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Democrats seek wave to bolster House majority

Democrats seek wave to bolster House majority
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House Democrats are eyeing big gains in Tuesday's elections, propelled by an enormous fundraising advantage, a host of GOP retirements and an unpopular Republican president whose erratic handling of the coronavirus pandemic has threatened to damage his party down the ballot. 

Not too long ago, the notion that Democrats would expand their majority in any significant fashion was virtually unthinkable. In January of 2019, at the start of the cycle, the party's campaign arm was bracing to protect dozens of vulnerable lawmakers in red-leaning regions, 30 of whom represent districts won by President TrumpDonald TrumpSacha Baron Cohen calls out 'danger of lies, hate and conspiracies' in Golden Globes speech Sorkin uses Abbie Hoffman quote to condemn Capitol violence: Democracy is 'something you do' Ex-Trump aide Pierson planning run for Congress MORE in 2016. 

Twenty-two months later they're on the offensive, buoyed by a historic fundraising haul, a highly energized base and President Trump’s sinking approval numbers, which have combined to produce highly competitive races even deep into Trump country. 

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The changing dynamics have insulated many “front-line” Democrats, the incumbents deemed most vulnerable, while allowing Democratic operatives to expand their list of “red-to-blue” candidates — who are running tightly contested races in districts currently held by Republicans — from 33 to 38. Eighteen of those 38 challengers have forced competitive contests in districts that Trump won by more than 10 points four years ago.

“I would challenge anybody to say that going into this election cycle that anybody thought that we'd be playing deep into these [Trump] districts,” said Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosHouse Republican campaign arm rolls out target list for midterms Lobbying world Five centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote MORE (Ill.), head of the Democrats' campaign arm. 

“I would certainly rather be a Democrat running for Congress right now than a Republican. Not that I'd want to be a Republican, period,” she added. “But we're well positioned to have a good night.”

In recent days, Trump has pushed back on that narrative, predicting that Republicans will not only keep control of the White and Senate but also win back the House. He suggested voters will blame his political nemesis, Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump shows he holds stranglehold on GOP, media in CPAC barnburner Biden brings back bipartisan meetings at the White House McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 MORE (D-Calif.), for Washington’s failure to reach a deal on another coronavirus relief package. 

“After the election, we'll get the best stimulus package you've ever seen, because I think we're going to take back the House because of her,” Trump said of Pelosi. She, in turn, called his prediction “delusional,” and even many GOP lawmakers, aides and operatives are bracing for losses of anywhere between five and a dozen House seats.

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It will be a “shit show,” said one House Republican when asked how his party will fare on election night.

Still, Democrats are approaching Election Day cautiously, recalling only too well the 2016 cycle, when Trump stunned the country by defeating Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMedia circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Senate ref axes minimum wage, House votes today on relief bill Democratic strategists start women-run media consulting firm MORE, despite polls showing a landslide for the Democrats. And several front-line Democrats — including Reps. Collin PetersonCollin Clark PetersonSix ways to visualize a divided America On The Trail: The political losers of 2020 OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump admin to sell oil leases at Arctic wildlife refuge before Biden takes office |Trump administration approves controversial oil testing method in Gulf of Mexico | Rep. Scott wins House Agriculture Committee gavel MORE (Minn.), Max RoseMax RoseOvernight Defense: Austin takes helm at Pentagon | COVID-19 briefing part of Day 1 agenda | Outrage over images of National Guard troops in parking garage Austin sworn in as nation's first Black Pentagon chief We lost in November — we're proud we didn't take corporate PAC money MORE (N.Y.) and Xochitl Torres Small (N.M.) — remain highly vulnerable less than a week before Election Day.

“We are not taking anything for granted,” said House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse set for tight vote on COVID-19 relief package Key Democrat unveils plan to restore limited earmarks Overnight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission MORE (D-Md.). “We understand we went through 2016; we all understand we were very bullish about the poll results, and it turned out to not be real." 

“But this year,” he added, “it's a different kind of polling data.”

Fueling the optimism, election experts have steadily shifted races in the Democrats’ favor for weeks. In Virginia, for instance, first-term Reps. Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerDemocrats hesitant to raise taxes amid pandemic What I learned in 19 weeks of working with progressive Democrats The Memo: Ohio Dem says many in party 'can't understand' working-class concerns MORE (D) and Elaine LuriaElaine Goodman LuriaChamber-endorsed Dems struggle on election night Overnight Defense: How members of the Armed Services committees fared in Tuesday's elections | Military ballots among those uncounted in too-close-to-call presidential race | Ninth US service member killed by COVID-19 Luria holds onto Virginia House seat MORE (D) were thought to be among the most vulnerable Democrats just a few months ago. Now they’re considered likely to prevail. 

The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, recently predicted the Democrats would pick up between five and 10 seats, with the possibility of netting 15. 

“I think we’re gonna be closer to 15,” Hoyer said.

Central to the Democrats’ rosy outlook has been their success in raising money. Between July and September of this year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee brought in more than $70 million — a record — and has outraised the GOP’s campaign arm by a whopping $57 million for the cycle. 

After this story published, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee said that the Democrats' bullish prediction "doesn't meld at all" with the GOP's internal polling. He pointed out that 16 members of the NRCC's "Young Guns" program raised more money in the last full quarter before the election than their Democratic opponents.

