House

Democrats seek wave to bolster House majority

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 Trump 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. 

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 Bustos (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 Pelosi (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.

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 Clinton, despite polls showing a landslide for the Democrats. And several front-line Democrats - including Reps. Collin Peterson (Minn.), Max Rose (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 Hoyer (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 Spanberger (D) and Elaine Luria (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 Amash (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 Brooks (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 Wagner (R-Mo.) and Rodney Davis (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 Chabot (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 Harris (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 Hurd, the sole Black House Republican. They could also flip several other GOP seats, including ones held by retiring Rep. Kenny Marchant in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and conservative Rep. Chip Roy in a sprawling district between San Antonio and Austin.

"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 Biden 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 Boehner (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.

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.

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