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Dems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority

The magic number of seats Democrats need to hit to win back the House majority is 23. But in reality, it’s almost certainly a much smaller number.

Several GOP-held seats are seemingly already in the bag, meaning Democrats likely need to take a smaller number of competitive seats — perhaps as few as 15 — to return to the majority for the first time since 2010.

It’s all making Republicans nervous — even before Tuesday’s special election in Ohio, where a Republican candidate appears to have just scraped by in a district that has been in GOP hands since 1983 and that President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE won two years ago by 11 points.

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“I don’t think there is necessarily a blue wave, but what concerns me is suburban districts in New Jersey, Philadelphia, New York, Illinois and California — those are not good for us,” said one House Republican from a blue state.

“Educated women, young people independents — they are energized. I clearly think [Democrats] have enough to win over 24 seats.”

Democrats, for their part, are taking nothing for granted, saying it’s well too soon to divert resources from any districts.

“The biggest strategic challenge [Democrats] have will come in September and October when they’ve got to make a decision whether some races are now in the safe column and they can divert resources to lean-Republican races,” said former Rep. Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelMichael Avenatti, please go away Election Countdown: Florida candidates face new test from hurricane | GOP optimistic about expanding Senate majority | Top-tier Dems start heading to Iowa | Bloomberg rejoins Dems | Trump heads to Pennsylvania rally Understanding Joe Manchin MORE (D-N.Y.).

“It’s way too early to make those decisions,” added Israel, who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) from 2011 to 2014.

According to campaign prognosticators, the GOP seats most likely to flip are held by three retiring Republicans.

The first, a New Jersey seat being vacated by longtime Rep. Frank LoBiondoFrank Alo LoBiondoHouse GOP group cuts financial support for Coffman, Bishop Jordan hits campaign trail amid bid for Speaker On The Money: Broad coalition unites against Trump tariffs | Senate confirms new IRS chief | Median household income rose for third straight year in 2017 | Jamie Dimon's brief battle with Trump MORE, has a GOP nominee seen as exceptionally weak. The House GOP’s campaign arm rescinded its support after reports that the nominee had shared racist articles on social media. The Cook Political Report rates it as "likely Democratic."

Cook also lists seats being vacated by GOP Reps. Pat MeehanPatrick (Pat) Leo MeehanUS athletics watchdog closes probe into GOP House hopeful Dems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority Overnight Energy: Pruitt taps man behind 'lock her up' chant for EPA office | Watchdog to review EPA email policies | Three Republicans join climate caucus MORE and Ryan CostelloRyan Anthony CostellloGOP lawmaker rips Trump for Stormy Daniels attack: This is 'unbecoming of any man' Trump goes on 12-tweet Twitter tirade Trump calls Stormy Daniels 'Horseface' MORE in Pennsylvania as "likely Democratic." Both Republicans saw their districts redrawn in favor of Democrats in a gerrymandering court case this year.

Four more seats are listed by both Cook and Sabato’s Crystal Ball of the University of Virginia, another handicapper, as "leaning Democratic." All were won by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWatchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US Republicans cancel airtime in swing Vegas district The Democratic Donald Trump is coming MORE in 2016.

The four GOP seats are held by Reps. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockElizabeth Warren’s DNA test sounds more like ‘identity theft’ The Memo: Trump chats up media ahead of midterms Comey donates maximum amount to Democratic challenger in Virginia House race MORE, who represents a blue-tinged Northern Virginia district outside of D.C.; Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyArizona Dems hope higher Latino turnout will help turn the state blue The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Health care a top policy message in fall campaigns The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — GOP faces ‘green wave’ in final stretch to the midterms MORE (Ariz.), who’s running for the Senate; and retiring longtime Reps. Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaMidterms in 2018 become most expensive in history Dems target small cluster of states in battle for House Painting of Trump with past GOP presidents hung up in White House MORE (R-Calif.).

The three other GOP seats listed by Cook as "leaning Democrat" are in New Jersey, where Rep. Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenElection Countdown: Florida Senate fight resumes after hurricane | Cruz softens ObamaCare attacks | GOP worries Trump will lose suburban women | Latest Senate polls | Rep. Dave Brat gets Trump's 'total endorsement' | Dem candidates raise record B Trump to fundraise for GOP candidate in key NJ House race Florida politics play into disaster relief debate MORE is retiring, and in Pennsylvania, where the redistricting decision is adding to the GOP’s problems.

One open seat in Pennsylvania now held by Democrats is rated as "likely Republican" because of the redrawn districts.

The Ohio race, coming on the heels of Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb’s March victory in a deep-red Pennsylvania district, has Democrats believing the battlefield is expanding quickly in their favor.

