Republican Migraines and the Midterm Elections

by Nathan L. Gonzales October 14, 2018 · 8:45 AM EDT

Weather metaphors are often used (and overused) in election analysis, but there’s a better way to describe the Republicans’ challenge in 2018. The GOP is dealing with many headaches as it tries to preserve the Republican congressional majorities.

From tension to cluster to migraine, they can vary in frequency and severity. And Republicans’ ability to alleviate them will determine control of the House and Senate in the 116th Congress.

Whether it’s a presidential pain in the neck, the large number of open seats, stellar Democratic fundraising, unprepared incumbents or turnout, the pressures are numerous.

That’s in addition to lingering misery from the unexpectedly competitive special elections and the weight of poor historical midterm results for the president’s party.

The president
Topping the list is President Donald Trump.

“The headache is Trump,” said GOP Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania. “Every week he reminds voters why they don’t like him.”

Typically, midterm elections are a referendum on the president’s party. When voters are dissatisfied with the president’s job performance, they can’t vote against the president because he is not on the ballot. So they take out their frustrations on candidates of the president’s party.

“The more he does, the more difficult it becomes for some crossover voters to stick with you,” Costello explained. “For some, their vote is predicated on being against Trump — whether on style or policy.”

Trump’s job approval rating stood at 43 percent with less than a month to go before the elections, according to the RealClearPolitics average through Oct. 13. President Barack Obama’s approval rating was 45 percent a month out from the 2010 midterm elections, in which Democrats lost 63 House seats.

GOP incumbents representing suburban districts are most likely to feel the pain of Trump’s polarizing presidency. Reps. Mike Coffman of Colorado, Barbara Comstock of Virginia, Erik Paulsen of Minnesota and Peter Roskam of Illinois are in particular trouble.

But discomfort with the president doesn’t emanate equally across the aisle. Republicans don’t mind, and even welcome, Trump visits to the 10 states he won in 2016 where Democratic senators are running for re-election.

If Republicans can defeat at least one, it significantly improves their chances of holding the majority in that chamber.

But Trump’s rallies are often late to come together on these visits. And when he takes the stage, candidates and operatives can never predict what issues he’ll bring up that could shift the spotlight away from his endorsement.

For example, Trump’s rally last year for Alabama Republican Luther Strange was overshadowed by the president’s remarks about the NFL and the national anthem, and Strange ended up losing that primary to controversial former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who had twice been removed from office.

“It’s not the Bush World, where you knew what was going to happen 90 days out,” said one veteran GOP strategist about political life with President George W. Bush. The strategist is still actively involved in Republican politics and requested anonymity to speak candidly.

“There’s always a sideshow,” said another GOP operative who is focused on House races and didn’t want to be named for the same reason. “And this White House has the inability to deliver a positive message.”

When good economic numbers come out, Republican strategists are often frustrated that Trump overshadows the news with his own distractions. In early September, when the unemployment rate remained at 3.9 percent, Trump chose to relitigate the administration’s response to last year’s Hurricane Maria, the deadliest Atlantic hurricane in more than a decade.

Of all the headaches nagging Republicans, Trump might be the most challenging. While he motivates base voters in key Senate states, he’s also energizing the opposition.

Midterm elections are historically brutal for the president’s party, particularly in the House.

The president’s party has lost House seats in 18 of the last 20 midterm elections, with an average loss of 33 seats, according to Vital Statistics on Congress. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to recapture the House majority.

While Trump bucked the conventional rules of campaigning and candidacy when he won the 2016 presidential race, that doesn’t mean the Republican Party, including the campaign committees, can suspend political gravity once again.

“Chairing a committee is equivalent to managing weather,” said former New York Rep. Steve Israel, who was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2014 when President Obama’s job approval rating hovered near 42 percent and Democrats lost 13 House seats.

“With the wind at your back, you’re just trying to take advantage of it,” Israel said. “If the wind is in your face, all you’re doing is trying to manage the velocity of wind.”

In a midterm election, the president’s standing can overshadow everything else.

Media consultant Jon Vogel, who was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2010 cycle, recalls the struggle for incumbents in GOP-leaning districts when Obama’s job rating was at 45 percent.

“Even if a person was well-liked, they couldn’t survive the district,” he said.

Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota and Ike Skelton of Missouri were all polling at 50 percent or better on Labor Day in 2010, according to Vogel, and ended up being three of the 52 Democratic incumbents defeated two months later.

Open seats
While being an incumbent can be difficult in a midterm election with an unpopular president, defending an open seat is even harder.

Whether it’s retirements, candidates running for other office, redistricting or members caught up in sexual misconduct, Republicans have 42 open House seats, the largest number since at least 1930, according to Vital Statistics on Congress.

