On Nov. 6, 2018, a third of the Senate and all 435 seats in the House will be up for election. In seeking to erase the Republicans’ 24-vote House majority, Democrats get to start with 23 GOP-held districts that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But some party operatives believe they have viable candidates in as many as 80 districts, allowing them to play offense all over the country.
“Viable” may be in the eye of the beholder, but Democratic candidates are plentiful even in some marginally competitive congressional districts and, in many cases, they are flush with cash. One Democratic operative said that 35 of the party’s challengers outraised Republican incumbents in the last quarter while only two Republican challengers outraised Democratic incumbents.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has outraised its Republican counterpart for five months in a row, bringing in $9 million more last quarter. High-profile Republicans are starting to retire in both chambers, including some centrists and pragmatic conservatives whose districts could be competitive in a Democratic wave election: Reps. Pat Tiberi of Ohio, Dave Reichert of Washington, and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania.
President Trump’s job approval ratings have been hitting new lows. Gallup found only 38 percent approving of Trump, with one of the firm’s daily tracking polls going as low as 33 percent (62 percent disapproved). The RealClearPolitics average has Trump below 40 percent while Congress, controlled by Republicans, is even less popular.
Then, there is the simple matter of history. In 18 of the last 20 midterm elections, the president’s party has lost seats. The two exceptions, both recent, prove the rule. The Democrats gained seats under Bill Clinton in 1998, during the impeachment saga, and the Republicans did too under George W. Bush in 2002, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“There are a lot of environmental factors working in our favor, at least historically,” said a Democratic operative. “But we recognize those can change, there’s no clear indication that Trump, that the world of Trump follows typical history.”
Not so fast
The volatility of the current political environment has insiders in both parties cautious about drawing sweeping conclusions this far out. Trump had a 60 percent unfavorable rating the night he was elected president. A fifth of his own voters held an unfavorable view of him, according to exit polls, suggesting that the traditional measures could be insufficient.
So far, Republicans have delivered few big legislative agenda items, leaving some core campaign promises unfulfilled. Two high-level Trump associates have been indicted and a third, lower-level figure from the president’s campaign has already pleaded guilty in the Russia investigation. The anger among the Democratic base is white-hot.
"We are not assuming anything when it comes to Trump,” said DCCC communications director Meredith Kelly. “We’re focused on things we can control in the off year." That includes candidate recruitment, fundraising, and digital operations in an ultra-competitive environment.
“Trump's numbers weren't that much better in the targeted districts going into last year — and even though we're at an all-time low — in most of these places, he was in the low 30s last cycle, and Republicans still held their seats,” said a “cautiously optimistic” GOP strategist requesting anonymity to speak candidly. “The environment hasn't drastically shifted in my opinion. ... It's definitely worse in some ways, but it's not drastically worse.”
Democrats have not won any of the competitive special elections so far in 2017, although those were largely fought on Republican territory and a surprisingly tough Alabama Senate contest still looms in December. The Virginia governor’s race, unresolved at press time, was hard-fought despite Trump’s massive unpopularity in the populous D.C. suburbs.
Republicans are cognizant of the headwinds. But they still think there is time to turn around some public perceptions of what unified GOP control of the federal government can accomplish for voters. They remain confident that some of their swing district incumbents can differentiate themselves from Trump when they must. And they view the Democrats as surprisingly mistake-prone in spite of their built-in advantages, perhaps too angry for their own good.
"They constantly fall into the Trump trap. Every little thing he does makes their hair on fire,” said Liesl Hickey, former executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee and cohost of the “House Talks” podcast. “The president is very smart about how he needles them."
Some Republicans also think their competitors might have too much of a good thing when it comes to candidates, potentially leading to overly competitive Democratic primaries. “They’re all going at it,” said a GOP source. “All raising pretty good money, but they’re using it against each other. Even if the DCCC’s pick wins, will be hard in general.”
“So even as terrible as Trump seems to be, Democrats are absolutely awful, they're atrocious,” argued a Republican strategist. “They can't capitalize on one moment.”
Republicans also do have structural advantages of their own. As challenging of an environment as next year might be, the Senate map is favorable. Republicans have to defend only eight seats, just one of which is in a state that Clinton won. Democrats are defending 25 seats, 10 of which are in states that Trump carried.
