Internal Democratic surveys in recent weeks have shown tight races in once-solid GOP seats in Indiana, Texas, Michigan, Ohio and Montana that President Donald Trump carried handily 2016 — data that suggest the battleground is veering in a dangerous direction for the GOP.
“Republicans were jolted by the fact that a lot of white suburban voters abandoned them. The question now is whether that trend will continue,” said former Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who lost reelection in 2018. “If it does, it could endanger some of those districts, particularly in the Midwest.”
The first round of House GOP ad buys included reservations to defend only a half-dozen vulnerable members: Reps. John Katko (R-N.Y.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.); Scott Perry (R-Pa.); Rodney Davis (R-Ill.). Don Bacon (R-Neb.), Mike Garcia (R-Calif.) and an open seat in suburban Atlanta.
But polling and fundraising lags suggest a slew of other districts are becoming vulnerable, like those held by Reps. Chip Roy (R-Texas), Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), as well as open seats in Texas, the Indianapolis area and on Long Island.
And should the environment worsen, other seats in North Carolina, Minnesota, Missouri, Washington state, central Virginia and Michigan could be at risk.
Adding to GOP fears is Democrats’ fundraising dominance. More than 30 House Republicans were outraised by a Democratic opponent last quarter, and 10 trail in cash-on-hand, according to a POLITICO analysis. Meanwhile, a dozen Democratic challengers had at least $ 1 million banked by the end of June.
The disparity has left some vulnerable GOP incumbents anxious and eager for help from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the National Republican Congressional Committee, to which they pay dues.
“The DCCC’s candidates are printing money, and the president’s falling poll numbers are devastating to Republicans across the map,” said a GOP member in a competitive district, granted anonymity to speak without fear of retribution. “That’s why McCarthy and the NRCC need to hold the line and focus on saving incumbents first.”
Democrats’ offensive map has ballooned in recent weeks as Trump’s popularity has tanked, bringing once long-shot targets into reach if favorable conditions hold.
The party has publicly released a slew of polls in June and July showing tight, low single-digit races in over dozen GOP-held seats that Trump won — many of them with double digit victory margins.
Among the more surprising data: Democrat Kathleen Williams tied Republican Matt Rosendale in a race for Montana’s open at-large seat, where Trump won by 20 points; Democrat Christina Hale was up 6 points in an open Indianapolis district that Trump carried by 12 in 2016; and Democrat Wendy Davis trailed Roy by just 1 point in a central Texas district Trump carried by 10 points.
“The fact that the polling is close has got to be troubling in a lot of those districts, and the incumbents in those districts can’t view themselves as too safe,” said Mike DuHaime, a veteran GOP operative. “They must take it seriously.”
Democrats could certainly fail to capture those seats, but their aggressive strategy might have serious implications, said DuHaime, the political director of the Republican National Committee in 2006 when Democrats took back the House. “If they are forcing Republicans to spend money there on defense, rather than spending money on offense, it’s smart.”
Recent polling has also suggested Republicans have major problems in Texas, well beyond the three now-open seats that Democrats nearly captured in 2018. Internal surveys found single-digit races in Texas seats held by Reps. Van Taylor, Ron Wright and Roger Williams that Democrats did not even place on their ambitious target list. Trump won each by double digits in 2016.
The NRCC, however, has forcefully cast doubt on Democratic surveys that show red-leaning seats in play.
“These polls being peddled by the DCCC are the same nonsense polls they peddled in ’16 and ’18 that routinely missed the mark by 10-15 points and should be taken with a grain of salt,” said NRCC spokesperson Chris Pack.
Republican polling has brought some good news in seats. Recent surveys showed the GOP with a large lead in a Utah swing-seat held by Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams and close races in Democratic-held seats held by Reps. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.), Elaine Luria (D-Va.) and Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) — five of 30 Democrats who hold districts Trump won in 2016.
Republicans also crowed this week about an internal poll that showed their star recruit to reclaim Curbelo’s old seat, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez, leading freshman Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.
And while many in the party concede the current environment is bleak, they say they expect Trump to recover enough in the next three months that the party won’t suffer a 2008-style election that would wipe out Republican incumbents in what have historically been safer seats.
“This isn’t a rout shaping up at all,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former NRCC chair. “They got a money advantage. We got a terrain and candidate advantage.”
Still, most party strategists agree that while some offensive targets remain ripe, they will have to protect more Republican seats than they anticipated at the start of the cycle. The tension lies over just how defensive their strategy should get.
Some Republican operatives are eager to see more defensive reservations in states, such as Ohio, Texas and Arizona, with major Senate or presidential contests that could boost prices for TV ads. No major GOP outside groups have booked in markets such as Dallas, which covers a highly competitive open seat; in Cincinnati, where Chabot is facing his second straight competitive race; or in Phoenix, where Schweikert, hobbled by an ethics investigation, has no funds to go on TV.
Adding to GOP fears is the fact that Democratic challengers have developed a significant cash advantage and may be able to put a district in play with little outside spending.
In the second quarter, nearly all of the 30 candidates in the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” program for top challenger campaigns outraised their Republican opponents. And as of June 30, half of them had more cash-on-hand. The problem is particularly acute in the open seats where Democratic candidates in Virginia, Texas, New York and Georgia have at least four times more in the bank.
Incumbents have also lost their edge. Reps. Don Young (R-Alaska), Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn.), Roy and Davis all trail challengers in cash-on-hand. Schweikert had less than $ 240,000 after the second quarter while his Democratic challenger, Hiral Tipirneni, had over $ 1.6 million. That shortfall and his ethics issues have muddied his reelection in a seat Trump won by 10 points.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee purposefully pushed an offensive strategy earlier in the cycle, hoping a cadre of well-funded recruits would help them capitalize on a continued suburban revolt.
“Republicans have been banking on 2018 being their rock bottom, particularly in the suburbs. But we’ve built a battlefield that is big,” DCCC executive director Lucinda Guinn said in an interview. “We took back the House by going on offense in the suburbs, and we are going to continue pushing the boundaries.”
Guinn said the campaign arm is continually polling to check for new offensive opportunities in districts on the edges of the map that could come online, particularly as the financial disparities widen between the Democratic and Republican candidates and the committees. The DCCC has $ 32 million more in the bank than its GOP counterpart as of June 30.
Though she declined to explicitly predict that her party would gain seats in November, Guinn said public and private data indicate Democrats have a 9-to-11 point lead on the congressional general ballot — at least a point higher than it was at this stage in the 2018 cycle. “Even if there’s some tightening of the map, we are starting from a very strong place,” she said.
Redistricting in North Carolina has added to GOP woes. Two red seats were transformed into safe Democratic territory in a court-mandated redraw. And there’s mounting unease about Republican Rep. Richard Hudson, whose new district became more competitive and unites the Democratic stronghold of Fayetteville. He was outraised last quarter by a former state Supreme Court justice.
And to some, the environment looks ominously like 2008, when they lost 21 additional seats two years after ceding the majority, and that the primary focus in 2020 should be limiting further losses.
“Everything is extremely competitive for the Democrats,” said one top GOP pollster, granted anonymity to discuss private data. “This is 2006-2008 all over again, where the voters punished the party in power, which in ’06 was Republicans, and in ‘18 was Republicans. They didn’t say, ‘OK, we’re done,’ after ‘06. There was continued punishment.”
“If you’re in Vegas, betting,” the pollster added, “you’re going to bet on Democrats picking up more seats right now than Republicans.”