Is an Anti-Trump Wave Putting the House Into Play?

by Nathan L. Gonzales March 25, 2016 · 10:58 AM EDT

The closer Donald Trump or Ted Cruz gets to winning the Republican presidential nomination, the more Democrats talk about control of the House being in play. But even though the duo may deliver Democrats an electoral wave of historic proportions, it’s still not clear whether one will develop or whether Democrats are in position to ride it. 

According to the most common narrative, Trump is on pace to lose the presidential election by a wide margin. He trails Hillary Clinton by an average margin of 9 points (and as much as 13 points) in hypothetical general election matchups. That means we could be headed for the most lopsided presidential race since 1984, when President Ronald Reagan was re-elected by 18 points.

Democrats’ dream is a replay of the 1964 election, when President Lyndon B. Johnson defeated conservative GOP Sen. Barry Goldwater 61-39 percent and Democrats gained 37 House seats. 

Trump’s weakness this year has a lot to do with his terrible favorability ratings, as Stu pointed out in a recent Roll Call column. His unfavorable rating among adults was 67 percent, according to a March 3-6 Washington Post/ABC News poll, compared to Clinton’s 52 percent. And one-third of Republicans had an unfavorable rating of Trump in a late February poll for CNN, compared to just 14 percent of Democrats who had an unfavorable rating of Clinton. 

But while Trump’s supporters have yet to punish congressional Republicans by voting them out in primaries, there is a chance House Republicans suffer in the general election as moderate voters vote against them because of Trump and Republican voters embarrassed by Trump fail to support them by skipping the election altogether.

That scenario is certainly possible, and may be even likely, but it’s also not clear yet that that is happening. In fact, there isn’t any district-level evidence to prove the House playing field is any different than it was 6-9 months ago, before Trump tightened his grip on the nomination.

Last week, our friends at The Cook Political Report changed the ratings of 10 House races as the result of the so-called “Trump Effect.” But eight of those changes brought their rating in alignment to where we’ve had the race rated for weeks, and sometimes months, and none of the changes signaled a dramatic broadening of the playing field in favor of the Democrats. For example, three of the Cook changes moved races from Likely Democratic to Solid Democratic.

For most of the cycle, Democratic strategists have been talking about recruiting candidates in 60 competitive districts in their quest to gain 30 seats and win the majority for the first time since 2010. 

But Democrats currently hold a quarter of the 60 districts on their list, which means that winning those seats in November does nothing to put a dent in the Republican majority, and the universe of takeover targets is more narrow than it appears.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján held a recent press conference to talk about the Trump effect and was asked to name specific districts. The New Mexico congressman mentioned districts such as Colorado’s 6th, Virginia’s 10th, Nevada’s 3rd, Pennsylvania’s 7th and 8th, and California’s 25th. Those are all districts which would, or at least should, have been competitive if Republicans had nominated a more mainstream candidate, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and are not evidence of an anti-Trump wave.

Democrats not only face a challenging map but a lack of time, as we wrote in the Jan. 25 issue of the Report. As of March 25, filing deadlines have passed in 22 states (37 percent of House districts, according to Daily Kos Elections), with more on the way. Potential Democratic candidates who think an anti-Trump wave is developing either missed their opportunity or likely need to make up their minds soon, before the GOP presidential nominating process is finalized and direction of the election is clear. 

The Democrats’ target list has already adjusted accordingly. The party hoped to knock off GOP Reps. Rodney Davis and Mike Bost in Illinois but failed to recruit top challengers by the December filing deadline, and those districts have been removed from their takeover map.  

The filing deadline has also passed in Pennsylvania, where Democrats need to keep GOP Rep. Ryan Costello and his competitive 6th District in focus. But the party is left with their initial recruit, Mike Parrish, who hasn’t been able to raise money, and 25-year-old Lindy Li, who can raise money but has unproven candidate appeal.

Illinois and Pennsylvania were an important part of Democrats’ most recent majority, when the states accounted for a combined 24 Democratic Members. Democrats currently control 15 seats combined in Illinois and Pennsylvania, with a high-water mark of probably 18-19 seats this cycle, which means the party will need to make up for those five seats elsewhere around the country.

