Is the 2020 fight for the House already over?

Trump down-ballot effect, campaign fundamentals favor Democrats

Democrats like Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who narrowly won in 2018, have an easier path to reelection this year, making it harder for the GOP to win back the House, Rothenberg writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrats like Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who narrowly won in 2018, have an easier path to reelection this year, making it harder for the GOP to win back the House, Rothenberg writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 3, 2020 at 5:00am

ANALYSIS — Of the major political handicappers, not even one of them thinks the House is likely to flip in November.

Not the folks at the Cook Political Report. Not the analysts at Sabato’s Crystal Ball. And certainly not my colleagues at Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, who in a recent column argued that the most likely House result is anything from “a GOP gain of five seats to a Democratic gain of five seats.” (For more on that, watch Nathan’s recent CQ Roll Call video.)

The general sense that the House is not in play is, in some ways, remarkable.

Republicans need a manageable 17 seats to regain the chamber, after losing a net of 40 seats, and their majority, in 2018. While only six House Republicans sit in districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 (two redrawn seats in North Carolina, plus one each in California, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas), 30 Democratic members now occupy seats that backed President Donald Trump.

That means the National Republican Congressional Committee should start off with many more opportunities than the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But that’s not how the cycle is playing out — at least not to this point.

Trump albatross

Republicans’ biggest challenge in netting at least 17 House seats starts at the top, in the Oval Office. The president alienated so many college-educated whites during the first two years of his presidency that he single-handedly turned over two or three dozen suburban House seats (depending on how you define “suburban”) to the Democrats during the 2018 midterms.

Instead of changing his rhetoric, style and agenda after that drubbing, Trump doubled down on his behavior, calling adversaries names, repeating untruths, and pushing policies on health care and gun rights that didn’t play well with suburban voters in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Michigan, California, Minnesota and even Georgia.

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Trump’s controversial comments are an albatross around the neck of House GOP candidates who need to win back suburban voters. Even GOP strategists acknowledge that.

Republican officeholders and congressional hopefuls have been afraid to criticize the president, fearing a tongue-lashing by him or a backlash from his MAGA followers.

That makes it easy for Democrats to tie their GOP opponents to Trump, limiting Republicans’ appeal among the very same voters that supported him as an agent of change in 2016 but swung to the Democrats two years later.

Still seeing green

The headline of Bridget Bowman’s April 16 article in CQ Roll Call says it all: “House Democrats widen massive fundraising edge.”

Democratic fundraising in open seats is particularly strong, and 11 House GOP incumbents are being outraised by their Democratic challengers (compared to only three incumbent Democrats who have been outraised by their Republican challengers).

At this point, the major House handicappers simply don’t believe Republicans have enough of the right candidates, performing well enough, to take back the House. (Of course, this could change.)

Certainly, a handful of the problems stem from GOP recruiting failures.

Trump won New York’s 19th District by almost 7 points in 2016. Two years later, Democratic challenger Antonio Delgado unseated GOP incumbent John Faso by 5 points. This time, Delgado faces what Inside Elections calls “nominal opposition.”

Republicans have had the same problems in Michigan’s 8th and 11th districts. Trump carried both seats narrowly in 2016, but Democrats Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens flipped both narrowly two years later. Now, both freshmen look poised to win second terms against less-than-sterling opposition.

But in some cases, even highly recruited, well-credentialed GOP nominees are locked in very difficult contests.

New Jersey’s Tom Kean Jr., the state Senate minority leader and son of a moderate Republican former governor, is challenging Democrat Tom Malinowski in the 7th District. Clinton carried the seat with under 49 percent of the vote in 2016, while Malinowski unseated moderate GOP Rep. Leonard Lance with less than 52 percent two years later.

All three of the top handicappers rate the race Lean Democratic, certainly not ideal positioning in June of an election year for someone with a great political family name.

Republican prospects against freshman Democrats Sharice Davids (Kansas), Susie Lee (Nevada), Harley Rouda (California) and Lauren Underwood (Illinois), all of whom won narrowly or are in competitive districts, also appear uncertain.

Inside Elections has three of those races as Lean Democratic and just one rated Tilt Democratic, while the folks at the Cook Political Report have all four contests as Lean Democratic. Sabato’s Crystal Ball has two of those races as Leans Democratic and two as Likely Democratic.

And then there is the case of Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb, a recent target of Trump. In spite of the president’s Twitter war against Lamb, the Democrat’s district doesn’t appear to be in play. All three handicappers see the race as Likely Democratic, a less-than-competitive category.

A new map in North Carolina guarantees Democrats will pick up two seats in the Tar Heel State. Add an open Republican seat in Texas that is likely to flip to the Democrats, and instead of starting off needing 17 seats, the NRCC really needs to net at least 20 Democratic seats in November.

Republican strategists hope that 2018 was an aberration. They expect GOP voters who swung Democratic during the midterms to swing back again in November. If that were to happen, the House would likely come into play. But for now, that seems more like wishful thinking than hardheaded analysis.

Cycles can change, of course, so we should continue to watch what the experts think. Every day brings news that could help the president and his party or the Democrats.

But right now, the GOP’s relatively weak position in the fight for the House suggests the party has fundamental problems this cycle that start at the very top.