It’s not just the volume of open seats, but the type. Eight of the open seats this cycle are in districts Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 presidential election. Of 23 similar open seats in elections since 1992, the president’s party has failed to win any, according to David Wasserman of The Cook Political Report.

That’s why decisions not to seek re-election by Costello and his Pennsylvania colleague Charlie Dent, Washington’s Dave Reichert, Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Ed Royce of California, as well as Arizona Rep. Martha McSally (who is running for the Senate instead), were so critical. Republicans might not lose all those open seats, but the races will be more difficult and costly.

Because defeating well-financed incumbents can be tough, open seats have been a key component of political waves. In 2010, of the 63 seats Democrats lost in that cycle, 14 were open seats. In 2006, the party picked up nine open seats. And in 2008, they picked up 12 GOP open seats, which was more than half of the 21 seats they gained nationwide.

Unprepared incumbents
Lackadaisical incumbents are troubling for Republicans this year too.

For example, it’s not the president’s fault North Carolina Rep. George Holding had a modest $253,000 in the bank on June 30.

Holding’s underfunded opponent, Linda Coleman, wasn’t too far behind with $157,000, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Public polling demonstrates a close race, and Republicans will have to spend energy, at a minimum, holding his 2nd District, which Trump carried by 9 points in 2016.

Among others, Democrat Aftab Pureval nearly matched Ohio GOP Rep. Steve Chabot’s cash on hand on June 30 ($1.3 million to $1.6 million), and Pureval was a late entry to the race. Trump won the 1st District by 6 points. Third quarter reports are due Oct. 15.

In Virginia’s 7th District, which Trump also won by 6 points, Democrat and former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger narrowly outraised Republican incumbent Dave Brat through June 30. And New York Republican Claudia Tenney had almost $400,000 less in the bank on June 30 than Democratic Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi in a district Trump took by 16 points.

John Faso of New York, Rod Blum of Iowa and Bruce Poliquin of Maine are also at risk in districts Trump won.

Heading into Obama’s second midterm, Israel asked the DCCC staff to create a PowerPoint presentation for members showing them, with 2010 and 2012 data, how easy it was to lose and the need to prepare for a brutal cycle. He credited early preparation with holding down losses to 11 incumbents.

But even with planning, the potential for unforced errors by incumbents or candidates is a constant worry.

“Whoever chairs the committee always has that in the back of their mind,” said Israel. “At best, [the comment or incident] might be off message. At worst, it may be a wrong, defining moment.”

“I didn’t have many gray hairs before becoming chairman,” said the now silver-headed Israel.

This cycle, unforced errors have forced Republicans to spend time on seats that shouldn’t be competitive.

New York Rep. Chris Collins was indicted on insider trading charges. The late timing, and Republicans’ inability to replace him on the ballot, means the GOP is at risk of losing the 27th District, which Trump carried by 25 points in 2016. In California, Rep. Duncan Hunter’s indictment threw his re-election into question, even though Trump won the 50th District by 15 points.

While it might be easy to fault Trump, he’s not solely to blame, according to some GOP strategists. These problems are fixable, but it takes resources from other places.

Some Republicans are also struggling to find a new playbook. After eight years of pointing fingers at President Obama and running against so-called Obamacare, the GOP needs to find a new message to motivate base voters and persuade the independents.

Republicans have become accustomed to a turnout advantage in recent midterms as conservative voters revolted against Obama and the Democratic health care law. But Trump might accomplish something that Obama couldn’t: he might turn out Democratic voters in a midterm election.

Trump is unifying and energizing Democrats better than any Democrat could. They are marching in the streets, donating and running for office. If that enthusiasm translates to votes and Republicans can’t match the intensity, the GOP will struggle.

Similar to Obama, without the president’s name on the ballot, the Trump coalition might not turn out to support other candidates. And the healthy economy and GOP tax bill haven’t provided the boost expected by Republican candidates and strategists.

America First Action, a political committee designed to support the president’s policies, conducted a series of focus groups over the summer, according to The New York Times. The group concluded that the party had a severe voter turnout problem due to contentment with the economy and because Republicans’ were persuaded by the president’s dismissal of Democratic chances in November.

The president’s defiance of news coverage and traditional political analysis might also be working against his party’s chances in November. As described by the Times, conservative-leaning voters in the study routinely dismissed the possibility of a Democratic wave election, with some describing the prospect as “fake news.”

Republicans need to find a way to motivate Republicans. Whether it’s the prospect of Nancy Pelosi’s return as House speaker, the threat of impeachment with Democrats in power, the potential of future Supreme Court vacancies, or the treatment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the GOP is still looking for hot button targets as effective as Obama to get their party to the polls.

A Democratic surge in turnout coupled with a dip in GOP turnout is a recipe for big Democratic gains up and down the ballot.