This number includes two states Trump won by 19 points (Indiana and Missouri), one he carried by more than 20 (Montana), another he took by 36 points (North Dakota), and one that went for the president by 42 percentage points (West Virginia). Republican candidate recruitment in the Trump states hasn’t been the best, but the party could plausibly make gains in the upper chamber even if the national climate remains lackluster.
“The Senate hasn’t had such a strong pro-GOP bias since the ratification of direct Senate elections in 1913,” wrote FiveThirtyEight’s David Wasserman.
Yet, even here, the Democrats see a narrow path to a majority. It starts with a loss in December by former state supreme court justice Roy Moore, the surprise Republican primary winner whose poll numbers against his Democratic opponent have been much weaker than expected. From there it goes to strong Democratic candidates for the open seat left by Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and running against the most vulnerable GOP incumbent, Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev.
Maybe a retirement like that of Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., puts a once-safe GOP Senate seat at risk. More likely it doesn’t. Still, a 52-48 Republican majority in the Senate is hardly sacrosanct. With a stroke of luck, it could give.
So, then what? Democrats are doing what they can to ensure that their candidates are ready. The DCCC is actively training challengers and first-time contenders for public office on how best to run their races in states where there is backlash against Trump or the GOP congressional leadership.
“We created a national training program because there are not enough good campaign aides to work races given we have so many contests, including Senate races and governor’s races,” said a Democratic operative.
“We’re working to get good consultants onto campaigns, even in tier three races,” the operative added, referring to the least competitive races Democrats plan to contest. “We want as many of those candidates as possible to be viable and have Republicans looking over their shoulder, in as many places as possible.”
GOP work to do
Republicans are also working hard. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC association with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., will have an estimated budget of $100 million. The group has already opened 22 field offices in targeted congressional districts, planning to soon raise that total to over 30 before the end of the year.
“CLF exists for one reason and one reason only: To protect the House majority,” said Corry Bliss, the Republican operative who runs the Ryan super PAC. CLF volunteers have already knocked on over 3 million doors in targeted areas.
Both parties have to deal with lingering divisions and bitterness from past election cycles. The Democrats aren’t entirely over the surprisingly heated contest between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2016. In fact, the revelations by party insiders that the Democratic National Committee really did have their thumbs on the scale for Clinton has hurt party-building efforts and made the DNC unique among party institutions in having fundraising problems.
Even some of the Bill Clinton-era centrists are still around making familiar criticism of the Democratic Party’s strategy. Much of that could dissipate if Democrats win the Virginia governor’s race well ahead of the midterms.
Republicans have their own divisions, chief among them former Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon threatening to mount competitive primary challenges against every incumbent GOP senator except for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Any success with this could open nearly a dozen more Senate seats to serious Democratic competition.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies have already starting swinging at Bannon and his admirers. In their view, it took Republicans all the way to 2014 to recapture the Senate majority precisely because the party nominated weak candidates in the primaries during 2010 and 2012, allowing the Tea Party to lose otherwise winnable seats. McConnell and friends are willing to let their opposition research on Bannon flow early.
“A lot of people in our party believe you have to win over the 10 percent in the middle to be re-elected,” said a Republican strategist friendly to Bannon and Trump. “You really need to have the intensity of the voters based around our [Trump’s] core issues.”
One thing Republicans across the spectrum do believe in is the necessity of passing tax reform. Unless some kind of overhaul of the tax code is approved by the end of next year, especially in the form of a large tax cut for the middle class, the GOP could well end up with serious problems motivating the party’s base.
Tax reduction, many Republicans believe, offer the party its best chance of accelerating economic growth and boosting paychecks. The failure of Obamacare repeal and a lack of urgency among Republicans who have cut taxes before will increase the scrutiny. Republicans are demanding tangible results.
So too is the Republican base, contending with frustrated and energized core Democratic voters. How do you keep one group’s voters motivated in the face of the status quo while Democrats are engaged in the anti-Trump “resistance?”
“We have to keep the base engaged, and show progress on bigger things we’ve promised,” said Matt Gorman, communications director for the NRCC. “We don’t have to get everything done but have to get something done.”
With control of Congress hanging in the balance, Republicans are holding out hope they can run on what Republicans have accomplished up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. Democrats, however, are hoping they can do that too — with a much different result.