Against the Grain

Growing Map Means More Trouble for House GOP

Republican groups are spending money in conservative districts, as they concede long odds for many of their suburban lawmakers.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in Vancouver, Wash. on Sept, 10, 2018.
AP Photo/Don Ryan
Oct. 28, 2018, 6 a.m.

While Senate Republicans are growing increasingly optimistic about their chances of adding to their 51-seat majority, the mood among their House counterparts is deeply pessimistic. Despite an enthusiasm boost among red-state conservatives, outside GOP groups are still scrambling to protect rank-and-file members who looked in solid shape several months ago.

In the last week, the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC has spent money to protect Reps. Fred Upton in Michigan, Mia Love in Utah, Jaime Herrera Beutler in Washington, and George Holding in North Carolina. They’re trying to salvage several conservative-minded seats where Republican congressmen retired, including those of Speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin and Reps. Dennis Ross in Florida and Tom Garrett of Virginia. These are all districts that President Trump carried, but have enough suburban constituencies where the president is a drag on the GOP candidates.

The National Republican Congressional Committee is also spending money in Georgia to help Rep. Karen Handel, who narrowly survived a costly special-election race last year, and, in Florida, Rep. Brian Mast, who won bipartisan support for embracing gun control measures after the Parkland school shooting. Along with CLF, they’re also aiding Herrera Beutler as she fends off a surprising challenge from Carolyn Long, a little-known Democratic college professor.

Republican operatives are confident that a quick burst of spending undermining the Democratic challengers will shore up the vulnerable incumbents. They cite the record fundraising from individual Democratic candidates—a Democratic “green wave,” as Ryan now calls it—forcing late investments to make up the financial disparities. But the flurry of cash in GOP-friendly areas also underscores how big the map of targets has grown, forcing any Republican running in a remotely competitive district to worry about their political future.

Privately, Republican leaders expect to lose around 30 seats—and the House majority—but acknowledge that there could be a number of unexpected outcomes pushing those numbers higher on election night. That’s an all-too-realistic scenario, given the supercharged liberal engagement in districts across the country, lackluster reelection efforts from unprepared GOP members of Congress, and impressive fundraising figures from even long-shot Democratic challengers.

Outside GOP groups, particularly the cash-flush Congressional Leadership Fund, have been effective in undermining some of the leading Democratic challengers in conservative districts. Their hard-edged attacks against the most celebrated recruits—Amy McGrath in Kentucky, Brendan Kelly in Illinois, and Antonio Delgado in New York among them—have given the Republicans the edge in these blue-collar seats. They’ve found that culture war attacks, hitting McGrath’s view on abortion, Kelly’s “soft on crime” record as prosecutor, and provocative lyrics from Delgado’s rapping past, have made a big difference in districts that Trump won handily. (Trump himself campaigned for Rep. Mike Bost in Illinois on Saturday night.)

But there are many other districts where Trump won less than 55 percent of the vote that feature Democratic challengers who have gone under the radar. Some of these races have barely been polled, even though there’s good reason to think these GOP-leaning seats could be vulnerable. The surprising competitiveness of recent special elections in conservative districts—ones where Republicans hardly engaged—suggest there will be a Democratic undertow that many aren’t expecting.

All told, that means Republicans are likely to lose around 30-35 House seats—but the potential for a larger total is greater than the likelihood they can salvage their majority. The recent uptick in Trump’s job-approval numbers helps a bit, but only in races where GOP candidates show they can help themselves. With suburban swing-district Republicans already in trouble, the bottom is falling out at the worst possible time.

For more from Josh Kraushaar, subscribe to the “Against the Grain” podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

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