Democrats have also benefited from a rash of Republican open seats, as 32 GOP lawmakers are retiring, running for other offices or lost their primary earlier in the year. A 33rd, Rep. Justin AmashJustin AmashRepublicans eye primaries in impeachment vote Michigan GOP lawmaker says he's 'strongly considering' impeachment Newly sworn in Republican House member after Capitol riot: 'I regret not bringing my gun to D.C.' MORE (L-Mich.), quit the GOP in mid-2019 to protest what he deemed Trump’s impeachable behavior and is also not seeking reelection. 

Among the more striking retirements was that of Rep. Susan BrooksSusan Wiant BrooksHere are the three GOP lawmakers who voted for the Equality Act Bottom line House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit MORE (R-Ind.), who had been tapped to lead the Republicans’ recruiting effort this cycle. Democrats are now confident they can flip her suburban Indianapolis seat blue.  

In fact, it’s suburban districts like hers where Democrats see some of their best pickup opportunities as white, college-educated voters there, particularly women, flee from Trump — and the Republican Party. Two GOP incumbents who represent suburbs outside of St. Louis, Reps. Ann WagnerAnn Louise WagnerSix ways to visualize a divided America House panel spars over GameStop frenzy, trading apps Republicans rally to keep Cheney in power MORE (R-Mo.) and Rodney DavisRodney Lee DavisLawmakers propose draft bill to create Capitol riot commission Pelosi says 9/11-style commission to investigate Capitol breach is 'next step' Conservative House Republican welcomes Clark as chief of US Chamber MORE (R-Ill.), fended off tough challenges two years ago; Davis won reelection by only 2,058 votes. Both races this year are considered toss-ups.

Rep. Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotREAD: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit Top GOP lawmaker touts 'more flexible' PPP loans in bipartisan proposal MORE (R-Ohio), whose district includes Cincinnati and its suburbs, is also facing a tough opponent for the second straight cycle, this time squaring off against Democrat Kate Schroder, a former executive with the Clinton Health Access Initiative.  

On Wednesday, the terrain in Texas appeared to improve for Democrats. The Cook Political Report shifted the Lone Star State from “lean Republican” to “toss-up,” and the Biden campaign said vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisBrown vows Democrats will 'find a way' to raise minimum wage Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson vs. Donald Trump: A serious comparison Exclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren MORE (D-Calif.) would stump in McAllen, Fort Worth and Houston on Friday. 

That could give down-ballot Democrats a boost in a number of races there. Democrats are in prime position to pick up the border-district seat held by retiring Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdHere are the three GOP lawmakers who voted for the Equality Act Sunday shows - COVID-19 dominates as grim milestone approaches Former Texas GOP rep: Trump should hold very little or no role in Republican Party MORE, the sole Black House Republican. They could also flip several other GOP seats, including ones held by retiring Rep. Kenny MarchantKenny Ewell MarchantRepublican Van Duyne wins race for Texas House seat Cook Political Report shifts 8 more House races toward Democrats Democrats seek wave to bolster House majority MORE in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and conservative Rep. Chip RoyCharles (Chip) Eugene RoyHouse passes sweeping protections for LGBTQ people GOP's Chip Roy vows to fight Equality Act in court Conservatives go after Cheney for Trump CPAC remarks MORE in a sprawling district between San Antonio and Austin.

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“This district is very reflective of the national situation. Why? We're highly suburban in two parts of it. We're urban, suburban and rural,” Roy, who is facing former state Sen. Wendy Davis (D), explained in a recent interview in Austin. “We're all of it in a significant way.”

From a practical standpoint, Democratic gains would have little effect on the workings of Washington. The party has controlled the House for the last two years, under Pelosi, and passed hundreds of bills advancing their priorities on health care, the economy, climate change and campaign finance reform — proposals they're already vowing to revisit next year. 

Yet building a larger majority would provide Democrats a thicker buffer heading into 2022, when the party of the incumbent president has historically suffered big losses in Congress. That was the case in President Obama’s first term, when Pelosi lost the gavel. And predicting that Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden offers support to union organizing efforts Senate Democrats nix 'Plan B' on minimum wage hike Kavanaugh dismays conservatives by dodging pro-Trump election lawsuits MORE will win the White House, the once-again Speaker has made it no mystery that she wants to use the 2020 cycle to protect her gavel two years from now. 

If the GOP wins back the lower chamber in two years, it would surely lead to the same type of aggressive investigations that bogged down the Obama-Biden administration after a Tea Party wave swept Rep. John BoehnerJohn Andrew Boehner Cruz hits back at Boehner for telling him to 'go f--- yourself' John Boehner tells Cruz to 'go f--- yourself' in unscripted audiobook asides: report Cancun fallout threatens to deal lasting damage to Cruz MORE (R-Ohio) and the Republicans into power in 2010.

With much at stake, both sides are scrambling in the campaign’s final days to secure the best possible outcome — Democrats hoping for a wave and Republicans fighting to prevent one. Yet both sides are already warning that the unusual nature of pandemic-year voting likely means the full results won’t be known until days or even weeks after Nov. 3.

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Bustos, for one, is already imploring reporters not to jump to conclusions about individual races until every vote is tallied. 

“Wait for those votes to all be counted before making predictions,” she said. “Crack open a beer, take a little bit of a load off. Twitter can wait.”

Juliegrace Brufke and Al Weaver contributed.

-- Updated 10:51 a.m.