Republicans uncomfortably playing defense

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.

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 Horn in Oklahoma City. In a couple others, there are strong Republican challengers like David Valadao 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 McBath 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 Biden 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.

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 Hickenlooper; 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 Collins.

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 Bullock; in Iowa where Republican Sen. Joni Ernst 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 Graham in South Carolina; John Cornyn in Texas… and in a landslide, conceivably Mitch McConnell 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.

Tags 2020 election 2020 polls 2020 primaries David Valadao Democratic Party doug jones Joe Biden John Cornyn John Hickenlooper Joni Ernst Kendra Horn Lindsey Graham Lucy McBath Mitch McConnell Politics of the United States Republican Party Steve Bullock Susan Collins

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