Republicans bracing for loss of House majority


Republicans are bracing for the possibility that their House majority will be vanquished on Election Day as more and more GOP seats look vulnerable in the campaign’s final stretch.

The party believes it has a chance to retain its majority because many of the districts it is defending were drawn up to protect Republicans from a blue wave.

At the same time, Republican leaders recognize the numbers they are dealing with.

Democrats need to gain just 23 seats to win the House majority, and the party is favored by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report to flip 18 GOP seats. Another 29 Republican-held seats are considered toss-ups.

The number of Democratic seats that are toss-ups or where Republicans are favored, according to Cook, can be counted on three fingers.

An additional 28 Republican seats are rated as “lean Republican,” pointing to the potential for an even bigger wave if things really go well for the opposition party.

“Tomorrow is probably going to be pretty unpleasant for Republicans,” said GOP strategist Liz Mair. “It’s going to be tough for them to win the House. The overwhelming likelihood is that Democrats retake it.”

“I can always see a scenario where it doesn’t happen on Election Day, but I’m just really struggling based on the numbers I’m looking at,” she added. “If Republicans aren’t freaking out already, they should probably start freaking out soon.”

Top brass in the party, including Vice President Pence, have voiced confidence the House majority will hold, but top staffers have privately said they’re not optimistic about their odds. And President Trump — who has already attacked retiring Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in what has been interpreted as pre-emptive scapegoating — publicly acknowledged the GOP may not retain the lower chamber.

“It could happen, it could happen. We’re doing very well, and we’re doing really well in the Senate. But, could happen,” he said at a campaign rally. “You know what I say? Don’t worry about it, I’ll just figure it out.”

Cook’s final election forecast estimates that Democrats will pick up between 30 and 40 seats — up from a projection of 25 to 35 seats last month. Sabato’s Crystal Ball made a similar, though slightly more bearish, prediction, pegging the number “somewhere around 30.”

“We have long cautioned against assuming the House was a done deal for the Democrats, and we don’t think readers should be stunned if things go haywire for Democrats tomorrow night,” wrote Kyle Kondik and Larry J. Sabato, the editors of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. “That said, it may be just as likely — or even more likely — that we’re understating the Democrats in the House.”

Cook noted that as few as 20 seats and as many as 45 seats are all still within the realm of possibility for Democrats.

Nate Silver, election forecaster and founder of FiveThirtyEight, echoed a similar message over the weekend.

“No one should be surprised if [Democrats] only win 19 seats. And no one should be surprised if they win 51 seats,” Silver said on ABC’s “This Week.”

By the looks of the election map, Democrats clearly have far more potential pathways to victory. Cook rates a total of 75 House races as competitive, 70 of which are GOP-held seats.

“I think it’s a 70 percent chance of Democrats taking back the House, just because the map is so large,” said Texas-based GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “Democrats have a number of paths to the 23 seats they need.”

If every race currently rated as “solid,” “likely” and “lean” Democratic were to hold on Tuesday, Democrats would need to win just eight of 30 “toss-up” races to seize back the majority.

Republicans, meanwhile, would need to win 23 of those toss-up races, according to Cook.

“Not impossible, but difficult,” wrote David Wasserman, the House editor of the Cook Political Report.

Of the 30 toss-up races, just one is a Democratic seat while the rest are taking place on GOP turf. That includes a number of competitive races in suburban swing districts that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won in 2016, where Democrats are hoping moderates and female voters who are fed up with Trump’s divisive rhetoric and energized by the “Me Too” movement will revolt Tuesday.

Even some typical GOP strongholds, like Rep. Don Young’s seat in Alaska and Rep. Mark Sanford’s open seat in South Carolina, appear to be in trouble during the home stretch, forcing the House GOP’s campaign arm to conduct last-minute rescue operations.

Democrats have a 13-point lead over Republicans in a generic ballot among likely voters, according to a new CNN poll, while Cook shifted nine more races toward Democrats on Monday.

Historical trends also favor Democrats: The president’s party typically loses about 30 seats in the first midterm elections.

But a blue wave is far from guaranteed in such a volatile and unpredictable political climate, and Trump has defied the odds once before. Democrats are fearful of a 2016 repeat, while Republicans are warning that midterm polls can’t be trusted.

Pollsters suffered an industry-shattering embarrassment in 2016, as survey after survey cast Clinton as the favorite and few prognosticators ventured to entertain the idea that a victory by Trump was a possibility.

“I mean you really do have to look at 2016. ... Pretty much everybody got it wrong,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) told The Hill while campaigning for vulnerable Republicans over the weekend. “People don’t have as much belief in or give as much credibility to the polls these days because of what we saw.”

One major caveat that election handicappers have emphasized is the “surge and decline” theory. The reason why the president’s party typically loses seats in the midterms is because they tend to overperform in the presidential election, which then naturally declines in the midterms.

But in 2016, the GOP did not overperform with voters, which could minimize more serious losses on Tuesday.

Republicans are leaning heavily on the economy to motivate GOP voters. If they manage to retain House control, it’s probable their majority will be a single-digit margin.

Aware of the strong headwind their party faces, GOP leaders have been barnstorming the country to stump with candidates in vulnerable districts. In October alone, Ryan campaigned with 25 members in 12 states before joining the Wisconsin GOP’s bus tour for the final sprint this month.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — who hopes to become the next Speaker — traveled to 26 congressional districts in 14 states. And House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) held 28 fundraising events in 10 states for 18 members last month.

While Democrats have seen record-breaking fundraising numbers, Scalise said Democrats may have reached a point of diminishing return, arguing voters may find outside groups and wealthy donors’ efforts to impact the midterms off-putting.

“I think there’s a little bit of a backlash you’re seeing in a lot of communities where you see Michael Bloomberg or Tom Steyer, who are billionaires from outside of their state, trying to buy their congressional seat with $2 million a week being pumped into a district — that turns people off and it’s so offensive in a lot of ways too,” he said.

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