The presidential election will be propelling the political conversation in the upcoming year. But Democrats’ attempt to preserve their House majority will be an equally significant storyline that will determine the permanence of their power base.
The math is simple: Republicans need to pick up at least 18 House seats to win back control of power. There are 31 Democrats representing districts that President Trump carried in 2016; an additional 12 represent battleground districts that Mitt Romney carried in 2012. Only three Republicans—Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, and Will Hurd of Texas—represent districts that Hillary Clinton won.
Many Republicans are privately pessimistic about their chances for a comeback in the House with Trump on the ballot. “Zero chance,” said one top GOP operative who was closely involved in the 2018 midterms. Nearly every targeted Democrat raised impressive sums of campaign cash in the opening quarter of 2019, showing that they’re taking their reelection races seriously.
But there are some clear signs that 2020 won’t be a repeat of last year’s midterms. Compelling GOP recruits are already announcing campaigns in swing districts, a sign that the party views last year’s dismal political environment as an anomaly. Republicans are co-opting parts of the Democratic playbook, looking for a diverse roster of political outsiders eager to run on pocketbook issues.
Here’s why the battle for the House will be highly competitive:
1. The outsiders of 2018 are now the insiders of 2020. Democrats won numerous seats in GOP-leaning suburban districts last year because they portrayed themselves as above the political fray. They didn’t have to take sides on controversial proposals championed by the party’s left wing. Now, the script is flipped: They’ll have to spend ample time defending their own voting records.
If Trump’s job approval remains where it is today—hovering in the low-to-mid 40s—those districts that Trump carried will remain favorable to the president. To win another term, Democrats will need some Trump voters to split their tickets. That’s not an easy task in today’s polarized environment.
2. 2018 was a referendum. 2020 will be a choice election. Presidents typically lose congressional seats in their first midterm election because voters often use the ballot to send a message against partisan excesses. But presidents have a stronger record making the case for their own reelection. Former Presidents Obama and Clinton suffered historic rebukes in their first election as president; both comfortably won a second term.
Democrats ran on a moderate message last year, pledging to protect health care and offering a reassuring check against Trump’s presidential excesses. Next year, their message will be defined by the presidential nominee. If Joe Biden wins, their playbook remains intact. But if a more-progressive candidate prevails, Democrats will have trouble making the case for their party in the GOP-leaning districts that they captured last year.
3. The AOC albatross. Don’t underestimate how prominent the Democrats’ newly elected progressive stars will be featured in Republican advertising. Outspoken left-wing members, like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, are politically toxic in the suburban swing districts that Democrats won to take back the majority. These voters thought they elected a crop of pragmatic political outsiders, but these socialist activists are dominating their party’s agenda in the first months of the new Congress. Expect a backlash in 2020.
4. Republicans have closed the enthusiasm gap. Democrats benefited from historic enthusiasm in the midterm elections. The turnout rate hit its highest level in a non-presidential election year since 1914, a dynamic that’s likely to be repeated in 2020.
But in the run-up to next year’s election, it’s Republicans who have a (slight) engagement advantage. In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 75 percent of Republicans reported the highest level of interest in the presidential election, compared to 73 percent of Democrats. Republicans never held an advantage on the enthusiasm question in the NBC/WSJ poll throughout the entire 2018 election cycle.
One other data point suggesting 2020 won’t be a repeat of 2018: Republicans have already picked up four state legislative seats in special elections this year (in Minnesota, Connecticut, and Kentucky), while Democrats have only flipped one GOP seat. Those results are in sharp contrast to the Democrats’ dominant downballot results in the run-up to the 2018 election.
5. Republicans will be running on the booming Trump economy. A disproportionate number of the districts where House Democrats made their gains were in the wealthiest parts of the country. Many of these socially liberal, fiscally conservative Americans voted on their values, not their self-interest last year. But with leading Democrats calling for higher taxes and increased regulations, it’s easy to see how these voters hedge their bets in 2020.
Back in 2016, many of these voters supported Clinton but voted for their Republican member of Congress to balance their vote out. If Democrats hold a noticeable advantage in the run-up to Election Day, it’s very possible these suburban swing voters will cast split tickets again.