Election fears recede for House Republicans

Election fears recede for House Republicans
© Greg Nash

House Republicans left town for the Memorial Day recess feeling more optimistic about their chances in the midterm elections, putting a spring in their step as they head toward the heat of the campaign season.

Recent polling and election forecasts have cast doubt on the idea that a “blue wave” is building that will sweep Democrats into office this November.

One recent survey by Reuters found voters preferring a generic Republican candidate to a generic Democrat — the first time this year that the GOP has led on a generic-ballot test, which is considered a key bellwether for elections. 

In addition, the forecaster Cook Political Report announced Tuesday it was moving four seats — Nebraska’s 2nd District, South Carolina's 5th District and California's 39th and 49th districts — toward Republicans. Cook’s analysis cited “sub-optimal primary outcomes” as a key component in the shift, meaning Democrats are nominating candidates who are less likely to win. 

Republicans have cheered several recent primary results, arguing that Democrats are picking candidates who are too liberal for the general election. Those primaries include former Rep. Brad AshfordJohn (Brad) Bradley AshfordEx-Dem lawmaker: Russians hacked my email in 2016 In 2018 midterms, Democrats must stop sidelining abortion Election fears recede for House Republicans MORE's (D-Neb.) loss in Nebraska's 2nd District to a more liberal candidate, and Susan Boser’s victory over the more-moderate Wade Jodun in Pennsylvania’s 15th District.

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Rep. Steve StiversSteven (Steve) Ernst StiversTop GOP campaign official rebuts Trump on Russia threat GOP campaign arm withdraws support from NJ House candidate who made racist statements Progressives’ wins highlight divide in Democratic Party MORE (R-Ohio), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, cited the two primary results when making the case that the GOP has a strong chance of holding the House majority.

"They nominated some extreme people. We nominated pretty mainstream folks that will be great candidates in the general election,” Stivers said.

Rep. Trey HollingsworthJoseph (Trey) Albert HollingsworthOvernight Energy: Proposed rule would roll back endangered species protections | House passes Interior, EPA spending | House votes to disavow carbon tax House votes to disavow carbon tax Midterms will show voters are tired of taking back seat to Wall Street MORE (R-Ind.) — a freshman member set to face progressive-backed candidate Liz Watson in Indiana's 9th District — said he believes hard-left candidates will drag down Democrats in November.

“I think that the Democrats in the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] specifically bear the burden of this. They put 91 districts on the map, right?” he told The Hill. “They've said these are the 91 districts that we believe are competitive, and many of those 91 are really safe [Republican] seats.”

Hollingsworth is among the 91 districts targeted by Democrats, though Cook Political Report does not consider the race competitive; in 2016, President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE won the district by 27 points.

Republican campaign strategists say they aren’t surprised by the primary results on the Democratic side, saying they reflect the ascension of the left during the Trump administration.

“We were expecting that — people have kind of underestimated the progressive strain that exists in the [Democratic] Party,” one GOP source involved in the midterms told The Hill. “So, a lot of the more progressive candidates have prevailed.” 

Yet Democrats still have reasons to feel that the wind is at their backs as the elections approach. 

For much of the year, generic polling has given Democrats the edge over Republicans, oftentimes by a double-digit margin. Trump’s approval rating has also been mired in the low 40s, though it has ticked up recently.

Democrats have also won several special elections in districts that had previously been safe for Republicans. Even in races they have lost, the Democratic candidate has often improved upon the party’s usual showing in the district. 

The party also got a shot in the arm from redistricting in Pennsylvania, which will likely result in them winning several additional seats.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDems unveil slate of measures to ratchet up pressure on Russia GOP looks to blunt Dems’ attacks on rising premiums Who will be the ‘bridge’ for the Democrats? MORE (D-Calif.) has expressed confidence that Democrats will pick up the 23 seats needed to regain the majority — and potentially return her to the Speaker’s office.

"We will win. I will run for Speaker. I feel confident about it. And my members do, too,” Pelosi told The Boston Globe.

But House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHouse leaders clash over resolution backing ICE House backs resolution expressing support for ICE House GOP reverses, cancels vote on Dem bill to abolish ICE MORE (R-Calif.) has repeatedly said he thinks Republicans will hold on to the House, likening the current political climate to the circumstances seen during the 1998 election, when Republicans lost five seats but held the majority.

During an event at the Milken Institute’s Global Conference this month, McCarthy argued that GOP candidates would benefit at the polls from the strong economy, regardless of the controversies swirling around Trump and his administration.

“We have our challenge — history says the party in power loses 29 seats in an off year and 23 seats is our majority,” McCarthy said. “In January, I gave this presentation — it was plus 12 for the Democrats. Today, if you take a rolling average, just plus 5.5. We have a 4-point advantage — if we get 49 percent of the national vote, we'll have 53 percent of the seats.”

While Republicans are feeling more confident about their chances of holding the House majority, it’s clear that some members are fighting for their political lives.

More than 20 moderate Republicans — many tough facing reelection races — have signed on to a discharge petition introduced by Rep. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloOvernight Energy: Proposed rule would roll back endangered species protections | House passes Interior, EPA spending | House votes to disavow carbon tax House votes to disavow carbon tax Mueller indictments: Congressional candidate asked Russian operatives for info on opponent MORE (R-Fla.) to force votes on four immigration measures. Their aim is to approve protections for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump is ending. The program allows certain immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children to live, work and go to school in the United States.

The Washington Post noted 12 of the Republicans that signed the discharge petition are running in districts that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonProminent Putin critic: If Trump turns me over, I'm dead Dems unveil slate of measures to ratchet up pressure on Russia Trump tweets old video of Clinton talking up 'a strong Russia' MORE won in 2016, and many represent districts with a large Hispanic population.

While forcing action on immigration could help Republicans in swing districts, both leadership and immigration hard-liners have come out strongly against the measure.  

Some have warned that passing a bill could backfire, depressing turnout at the polls from the Republican base.

McCarthy has warned members of his caucus that, should the discharge petition move forward, it could cost them the election.