Democratic fundraising
Resistance to the president has also fueled Democratic fundraising to levels unseen in recent history and caused problems for Republicans around the country. Both Democratic campaign committees outraised their GOP counterparts through the end of August.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raised $206 million compared to $151 million by the National Republican Congressional Committee, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee outraised the National Republican Senatorial Committee $98 million to $91 million.

But the starkest contrast in fundraising is at the candidate level. Twenty-one Democratic challengers outraised their Republican incumbent opponents through the end of June. In the aftermath of primaries, that number is likely to grow as donors unify around nominees, and it doesn’t count the Democratic financial advantage in open seats. Early reports of third-quarter fundraising indicate even bigger Democratic money.

Anecdotally, the two parties are raising money on dramatically different scales.

Former Duluth police officer Pete Stauber is considered one of the GOP’s top recruits. He’s running for an open seat in Minnesota’s 8th District and raised $960,000 through July 25. By comparison, in a race for an open seat in New Jersey’s 11th District, Democrat Mikie Sherrill — considered one of her party’s best candidates — raised $4.2 million through the end of June.

Sherrill, a retired helicopter pilot and former prosecutor, is a first-time candidate for the House, yet she kept pace with Missouri Republican Josh Hawley from April through June (with $1.9 million each). Hawley, Missouri’s attorney general, is running in one of the most competitive Senate races in the country against incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill.

It’s up to Democrats to turn those dollars into votes, but the increased fundraising has a tangible impact. Candidates are better able to deliver positive messages in television advertising and pay the lowest unit rate for ad time. Outside groups often pay two or three times as much for the same number of ads, and aren’t as effective at positive advertising because they are forbidden to coordinate with the candidate.

And because Trump has energized the Democratic base, Democratic candidates and groups can spend their money on persuading moderate voters instead of turning out the faithful.

Republicans will use their money to try to discredit Democratic candidates in the eyes of voters looking for change. But it’s unclear if they will be effective. Vogel remembers 2010, when increased Republican enthusiasm and fundraising allowed the party to expand the number of competitive House races and Democrats pushed back.

“There were some seriously flawed Republicans,” said Vogel. “We’d attack them, but they were Teflon. The electorate was ready for change and partisanship drove everything.”

Special elections
Republicans like to point out their winning record in high-profile special elections over the last year, but those races drained time, energy and money for districts that shouldn’t have been competitive in the first place, and the party’s level of effort isn’t scalable across the larger number of races this fall.

The NRCC and GOP outside groups spent $28.2 million in three special elections: Georgia’s 6th, Pennsylvania’s 18th and Arizona’s 8th districts — all GOP friendly seats — and came out of it with two wins and a loss. 

Beyond the spending, underperformance may have been a bigger problem for Republicans. GOP nominees received 51 percent of the vote on average in the seven most competitive House special elections, which was an underperformance of Trump’s 2016 bid by 5 points.

Some GOP strategists contend that the party learned valuable lessons about motivating conservative voters and the importance of candidate fundraising. But most GOP candidates won’t enjoy a fundraising advantage, and Conor Lamb won in Pennsylvania’s 18th District even after Republicans threw everything at him, including a rally by the president for the GOP nominee, Rick Saccone.

More important, Democrats don’t need to win any of the districts in November where they came close in special elections. They can get to the majority with a combination of districts that are more Democratic. And they don’t need to run the table.

With more than 75 legitimate takeover targets and a 23-seat gain needed to take the House, Democrats can endure some of their own candidate headaches with little or no consequence. But Republicans are looking at a much larger, more painful problem.

Trump-state Democratic senators
GOP strategists might scoff or deny it, but this class of Democratic senators poses daunting challenges.

While many of these senators were fortunate to be elected or re-elected in good to great Democratic cycles of 2006 and 2012, they also are among the most talented Democratic incumbents.

If not for Sens. Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, the West Virginia and North Dakota seats would have been lost for Democrats early in the cycle.

The same can probably be said for Montana, Indiana and Missouri, where Sens. Jon Tester, Joe Donnelly and Claire McCaskill are running for re-election. Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bob Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania have worked to make sure their re-election bids don’t evolve into top-tier races, even though Trump won their states in 2016.

That doesn’t mean all the Democratic senators will win in November. But they are at least making Republicans work and spend on the races.

Even though he’s not an incumbent, Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke has to be a percolating headache. His fundraising could force the NRSC or Republican outside groups to spend money for Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, a state they had not included in their budgets at the beginning of the cycle.

Dealing with these headaches individually may not seem too difficult. And a good fundraising quarter could ease some of the pain. However, addressing one symptom still leaves a host of others. It’s easy to see how a little tension could blossom into a full-blown migraine for Republicans on Election Night if each isn’t addressed swiftly.