No evidence of a downballot wave in 2016
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JOHNSTOWN — News of a wave election sweeping the country that would upend the Republican majority in the House is greatly exaggerated.

Even out here in the weakened Democratic stronghold of Cambria County, Pennsylvania.


In fact, there is no evidence that, no matter what happens on the top of the ticket between Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPompeo: 'We've not been successful' in changing US-Russia relations Michael Moore ties Obama to Trump's win in Michigan in 2016 The Memo: Could Kavanaugh furor spark another ‘year of the woman’? MORE and Republican Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE, that outcome will bleed down to congressional races across the country.

While the RealClearPolitics average has Democrats leading by three points on the generic ballot test, that edge is going to have to increase substantially for Democrats to have a chance at retaking the House explained Geoffrey Skelley, a political numbers analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

 “In fact, because of some structural advantages for the GOP in the lower chamber — such as gerrymandering and the clustering of Democrats in urban and inner-suburban areas — Democrats are probably going to need that margin to be close to 10 points,” he said for any evidence of a wave.

“Even if the environment becomes increasingly favorable for Democrats, recruiting shortfalls in a some suburban districts held by the GOP — the best territory for Democrats to make gains now — could limit their ability to take advantage,” he said.

Here in Cambria County, Pennsylvania Rep. Keith Rothfus, a suburban Pittsburgh Republican holds the same seat once held by Jack Murtha, the larger than life Democrat who dominated Southwestern Pennsylvania and Washington politics for decades.

Murtha was the dean of the Pennsylvania delegation when it swept into power during the 2006 wave election but died before the 2010 wave that placed his seat in jeopardy. His former chief of staff, Mark Critz, held onto to it (barely), but the state’s delegation went from majority Democrat to majority Republican 12-7.

By 2012, the “Murtha” seat was combined with then-Pittsburgh area Democrat Jason Altmire’s seat. Both congressmen battled each other in a Democratic primary. Critz won the battle, but lost the war to Rothfus in the general election.

People tend to not fully comprehend what a wave election cycle is, or is not. It is not something you speculate about in an office in Washington and put together like a puzzle piece, it is something you ‘feel’ when you are in the communities where it may happen.

It is cause and effect. It is the warning signs that populism is building. It is what people have missed about 2016, because they never understood what the waves of 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2015 were telling them.

In 2010, the Republicans won back control of the House, swinging them from a pre-election minority of 180 to a post-election 239 seats — and everyone read that as, well...the voters must LOVE the GOP now.

In short, no. The voters didn’t all of a sudden love the same GOP it threw out of power four years earlier. They just loved the Democrats less because they overplayed their hand holding power in the presidency and both chambers in Congress, and the voters let them know that at the ballot box.

The 2010 wave was historic; the Republicans also picked up five U.S. Senate seats, won five gubernatorial races, 16 of 30 races for attorney general 10 out of the 12 races where candidates for lieutenant governor ran separately from candidates for governor, and 17 of 26 races for secretary of state.

That is a wave, but it wasn’t over. The detachment of voters away from Washington punished the party still in power in 2014 and gave the Republicans the majority in the Senate and placed the down-ballot seats and legislative chambers in a margin so historically large it had not been seen for nearly 100 years.

Voter sentiment has been consistently negative towards Washington and the party in power for the past 10 years (under both George W. Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump questions Kavanaugh accuser's account | Accuser may testify Thursday | Midterm blame game begins Dems look to Gillum, Abrams for pathway to victory in tough states Ford taps Obama, Clinton alum to navigate Senate hearing MORE), and it overwhelmed the incumbency advantage in all four waves.

After being defeated in 2006, Republicans understood that to win back the majority it wasn’t just going to take money. They needed a message and good candidates who more reflected their district to win it back.

Part of the problem for the Democrats this year is that is missing from the equation, their message is cookie-cutter and they failed to recruit enough solid candidates. The other part of the problem is that voters are not that unsatisfied with their member of Congress.

Skelley says to date there is no evidence that a wave will break for the Democrats, not that it might not happen, but the jury he says is definitely still out. “Two and a half months is plenty of time for something to go badly for the Clinton campaign, enough that the presidential race could notably tighten, which would strengthen down ballot Republicans,” he said.

In President Obama’s sizable win in 2008, the American National Election Study found 17% of voters split tickets in their presidential and congressional votes, a figure that fell to 10% in the more competitive 2012.

“The number of split-ticket voters could bounce up again if the election result winds up being somewhat close to the current poll numbers, which would be good news for Republicans in Congress,” said Skelley.

But if Trump’s struggles lead to reduced GOP enthusiasm and turnout, that could sink some Republicans. But certainly not in a traditional wave.

Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. Contact her at

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