By now, most pundits are predicting a wave election. The most optimistic analysis from non-partisan experts is the House is at best 50/50 for the GOP and heavy losses are expected. The number of legislative seats Democrats have flipped, the unpopularity of the President and a revved up leftist base all have liberals feeling giddy.
Polls show Democrats are enthusiastic and excited. Take a recent ABC/Washington Post survey where more than half of Democratic-leaning voters said it has become “more important to vote” this year; only a third of Republicans felt that way. In legislative elections, low GOP turnout has allowed Democrats to flip dozens of red locales. But, for all that, the House still seems like an uphill climb for the party.
Why? Glad you asked. The generic ballot, which serves as a general proxy of the national mood of the electorate, has shrunk significantly for Democrats. At their xenith, Democrats had almost a 13 point advantage. Now, that advantage stands at about six points. Some experts predict due to natural “sorting” and favorable district lines drawn by the GOP that Democrats would need to win nationally by about eight points to take the House.
Much as Democrats have reasons to be enthused about how excited their base is, it could also cause them problems. A record number of candidates are running nationwide and this could expose deep divisions within the party, liberal vs. moderate, pro-abortion vs. pro-choice, etc.
Nowhere is this divide more evident than in Illinois’s 3rd Congressional District. Democrat Dan Lipinski, who has represented the district since 2005 (after his father retired), is being challenged by progressive Marie Newman. Newman is attacking Lipinski from the left for not being progressive enough. She cites his opposition to the ACA, supporting the Stupak Amendment, opposing LBGT rights, opposing the DREAM Act and not being in favor of Single-Payer Healthcare. The split is even apparent among endorsing groups. The AFL-CIO supports Lipinski while the SEIU supports Newman.
In districts Democrats should be favored to win such as suburban Virginia’s 10th Congressional District which Hillary Clinton carried by 10 points, the party is facing a similar dynamic. Democrats worked hard to recruit state Sen. Jennifer T. Wexton, a former prosecutor, but she is being outraised by another challenger and faces seven others. Barbara Comstock, the GOP incumbent, has to be rooting hard for leftist candidates to pull the ultimate nominee to the far left.
This is significant for a reason. Generic poll numbers and the national mood are important but each district election can be decided by internal dynamics. It is true in 2006 and 2008 some Democrats such as Paul Hodes in New Hampshire were extremely liberal and still won. But, in a non-wave election for Democrats he was crushed for the Senate in 2010. In a nutshell, Democrats will have to win in places that Clinton did not or are not solidly blue turf to take back the House.
So far, on whether they can, the evidence is mixed. In legislative special elections Democrats have overperformed significantly in Trump territory. But, in regularly scheduled elections in Virginia and New Jersey, Democrats did not win a single legislative district where Trump won a majority (they won one seat in Virginia where he won a plurality) despite winning 14 seats total in the former. This means Democratic overperformance in special elections might be one-offs and in the midterms where turnout is higher these seats flip back to bright red (or at least a reddish pink).
Most worrisome for the party might be the state of the economy by November. Economic confidence has reached a level not seen in 17 years. That suggests, among other things, that the tax cuts that looked so unpopular when they were passed in December may be an asset to Republicans by this fall. A recent Monmouth survey found approval of the new law even with disapproval for the first time and there is little reason to think the law will get less popular as time passes.
On the money front, while GOP leaders have sounded alarms over Democratic challengers and incumbents alike swamping individual GOP fundraising the party will be boosted by outside spending. The Koch brothers, Democrats favorite boogeymen, have pledged to spend $400 million in the midterms. The RNC has vastly outraised the DNC to the tune of having $60 million more and the RGA is sitting on a $100 million warchest to defend governorships in states Obama won twice.
Democrats also seem to be counting on Trump to do their work for them. That may be a mistake. The President is unpopular but since the SOTU his numbers have recovered somewhat and if he can stay on script about the economy and the stakes of the midterms he might be able to bolster House Republicans chances.
Finally, there is also Republicans favorite boogeyman, whoops, I mean woman, Nancy Pelosi. If anything, Republicans trump card (no pun intended) may be to get their partisans out by warning them of what a second Nancy Pelosi speakership would mean for the country. Endless Congressional investigations, trillions in new spending, obstruction of everything Trump does and catering to the left. In legislative elections Republicans have struggled to tie local Democrats to the national party. But in special elections last year in GA and MT they had more success. The GOP is continuing the strategy in PA-18’s special election in March.
America has seen many wave elections since the new millennium (2006, 2008, 2010 and 2014). Three of them occurred in midterms. But, just because the conventional wisdom and recent history point to a repeat does not mean it will. For Democrats, the House still looks like an uphill climb!