
GOP Reps. David Valadao of California and Carlos Curbelo of Florida posted double-digit leads in two private Republican polls conducted within the past month, according to sources familiar with the surveys. And the NRCC scaled back its ad reservation to boost Valadao. Reps. Will Hurd of Texas and John Katko of New York have also posted healthy leads in recent Republican polling.
In an open Orange County, California, seat that Clinton won by 9 points, Republican Young Kim led a recent public poll that mirrored internal GOP polling. In a South Florida district that Clinton carried by 20 points, Republican Maria Elvira Salazar recently produced a survey showing her in the lead.
Democrats aren’t concerned that an effect of past wave-election years has been the survival of some of the most battle-tested members, noting that the large map and favorable environment provide more than enough room for error.
In 2010, when Republicans netted House 63 seats, a quarter of the 48 Democrats in districts won by John McCain outran the red wave. And in 2006, nearly half of the 18 Republicans in districts John Kerry carried two years earlier were reelected, while Democrats such as Reps. Dave Loebsack, and Tim Walz defeated incumbents in stunning upsets.
“Will there be some the day after the election that we missed? For sure,” said Jesse Ferguson, who ran the DCCC’s independent-expenditure arm in 2014.
Some GOP seats already appear to lean in Democrats’ favor. Democrats should net at least two seats from redistricted Pennsylvania and an open seat in South Jersey. Meanwhile, House Republicans pulled their TV reservations earmarked for Rep. Keith Rothfus, a sign that his prospects are dimming against Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb. The DCCC slashed its ad buy in Iowa’s 1st District, a show of confidence against Republican Rep. Rod Blum, and then booked air time against Mike Kelly in Pennsylvania.
"It’s a war of attrition," said former NRCC Chairman Tom Davis. "You can go into these places and maybe not win, but you’re forcing Republicans to spend resources that they can’t put in other places."