With just over three months until Election Day, the question on everyone’s mind is whether there will be a blue wave or, as some Republicans suggest, a red wave. Perhaps the tsunami will simply peter out and preserve the status quo in Congress. A new analysis from the Cook Political Report offers Republicans the disquieting news that the House electoral map is their toughest in almost 100 years.
“With 102 days to go, Democrats remain substantial favorites for House control,” David Wasserman writes. “A big reason: Republicans are defending 42 open or vacant seats, a record since at least 1930.”
Republicans are defending 42 open seats this year. Of those, eight are in districts won by Hillary Clinton and another 13 are in districts in which President Trump received less than 55 percent of the vote.
“History is working against the GOP in many of those seats,” said Wasserman. We found that since 1992, in situations when a president's party was stuck defending an open seat two years after the president failed to carry it, that party has batted zero for 23 keeping it in their column.”
The current party breakdown in the House is 236 Republicans and 193 Democrats (with six vacancies). The 43-seat Republican margin means that Democrats need to win 22 seats to take control of the lower chamber. If, as history suggests, Republicans lose the eight seats in districts carried by Hillary, that would carry Democrats a third of the way to a majority before any other factors are considered.
Wasserman also points out that another ongoing trend within the Republican primary is to purge candidates who have shown insufficient loyalty to President Trump. Many Trump critics have chosen this year to retire, but some, such as Rep. Mark Sanford in South Carolina’s first district, have been fired by Republican voters in elections where support for the president is a “dominant theme.” The purge of non-Trumpers could come back to bite Republicans in November.
The loyalty test puts Republican candidates in a similar position to Democrats during the Obama Administration. Recent headlines have trumpeted the president’s recent rise in approval ratings, but the buried lede is that Mr. Trump’s approval is still in the low 40s per the FiveThirtyEight average of polls, similar to Barack Obama’s approval in the last six years of his presidency.
Even though both Obama and Trump are immensely popular within their own parties, they are unpopular with voters at large. This meant that Democrats had to run close to Obama in the primary and then distance themselves from him in the general election. The fact that Republicans won control of both houses of Congress (as well as many statehouses) during the Obama years shows how difficult this is to accomplish. This year, Republicans face the same challenge of proving loyalty to President Trump in the primary and then facing an electorate that disapproves of the president.
Republicans candidates also face a fundraising gap, Wasserman notes. The leading Democrat raised more than the Republican in 20 of the 42 Republican open seats between April and June. This was not only true in all but one of the districts carried by Hillary, but also in 13 of 34 districts carried by Trump.
As noted previously in The Resurgent, Republican super PACs are expected to make up some of the fundraising difference. The down side, however, is that PAC money may be spread thin due to the large number of vulnerable Republicans.
Donations to candidates are a measure of voter excitement as well as financial strength. The fact that Democrats are outraising Republicans, including some incumbents, at the district level is indicative of an enthusiasm gap that could spell disaster for the GOP in November.
In all, the current Cook analysis shows 37 tossup seats, 34 of which are Republican. Another 53 Republicans seats are rated as “likely” or “lean” as opposed to 11 Democrat seats. Cook rates 153 Republican and 181 Democrat seats as “solid.”
The next race to watch is the special election in Ohio’s 12th district on August 7. The race for an open Republican seat pits Republican Troy Balderson against Democrat Danny O’Connor in a district that Trump won by 11 points. Cook currently rates the race as a tossup even though Balderson led in two June polls. If Balderson is unable to muster a strong win in this solidly red district, it could be a bellwether for other Republican candidates with less favorable circumstances.
There are many pieces of evidence that point individually to a looming Republican disaster. No one of them is conclusive evidence of a blue wave, but, when taken together, they paint a picture that should make the GOP very uneasy.
Nevertheless, all is not lost for Republicans. Good candidates can overcome financial disadvantages and bad ones can blow an easy opportunity, something that Republicans should have learned in the Obama years as well.
“If you really want to track 2018, do yourself a favor,” Wasserman said on Twitter. “Go beyond fancy models/big data. Get to know the people running.”