“The conventional wisdom up until several months ago was that it was fairly easy to find 20 seats that were low-hanging fruit for Democrats, but those final four or five that they needed required a reach,” Israel said. “When you are competitive in Ohio-12, and you’re winning districts like Conor Lamb’s, that suggests that you’re not going to have to reach that high to find those five seats.”

Publicly, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanThe Memo: Saudi storm darkens for Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report — Mnuchin won't attend Saudi conference | Pompeo advises giving Saudis 'few more days' to investigate | Trump threatens military action over caravan The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Health care a top policy message in fall campaigns MORE (R-Wis.) and his leadership team are predicting that Trump’s tax cuts and the strong economy will help them stave off a Democratic wave.

Privately, Republicans are more nervous — though they think that whoever has the majority will win it by just a few seats.

“It’s 50-50,” said the GOP lawmaker. “And whoever wins, it’s going to be a very small governing margin.”

History and math are not in the GOP’s favor. The party that controls the White House typically loses dozens of seats during a president’s first midterm election. And President Trump’s approval rating is in the low 40s, a drag on Republicans in districts leaning toward the Democrats, like Comstock’s.

On top of that, a wave of GOP retirements, some unexpected, have put Republicans in the unenviable position of having to defend 42 open seats this cycle, eight of which are in districts that Clinton won in 2016 and more than a dozen others in districts that Trump barely won.

The spate of GOP retirements creates more uncertainty and gives Democrats defending half as many open seats more paths to the majority.

“We have a lot of members who would retain their seats if they had stayed, but instead of having a member who raises their own money and wins their race, you replace that with a newcomer,” Rep. Daniel WebsterDaniel Alan WebsterRepublicans mull new punishments for dissident lawmakers Dems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority Republicans fear retribution for joining immigration revolt MORE (R-Fla.) told The Hill. “It’s making it very difficult from a financial standpoint. We have to go out and hold on to the seat instead of counting it as an automatic.”

Even well-known, politically powerful GOP incumbents are struggling. More than 50 of them were outraised by Democratic challengers in the second fundraising quarter of 2018 that ended June 30. They include veteran Rep. John CarterJohn Rice CarterCook Political Report moves 5 GOP-held seats towards Dems Texas House hopeful shows off her tattoos in new ad Dems eyeing smaller magic number for House majority MORE (R-Texas) and Rep. John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonKavanaugh becomes new flashpoint in midterms defined by anger Election Countdown: Big fundraising numbers in fight for Senate | Haley resigns in surprise move | Says she will back Trump in 2020 | Sanders hitting midterm trail | Collins becomes top Dem target | Takeaways from Indiana Senate debate Overnight Health Care — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Ryan blasts Medicare for all | Senate Dems to force vote on 'junk' insurance plans | Ads hit Collins over Kavanaugh vote MORE (R-Texas) — both senior appropriators — House Small Business Committee Chairman Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotElection Countdown: O'Rourke goes on the attack | Takeaways from fiery second Texas Senate debate | Heitkamp apologizes for ad misidentifying abuse victims | Trump Jr. to rally for Manchin challenger | Rick Scott leaves trail to deal with hurricane damage Credit union group to spend .8 million for vulnerable Dem, GOP incumbents Sessions calls on former colleagues to send drone legislation to Trump's desk MORE (R-Ohio) and Rep. Leonard LanceLeonard LanceGOP strategist says Republican candidates are 'all over the map' on immigration Money can’t buy happiness or elections, but it makes life easier Dems see blue 'tsunami' in House as Senate path narrows MORE (R-N.J.).

Still, Democrats face plenty of challenges of their own. They're defending two open Minnesota seats this fall that went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016; Cook and Sabato have put them in the “toss up” column.

Former Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D), now the Chicago mayor, told Democrats in a briefing earlier this year that the political environment is similar to that of 2006, when he chaired the DCCC and the Democrats took control of the lower chamber.

But Emanuel also warned that the congressional map has shifted sharply in the GOP’s favor since 2006, creating a much steeper climb for Democrats.

“Without the redistricting firewall that they built, Republicans would probably lose 60 seats in this kind of cycle,” Israel said. “As a result of the redistricting firewall that they built, they could lose about half of that.”

Senior Republicans like Chabot said they are taking their races seriously but don’t think they’ll be ousted in November. The GOP chairman believes voters are reaping the rewards from a GOP-controlled government with tax and regulations cuts and an improving economy, and that they’ll stick with Republicans this fall.  

“Most of us are doing the things necessary to be able to prevail in this kind of environment,” said Chabot, who represents most of Cincinnati and some suburbs. “If we were asleep at the switch and didn’t see this coming, it could be a real problem. But I think many of us are ready."