Republicans uncomfortably playing defense

Republicans uncomfortably playing defense
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Being on defense may work for some football teams; it doesn't for political candidates — as the outlook for the November congressional elections attests.

With support for Trump sinking and the pandemic and economy worsening, Republicans are fighting rear guard actions. Three months out, the prospects are for Democrats to take control of the Senate and to add a handful or more seats to their House majority.

Looking at the two reliable and justifiably cautious election ratings, the Cook Political report and Inside Elections report, the momentum has moved to the Democrats. Usually the party in power, especially after a big win in the previous election, has more vulnerable seats.

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Looking at private Democratic polls — the more bullish side always is more forthcoming — the advantage deepens.

There are a half dozen House Democratic incumbents facing tough contests. A few are newcomers who won in 2018 in heavily Republican districts like Kendra HornKendra Suzanne HornKate Schroder in Ohio among Democratic challengers squelching GOP hopes for the House GOP women's group rolls out six-figure campaign for Ernst Trump asked Chamber of Commerce to reconsider Democratic endorsements: report MORE in Oklahoma City. In a couple others, there are strong Republican challengers like David ValadaoDavid Goncalves ValadaoEx-GOP Rep. David Valadao up 11 points over Democrat TJ Cox in California House race: poll Republicans uncomfortably playing defense House Democrats target Midwestern GOP seats MORE trying to reclaim a seat in California's San Joaquin Valley. He lost a close race last time and has broken with Trump's anti-immigration policies.

There are more than a dozen districts that a year ago Republicans were targeting that now seem secure for the incumbents — like Mikie Sherill in New Jersey, Anthony Brindisi in New York, Lucy McBathLucia (Lucy) Kay McBathThis week: House returns for pre-election sprint House Democrats' campaign arm reserves .6M in ads in competitive districts Black Lives Matter movement to play elevated role at convention MORE in Georgia, Jason Crowe in Colorado, among others.

Similarly, across the country there are a dozen or more GOP seats that could switch, including three in Texas, two in New York, and other seats from Indiana and Ohio in the Midwest, Georgia in the South and Nebraska in the Plains.

The top of the ticket matters on the margins. If, as now projected, Joe BidenJoe BidenFormer Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick Bloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida MORE wins by seven or eight points, the House gains probably are in the five to ten point range; if his margin reaches double digits, those pickups could double.

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In the Senate, with 23 of the 35 seats up this year, Republicans knew they faced a challenge to hold their majority — but they calculated that there were almost as many Democratic-held seats in play as their own.

Today, there's only one vulnerable Democratic incumbent: Doug Jones in solidly red Alabama. Republicans’ once bright hopes with Michigan's John James, an African American businessman and veteran, have dissipated as Trump and national Republicans seem to be throwing in the towel in the Wolverine state.

There are seven or eight Republican senators facing very competitive contests. Democratic strategists say they are ahead and confident of victory in Arizona with former astronaut Mark Kelly; in Colorado with former Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' Cook Political Report shifts Colorado Senate race toward Democrat Willie Nelson playing at virtual fundraiser for Hickenlooper MORE; in North Carolina with veteran and former state senator Cal Cunningham, and probably in Maine, where House speaker Sara Gideon threatens to end the career of Republican Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDemocratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' Poll: 57 percent of Americans think next president, Senate should fill Ginsburg vacancy On The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami MORE.

There are several toss-ups which, at this stage, often spells trouble for an incumbent: in Montana where Democrats recruited the only candidate who might win, Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockCourt removes Pendley from role as public lands chief On The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami McConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight MORE; in Iowa where Republican Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstOn The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami Tillis appears to reinforce question about COVID-19 death toll The power of incumbency: How Trump is using the Oval Office to win reelection MORE is struggling; in Georgia where one time failed House candidate, Jon Osoff, is a markedly improved candidate.

There could be a sleeper or two, like Al Gross, a physician and fisherman running as an independent in Alaska with Democratic support. The Democrats’ hopes to win a Senate seat in Kansas for the first time in more than 80 years were set back Tuesday when right-wing Republican Kris Kobach lost a Republican primary to a more electable opponent.

Morever, like the House races, any Biden wave would put several “safe” Republican Senate seats in play: Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamLincoln Project mocks Lindsey Graham's fundraising lag with Sarah McLachlan-themed video The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Republicans lawmakers rebuke Trump on election Trump dumbfounds GOP with latest unforced error MORE in South Carolina; John CornynJohn CornynHillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close Lawmakers introduce legislation to boost cybersecurity of local governments, small businesses On The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami MORE in Texas… and in a landslide, conceivably Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' House to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power Republican lawyers brush off Trump's election comments MORE in Kentucky.

Republicans want to hold their three-seat margin of control in the Senate, but also see another tough cycle in two years, when most of the seats up are held by Republicans including vulnerable ones in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

As this year's Republican candidates rush to avoid Trump or the pandemic or the economy, it can get awkward. In Iowa Joni Ernst assailed her opponent, Theresa Greenfield, for staying in her basement “and taking selfies with her dog, Ringo.”

Fala and Checkers — FDR and Nixon's dogs — could have told the good Senator: Don't mess with us dogs.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.