How Democrats Got to the Precipice of a House Majority

The party is favored Tuesday despite unfavorable maps, a glut of GOP outside money, and messy primaries.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Nov. 5, 2018, 11:03 a.m.

It took eight years, but here on the eve of the midterm elections Democrats appear to have finally worked their way around the roadblocks that stymied past attempts to reclaim the House majority.

Their candidates are dominating the airwaves despite well over $100 million in Republican outside-group money. More than a dozen heavily gerrymandered seats are firmly in play, as are numerous traditionally Republican suburbs. And impressive recruits with crossover-support-winning résumés emerged largely unscathed from months of sometimes vicious primary battles.

It's ultimately all thanks to their biggest foil: President Trump.

“President Romney, President Jeb Bush, even President Ted Cruz would not have generated this much of an advantage for the Democrats,” said former Rep. Steve Israel, a two-term chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Donald Trump is the DCCC’s best recruiter, fundraiser, and field organizer.”

In interviews, few Democratic strategists said they could have predicted the commanding position they now hold heading into Tuesday. In late 2017—as Trump’s approval ratings dwindled, a flood of well-funded candidates opened up a massive battlefield, and a Republican rout in Virginia nearly flipped the lower chamber—party strategists still cautioned the path to the majority was littered with barricades in individual districts.

A year later, operatives from both parties have marveled at how Democrats have overcome hurdles such as $30 million checks from Sheldon Adelson to Republican super PACs and a map centered around the priciest media markets.

Democrats’ ability to turn a fundraising windfall into a massive television advantage has proven to be one of their most crucial assets. Democratic House candidates and incumbents collectively raised more than $239 million in the third quarter, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission filings, while Republicans brought in $111 million, less than half as much.

“The Democrats are awash in money, and it’s going to make a difference for them on Election Day,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, who twice chaired the GOP's House campaign arm. “You would never have been able to predict Democratic second- and third-tier candidates would raise $2 million, and that has put a lot of pressure on Republicans.”

In the past three cycles, outside groups have been able to shore up the battleground as needed in the final weeks, crafting a firewall to insulate GOP members from an unpredictable environment. They appeared to once again have the resources in 2018, as the Congressional Leadership Fund raised a whopping $160 million and funneled $107 million onto the airwaves in 45 districts, according to recent media-buying data.

But unprecedented Democratic fundraising, buoyed by small-dollar donations, allowed candidates to air TV ads early, sometimes before the onslaught of negative attacks. And they maintained an edge into the post-Labor Day portion of the cycle, when crucial swing voters began tuning in.

At least 40 Democratic candidates got on the air in August or earlier, per an analysis of media-buying data in 75 top House races. And in at least three dozen districts, the Democratic candidate was the top TV spender, beating the Republican candidate and major GOP outside groups as of early November.

“It’s unusual for Democrats to be out-communicating or outspending Republicans district-by-district, especially in a battlefield this large,” said Charlie Kelly, executive director of House Majority PAC, which has spent more than $50 million helping Democratic candidates on the air this cycle. “It’s not something I anticipated to be as prolific as it is.”

A party committee or major allied super PAC has spent in more than 70 districts, the vast majority of which are held by Republicans. That’s a testament to the success of Democrats’ strategy to create a massive battlefield that would exhaust GOP resources.

Republicans hoped messy primaries would lead to broke and tarnished nominees who took left-leaning positions unpalatable to swing voters, but Democrats largely cleared that hurdle as well. More than half of the 92 nominees on the DCCC’s Red to Blue list, which identifies top challengers, faced contested primaries. Democratic strategists pointed to only two examples where the primary outcome might hinder their general-election chances: an Omaha-based district in Nebraska and a Syracuse-area seat in New York.

And nominees who navigated some of the more intense primary battles, such as Katie Porter in California and Antonio Delgado in New York, still enjoyed a commanding cash lead. Both outraised opponents 3 to 1 the quarter after their primary and have spent millions more on the air in two of the most expensive markets.

DCCC officials in charge of fielding candidates said they would rather endure messy primaries than suffer the recruitment struggles from the past two cycles. An early sign of Trump’s impact came in 2017 when Democrats saw an avalanche of interest in running for office from candidates with compelling biographies, such as veterans and popular state legislators.

“It’s one thing to have a push for more diverse candidates, certainly female candidates,” said GOP consultant Doug Heye. “But when they’re female veterans, that is an extremely big accomplishment.”

Dozens of candidates attributed their motivation for running to Trump, whose political rise came too late in the 2016 cycle to serve as recruitment tool then. But DCCC recruiters knew Trump had the ability to coax top-tier contenders. In 2016, he helped them entice now-Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Vietnamese refugee-turned national security specialist, to enter the race against 12-term Rep. John Mica of Florida on the eve of the late June filing deadline.

This year the president’s diminished vote shares in previously conservative strongholds opened up new targets in places such as Orange County, but Democrats were finally able to field credible candidates in districts that long had the potential to be competitive, such as those held by Reps. Tom MacArthur and Rodney Frelinghuysen in New Jersey. In past years, national Democrats were particularly frustrated by their inability to recruit in the Midwest, a region now hosting dozens of competitive races.

Those recruits enlarged the battlefield, which strategists said appears all the more remarkable because of how many Republican-drawn gerrymanders are in play. Democrats still insist the unfavorable lines could greatly limit their gains this year, but few think they will block the majority.

Court-ordered redistricting this year in Pennsylvania handed Democrats a far more level playing field than the 2011 GOP-drawn map, which helped Republicans control 13 of the 18 seats in the delegation at the start of the cycle. Democrats will net at least two seats under the new lines and could gain as many as six.

Beyond that, about 20 heavily gerrymandered districts are competitive this cycle, including four in Michigan, three in North Carolina, and several in Ohio—three areas where Democrats haven’t been successful picking up seats this decade.

Gerrymandering experts and operatives from both parties mostly offered two explanations for the 2018 dynamic. Gerrymanders grow weaker as the lines age, because of changing demographics that can be hard to predict. That helps explain why GOP Reps. Peter Roskam and Randy Hultgren are locked in tight reelections despite Democratic mapmakers drawing their suburban Chicago districts to be Republican vote-sinks.

But Democrats have long contended that the 2011 maps are so effectively drawn to elect Republicans that they even account for population changes. That's where Trump plays a role. The president's sharp unpopularity in affluent suburban districts realigned swaths of once-reliable Republican voters who can’t stomach his brash demeanor or nationalistic leanings.

“Natural growth minus the Trump effect would not overcome the gerrymandered structural barrier," said Kelly Ward, a two-term DCCC executive director who now leads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

In an effort to maximize the number of seats they held after the 2010 GOP wave, Republicans created scores of seats where their candidates could win with about 55 percent of the vote, a margin that creates more GOP-held districts under a normal environment but leaves them more susceptible to getting caught in a wave.

“You’re protecting for a 100-year flood, but you’re not expecting a 500- or 1,000-year flood,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. But that, he added, "doesn’t mean these gerrymanders don’t snap back in 2020. You may not have the same conditions on the ground.”

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