Five factors to watch in battle for House

Five factors to watch in battle for House
© Greg Nash

It’s only April 2017, but both parties are already in full battle mode over the fight for the House majority in next year’s midterm elections.

For the first time in more than a decade, Democrats will be seeking to make gains while a Republican occupies the White House. They’ll need to flip at least 24 seats to win back the majority.

Midterm elections are typically tough for the party that holds the White House and House majority.

In 1994, Republicans won the House majority during President Clinton’s first term. They did it again in 2010, midway through President Obama’s first term.


In 2002, Democrats actually lost seats in President George W. Bush’s first midterm. But that was just more than a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

An early indicator in the battle for the House could come on Tuesday in the special election for Health and Human Service Secretary Tom Price’s former House seat in Georgia.

It’s also the seat that was held by former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), adding symbolic importance to the fight.

Here are five key factors to watch out for.

Trump’s approval rating

President Trump might be the biggest factor in the race.

“I think pretty clearly the most important factor is Trump himself,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a top election handicapper.

“It’s kind of a proxy of where people think the country is.”

Trump’s approval ratings are currently hovering around 40 percent, a historic low less than 100 days into a presidency. The president’s first months in office have included no major legislative achievements and controversy after controversy.

But more recently, there have been some signs for optimism for the White House and Republicans.

Trump was able to fill a seat on the Supreme Court, and his missile strike against Syria earlier this month won support from members of both parties.

Party enthusiasm

In 2010, Republicans were much more excited about the midterms than Democrats. That turned out to be terrible news for then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her party.

Democrats are hoping that will be reversed next year, and there is plenty of evidence to make them optimistic.

Left-leaning voters around the country are showing up to town hall meetings in droves to give GOP lawmakers a piece of their mind in a show of activism that resembles the rise of the Tea Party in 2010.

Scores of people have turned out for anti-Trump demonstrations, including at the Women’s March one day after his inauguration.

The question is whether Democrats can keep up the momentum into November 2018.

Democratic strategists are voicing optimism.

“It’s the Trump agenda that is driving the intensity of opposition,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who previously ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) independent expenditure arm and served on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTexas man indicted over allegations he created fraudulent campaign PACs FISA shocker: DOJ official warned Steele dossier was connected to Clinton, might be biased Pompeo’s Cairo speech more ‘back to the future’ than break with past MORE’s 2016 Democratic presidential campaign.

A Quinnipiac poll released earlier this month found that 49 percent of respondents disapproved of Trump “strongly,” compared to the 25 percent who strongly approved of Trump. 

The DCCC announced it raised a record $31 million in the first quarter of 2017. But Republicans are ready for a fight: The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) raised $35.9 million over the same period. 

The Georgia race will be a barometer for 2018. If Democrat Jon Ossoff wins 50 percent of the vote in a "jungle primary" on Tuesday, he will take the seat and avoid a runoff.

For that to happen, Democrats and liberals will have to turn out in droves.

Last week, GOP Rep.-elect Ron Estes beat Democrat James Thompson to win a Kansas House seat by just 7 points in a district Trump won by 27 points. 

Can Republicans govern?

For seven years, Republicans said they needed to hold the White House and Congress to repeal Obama's signature healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act. Then they failed to pass a repeal bill.

Republicans need to have more successes to give their voters a reason to come out and support them.

There have been some GOP victories.

Trump has signed 13 bills into law that nullify late-term Obama administration regulations that ranged from ensuring states can’t block funds for healthcare providers that offer abortion services to preventing broadband companies from selling consumers' data for targeted ads without their permission.

There's also the Senate confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, Trump's Supreme Court pick.

But Republicans acknowledge they need more.

Republicans in Congress fare even worse than Trump in recent polling.

The Quinnipiac poll from this month found that only 21 percent of voters approved of the job Republicans in Congress are doing.

Candidate recruitment 

Democrats have outlined 59 districts as early targets, but most of them will only truly be competitive if a wave emerges. Only 23 Republicans represent districts won by Clinton, and even then, many are longtime incumbents who will be tough to beat.

“Democrats are going to need to compete in places that haven’t been contested in a very long time. And part of putting them on the map involves recruiting someone voters take seriously as a member of Congress,” said David Wasserman, the House editor of the Cook Political Report. 

Democratic lawmakers and operatives acknowledge privately that House recruitment efforts fell short in 2016 and other recent election cycles, even in districts considered competitive. But anger over Trump is already proving to be a boon for finding candidates to run in districts around the country. 

The DCCC has already spoken to about 275 people in 68 districts about running, a spokesman said.

And EMILY’s List, which recruits women who support abortion rights to run for office, has heard from more than 11,000 women since Election Day who want to run for various offices around the country. By contrast, EMILY’s List heard from fewer than 1,000 people during the entire 2016 cycle. 

As Democrats try to field candidates in districts long held by Republicans, they’ll also still have to defend 12 districts won by Trump. 

Those will be made more competitive if they become open-seat races. Republicans see an opening, for instance, in the Minnesota district narrowly won by Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, who recently announced a bid for governor. The NRCC also said it sees Rep. Ed Perlmutter’s (D-Colo.) district as competitive since he is also launching a gubernatorial run. 

The wild card

A lot could change between now and November 2018. The state of the economy, an international event, a scandal or another unexpected factor could alter the landscape in the midterm elections.

A series of ethics scandals involving GOP lawmakers contributed to the Democratic wave in 2006 that propelled Pelosi into the Speaker’s office, for instance.

Already, questions about the FBI’s investigation of whether members of Trump's campaign colluded with the Russian government to influence the 2016 presidential election are hovering over the White House and has at times distracted from the GOP’s agenda in Congress. 

By next year, the FBI and House and Senate committees probing Russia's role in the election may have delivered their conclusions.

Then there’s ObamaCare.

ObamaCare was a big factor in the 2010 midterms. Could it be a factor again in 2018?

Trump has threatened to cancel insurer reimbursements in an effort to force Democrats to negotiate over reforming the healthcare system.

Despite Trump's attempts to blame Democrats, polling has showed most of the public thinks Republicans now in control of government are responsible for what happens on their watch.