Depending on the size of the electoral wave, Democrats likely have some work to do to bring their candidates to viability in their targeted races around the country before talk about expanding the field. Of the 44 Republican-held seats Democrats are targeting, 14 have either no Democratic candidate or Democratic candidates with uncertain appeal.

In the remaining 30 Republican-held seats, Democrats are often facing incumbents with formidable campaign accounts. As of the end of year, GOP candidates had at least a $500,000 cash-on-hand advantage in 12 districts, a $1 million advantage in four of them, and a $2 million advantage in two districts. 

Of course, Republican candidates could end up with a problem that money can’t fix (just ask former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush about those). A Democratic partisan wave could develop that is so great that no amount of television ads could save the most vulnerable Republicans. But most GOP incumbents are doing everything in their power to be well-positioned for the fall and will be difficult to unseat.

Democrats have some obvious targets on their list of opportunities, including New York Rep. John Katko, Iowa Rep. Rod Blum, Illinois Rep. Bob Dold and Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who represent districts that President Barack Obama won with over 55 percent in 2012. But other targeted districts are much less favorable and based on scenarios spun by Democratic candidates and party strategists. 

Democrats believe Rep. Mia Love is vulnerable in Utah’s 4th District after a close race in 2014, unflattering headlines in her first term in office, and a recent round of stories about Trump’s struggles in the state, even though Obama received 30 percent in 2012. Rep. Alex Mooney is allegedly vulnerable in West Virginia’s 2nd District, where Obama received 38 percent, since the congressman’s previous political career was based in Maryland before his election in 2014. 

Democrats are also targeting Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder because they believe the Kansas City suburbs in his 3rd District are moving in their favor. Obama lost the district by nearly 10 points, Yoder had nearly $2.2 million in the bank on Dec. 31, and Democrats have a candidate who had less than $5,000 in cash on hand at the same time.

The biggest assumption in this entire scenario is that Trump will be a disaster and his downfall will automatically sink Republican efforts to hold the House and the Senate. That’s certainly a possibility, but Trump has proven he doesn’t fit neatly into historical election models. 

And it’s not guaranteed that people who vote against Trump will blame all Republicans in the same way they would if Republicans nominated a polarizing candidate such as Ted Cruz, who fits the caricature of a tea party Republican casting a narrow vision to conservative voters.

Democratic chances of taking back the House majority are further complicated by the fact that 18 percent of the party’s most competitive races (9 of 50, including a couple of their own) reside in New York, where Trump’s appeal against former Empire State Sen. Hillary Clinton may be even more unclear. On one hand, Trump’s policies and statements could offend moderate voters and torpedo his chances in the state. On the other hand, he could be a native son whose populist message resonates with voters, particularly Upstate. 

In spite of all the Democrats’ challenges of the map, looming filing deadlines, and under-funded challengers, Donald Trump’s (and potentially Cruz’s) limited appeal could put the Republican House majority in jeopardy. 

Even with an anti-Republican wave, Democrats probably still need a couple dozen more districts on the playing field of competitive races to win back the majority. Party strategists are actively trying to identify new takeover targets by focusing on a set of specific demographic groups who could be particularly offended by Trump. 

But the challenge is to identify those districts with enough time to recruit a challenger and get him or her to a level of credibility necessary to be an alternative to the GOP member. 

Right now, any Democratic House majority scenario is based on conjecture from presidential ballot tests which show Clinton dominating Trump. Over the next few weeks and months, there will be district-level polling data, which will show how vulnerable Republicans really are and if voters are coupling House Republicans with their presidential nominee. 

If Democrats win back the House, it will be because of a complete collapse of the Republican Party. If Republicans nominate Trump or Cruz and hold the House, it will likely be because the most vulnerable GOP incumbents planned for competitive races from the beginning of the cycle. 

At this stage, Democrats look to be headed for significant double-digit gains in the House, but a majority is still out of reach.