Democrats appear confident they’ll take back the House majority next Tuesday — a fact top Republican strategists all but concede privately less than a week before Election Day.
“Up until today I would have said if the election was held today we would win. Now I’m saying we will win,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Tuesday night on CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Although nearly all of the competitive races remain close, conversations with several Democratic and GOP strategists, as well as public opinion polls, campaign finance reports and historic trends, all point to a strong Democratic showing in the House.
Democrats are running particularly well in suburban districts, where independents and many suburban women want to send a message of dissatisfaction to President Trump. This is having an outsize impact because many of these districts were drawn to favor the GOP and now comprise the bulk of the competitive races.
Republicans did see a slight increase in enthusiasm in the wake of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s testy confirmation hearing a month ago, but it has largely evaporated in the final weeks of the race, both Democrats and Republicans say. The exception is in more rural districts and traditionally red areas.
Those rural areas define the Senate battleground states, which means it’s possible Democrats could have a very good night in the House and lose seats in the Senate.
“If you look around and much of your district or state has got a lot of barns, you’re probably in pretty good shape, but if you see a lot of cul-de-sacs, you’ve got a big challenge,” said one top GOP pollster.
Here’s what to watch for on election night when it comes to the battle for the House:
The (many) open seats
Many of the likeliest Democratic pickups will come from Republican seats vacated by either retirements or members running for higher office. There are about 40 open GOP seats — a record — and many are in highly vulnerable areas that were already swing districts or slightly tilted to the GOP.
The fact that so many members chose not to run again reflected an expectation in many cases that this would be a tough year for Republicans, since midterms typically are for the party in control of the White House. Dating back to World War II, a president’s party has lost an average of 29 seats in his first midterm election, and 44 seats if his approval rating is below 50 percent, like Trump.
Republicans already struggled to hold on to open seats during special elections this year in favorable GOP territory. While they still won eight of the nine special congressional elections in districts held by Republicans, the massive shift toward Democrats in places Trump had carried by upwards of 20 points was notable — and early, concrete evidence of a growing Democratic enthusiasm gap.
Republican strategists concede — and public and private polls confirm — that the seats of retiring Reps. Darrell Issa in California’s 49th District, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Florida’s 27th District, Frank LoBiondo in New Jersey’s 2nd District and Rodney Frelinghuysen in New Jersey’s 11th District are probably gone, as is Arizona’s 2nd District, the seat of Rep. Martha McSally, who is running for Senate.
A combination of court-ordered redistricting and retirements will likely give Democrats at least a net of two seats in Pennsylvania.
All of that would get Democrats nearly a third of the seats they need.
The GOP has a few pickup opportunities of their own, largely in very Trump-friendly areas like rural Minnesota where they could flip two open Democratic seats. But they have far fewer offensive chances than Democrats have in a map with roughly 80 or more competitive seats.
The Republicans’ weakest areas on the congressional map come in well-educated, diversifying and affluent suburbs. Many of these, in places just outside major cities such as Dallas, Houston, Denver, Kansas City, Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Chicago and Washington, D.C., had swung hard from voting for Mitt Romney in 2012 to either against or narrowly for Trump four years later.
While the Kavanaugh fight may have energized the base in some states, in the suburbs it may have had the opposite effect, especially with college-educated white women who were already severely frustrated with Trump. Immigration remains a fault line in these areas, too, and Trump’s doubling down on the issue in the final stretch isn’t helping the GOP in those congressional races.
Ultimately, this is where the House will be won or lost, and there are at least a handful of GOP incumbents in these areas that most Republicans and Democrats agree are sure to lose, including some members that have withstood strong headwinds before.
Atop that list is Rep. Mike Coffman in Colorado’s 6th District, who has beaten the odds before, but now is likely to lose his suburban Denver district that voted for Hillary Clinton by 9 points. Trump’s approval rating there is in the 30s, showing just how much of a drag the president may be in the suburbs.
Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen has never really faced a tough challenge in the 3rd District, which includes suburbs of the Twin Cities. But Clinton won this district by almost 10 points in 2016, and Republicans say the tide may simply be too high there. The same is true for neighboring Minnesota Rep. Jason Lewis in the 2nd District. Though he’s only in his first term, he has a history of controversial comments and is the underdog in a rematch with 2016 Democratic opponent Angie Craig, who would be the first openly lesbian mom to serve in Congress if she wins.
Other probable GOP losses include Reps. Peter Roskam in Illinois’ 6th District, Barbara Comstock in Virginia’s 10th District, Kevin Yoder in Kansas’ 3rd District, Rod Blum in Iowa’s 1st District, and Keith Rothfus in Pennsylvania’s 17th District, who’s in a matchup with Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb due to redistricting.
Which way other toss-up seats go is what will determine whether a blue wave delivers a big Democratic majority in 2019. Republicans aren’t feeling good about many of those contests in the closing days — which could mean the difference between something like a 28- or 30-seat majority, or as many as 40 to 45 seats.
“The close races tend break the same way,” said another Republican strategist. “Even seats that we felt much better about a week ago are on the edge again.”
Among those seats trending away from the GOP include Pete Sessions in Texas’ 32nd District, Carlos Curbelo in Florida’s 26th District, Randy Hultgren in Illinois’ 14th District, John Faso in New York’s 19th District, Claudia Tenney in New York’s 22nd District, Bruce Poliquin in Maine’s 2nd District, Jeff Denham in California’s 10th District, Mimi Walters in California’s 45th District, Leonard Lance in New Jersey’s 7th District and Tom MacArthur in New Jersey’s 3rd District.
There are some Republicans in districts Clinton won who look like they will survive any wave forming — among them are Will Hurd in Texas and David Valadao in California.
In some districts that Trump won comfortably, even by double digits, Republicans could lose. That includes open seats in North Carolina’s 2nd District and Florida’s 15th District, along with Reps. Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th District, Brian Mast in Florida’s 18th District, and Rob Woodall in Georgia’s 7th District, who Republicans complain hasn’t been taking his race seriously enough.
Democratic candidates have had a fairly consistent message throughout the cycle — hammering Republicans over their vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act and support for the tax bill they say favors the wealthy over middle class Americans.
On health care, it’s a big shift given that passing Obamacare is largely what cost Democrats the House in the 2010 midterms. Now, there’s been a more favorable turn in public opinion on the law since Obama left office and Republicans tried to repeal it.
After the GOP’s plan to replace the law with a version that would have weakened protections for people with pre-existing conditions failed last year, it has become a winning issue for Democrats. So much so that Republicans have been running ads in the final stretch arguing they would fight for pre-existing conditions, even though most voted for the GOP bill which wouldn’t fully do that.
“The Republicans’ fate in the House was sealed on May 4, 2017, when they stood in the White House Rose Garden and threw a keg party to celebrate rolling back protections for pre-existing conditions,” said one veteran Democratic congressional strategist.
Ultimately, Republicans have struggled to land on a cohesive argument to voters, and the tax bill hasn’t been the silver bullet they hoped it would be, especially with independent voters.
Further complicating their efforts are President Trump’s unpredictable tweets and his pivot to scare tactics over immigration and a push to end birthright citizenship, which top GOP strategists were aghast over this week. That base-focused message could help in deep red states needed to hold the Senate, but it could be a disaster in marginal seats with heavy Hispanic populations.
“The headwinds were already massive, and I think this birthright stuff is going to hurt badly in some of these districts in Florida, Arizona, California and Texas,” bemoaned one longtime House GOP strategist.
Still, how successful Democrats can be will depend on turnout, which in the past has favored Republicans with older, whiter voters being the most reliable to come out in midterm years.
Democrats say they’re confident that Hispanics and young voters will show up. But if they don’t, Republicans could stave off big losses.