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Feehery: Surging Sanders puts House in range for Republicans

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By the way, the House is in play.

This isn’t exactly a new revelation. But it has become more acute with the rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Sanders’s success today might not lead to his nomination tomorrow, but it has already had an impact on the race for the lower chamber.

February is a crucial month when it comes to the 435 separate campaigns for the House of Representatives.

It is then that many incumbents decide once and for all if they are going to run one more term and it is also when many challengers make major decisions on their own campaigns. What kind of campaign will they run? What are the major themes? How will they raise money?

Running against Sanders and his socialist agenda is far more appealing to a bigger cross-section of Republicans than running against former Vice President Joe Biden or Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), neither of whom are very inspiring for either side of the political aisle.

Should a moderate win the nomination to take on President Trump, the path to the Speaker’s gavel is much less clear. Should it be Sanders, though, it almost seems like a sure thing.

Right now, the race for the House is too close to call.

Republicans need roughly 20 seats to take it back. Thirty-one Democrats who sit in districts won by Trump are the bulwark against the expected Republican onslaught. Only two of them voted against impeachment.

Some of those Democrats are sitting ducks, historic anomalies who won in a wave election. Others are longtime survivors, who win because of habit more than anything else.

But the rest are in swing districts, places that blow with the political winds, depending on who is running at the top of the ticket and what is the local mood of the electorate.

New Jersey and New York were a disaster for Republicans in 2018, mostly because of swing-voter distaste of Trump, but also as a reaction to a tax bill that seemingly targeted the kinds of upper-middle-class voters that usually vote Republican.

If those voters didn’t like that their tax cuts weren’t as big as they hoped in 2018, then they really won’t like Bernie’s promise to raise their taxes by 50 percent.

In the Rust Belt, Trump turned out folks who either voted for Obama or who hadn’t voted before 2016. Many of those voters didn’t show up in 2018, 8.5 million of them, either because Trump wasn’t on the ballot or because they didn’t like the Republicans who ran. In Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, the GOP lost seats they would never have lost otherwise. With Trump on the ballot, the calculus changes again.

Enthusiasm among Republicans is at its highest point in years. More GOP women, minority and veteran candidates have filed than in any other cycle in history.

That’s not to say that Republicans aren’t without some challenges.

Democrats, especially incumbents, are better funded than the Republicans. Although last month, the National Republican Congressional Committee barely beat out the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in fundraising, most targeted Democrats have a far bigger bank account than their challengers.

The Democratic issue set is still potent. Health care is the No. 1 issue for voters and Democrats traditionally have a big advantage there.

And finally, history is against the Republicans. The House hasn’t flipped in a presidential cycle since 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower was on the ballot.

But those were also the years when the House would routinely flip between the two parties and perhaps that is what we will see in 2020.

Like Eisenhower, Trump came to the White House without any close ties to the traditional political establishment. And like Ike, Trump is not particularly ideological and unconventional in his political instincts.

But at the end of the day, it’s not just about Trump. It’s who he is running against. And if it is Sanders, there is no question that the House is back in play. Big time.

Feehery is a partner at EFB Advocacy and blogs at He served as spokesman to former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), as communications director to former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) when he was majority whip and as a speechwriter to former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.).

Tags Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Dennis Hastert Donald Trump Joe Biden

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