Even with disarray at top of GOP ticket, House flip unlikely

By Josh Kurtz | 04/12/2016 06:58 AM EDT

As Republicans remain consumed by their nasty, messy, unpredictable fight for the presidential nomination, Democrats are becoming increasingly bullish on their prospects for the fall — not just in the White House election but in contests up and down the ballot. Top nonpartisan political analysts agree that based on the current political environment, Democrats are likely to pick up seats in Senate and House races.

In an illustration of that trend, on Friday alone, House Democrats snagged two solid recruits for races where previously they did not have strong contenders.

In Wisconsin’s 8th District, based in Green Bay, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson (D) entered the open seat race to replace retiring Rep. Reid Ribble (R). And in Colorado’s Western Slope-based 3rd District, former state Sen. Gail Schwartz (D) announced that she would challenge Rep. Scott Tipton (R) (E&ENews PM, April 8). Both are competitive districts at the presidential level whose current Republican members won their seats by ousting Democratic incumbents in the GOP wave election of 2010.

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"With the chaos and uncertainty at the top of the Republican ticket, our battlefield of competitive races continues to expand, and these candidates are well-positioned to earn the trust of voters and take advantage of this ongoing Republican dysfunction and the electoral winds it creates," said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But despite the Democrats’ optimism, one stark reality remains: Even with some political wind at their back, even with politically damaged reality TV star Donald Trump or controversial Texas Sen. Ted Cruz the likeliest Republican presidential nominees, Democrats are unlikely to win enough seats to end the GOP’s rock-solid majority in the House.

Due in part to congressional district lines that are skewed in favor of the GOP, some shortcomings in Democratic recruiting efforts and the fact that Republican donors may be more inclined to shore up the party’s congressional majorities than to prop up a flawed presidential nominee, the Democrats’ ability to flip the 30 seats they would need to win the majority seems like the longest of long shots.

"The prospect of a GOP implosion at the top of the ticket suddenly has House Democrats energized about making a big dent in the GOP’s 30-seat majority or even putting the majority in play," David Wasserman, the House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, wrote in an analysis earlier this month. "The only problem is that House Democrats don’t look all that well-equipped to capitalize on a wave."

The Cook Political Report rates 205 Republican-held House seats and 174 Democratic-held seats as "solid," meaning they are highly unlikely to change hands. Only 56 House seats are considered competitive to one degree or another, but even that number appears to be deceptive when it comes to legitimate opportunities for Democrats to make gains.

For a minority party seeking to pick up seats in Congress, candidate recruitment is a three-pronged operation. The first step is to keep as many incumbents from retiring as possible. The second step is to find as many top-tier recruits as possible for obviously competitive seats. And the third step is to find strong candidates for seats that are less likely to be competitive but could be if a wave election emerges or if a favored Republican candidate stumbles.

Senate Democrats executed that strategy well this cycle, as they seek to flip five GOP seats to retake the majority (they need only four pickups if Democrats hold on to the White House in November).

Only one Democratic Senate incumbent in a competitive state, Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, is retiring — and Democratic leaders are high on their likely nominee to replace him, former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. They have high-profile recruits for races against the most vulnerable Republican incumbents — Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — and the open seat race to replace retiring Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) figures to be very close. Although the identity of their nominee is unsettled, Democrats should have a decent chance to oust Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), as well.

But just as significantly, Democrats have solid candidates in states where Republicans are still favored — like Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who is challenging Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.); former Rep. Baron Hill, who is running for an open seat in Indiana; former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, who is challenging Sen. Chuck Grassley (R); Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who is running against Sen. Roy Blunt; and former U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge, who is challenging Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.). These races could become more competitive as the election year progresses — particularly if the Republican presidential nominee is struggling in the fall.

House Democrats’ recruiting has been a little less successful to date — both in truly competitive districts and in districts where Republicans are still favored at the moment. That picture could change some in the months ahead: The filing deadline for candidates hasn’t closed in 18 states. But that includes six states — Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont — that already have all-Democratic House delegations.

How do they get to a 30-seat pickup? It isn’t easy.

The analysts at The Cook Political Report put four Republican-held seats in the "likely Democratic" or "lean Democratic" columns — and three are open seats in districts that have seen their boundaries changed since the 2014 election by court-ordered redistricting. Freshman Rep. Cresent Hardy of Nevada’s 4th District, according to Cook‘s calculations, is the most vulnerable Republican incumbent.

Many political strategists consider Hardy an "accidental" congressman, and his win two years ago was a surprise. He sits in a district outside Las Vegas that President Obama carried by 10 points in 2012. Eight Democrats are competing for the right to take on Hardy, with state Sen. Ruben Kihuen and former state Assemblywoman Lucy Flores the early front-runners.

Cook sees 15 GOP-held seats in the "tossup" category — and they are sprinkled over all four time zones. Eight are held by freshmen, and six are open seats. Four-term Rep. Mike Coffman, who represents a suburban Denver district that Obama carried by 5 points in 2012, is the only seasoned Republican considered in jeopardy. His likely Democratic opponent is state Senate Minority Leader Morgan Carroll.

Even within that category, the opportunities vary. Three "tossup" seats are in districts that Obama won by double digits. Two are in districts that Mitt Romney won by 3 points in 2012. The quality of the candidates also determines how many seats might change hands.

Meanwhile, Cook has 13 GOP-held seats in the "lean Republican" category, and 10 with the "likely Republican" designation. Even in a dream election year for Democrats, the chances of them winning 30 of the 42 GOP seats in the five competitive categories are slim.

What’s more, even in wave election years, the party picking up congressional seats usually loses a few, as well (the rare exception was in 2006, when Democrats flipped 30 House seats to gain control of the chamber for the first time in 22 years — without losing a single seat they had held in the previous Congress).

Cook puts the Florida Panhandle district of freshman Rep. Gwen Graham (D) — which was altered greatly by court-ordered redistricting — in the "likely Republican" category. Three Democratic open seats are in the "tossup" column. And 10 Democratic seats are on the "lean Democratic" or "likely Democratic" lists, meaning there’s no guarantee they will stay in Democratic hands.

Cook currently predicts Democratic gains of between five and 15 House seats, "with substantially larger gains possible if the top of the GOP ticket appears headed for a landslide defeat in November." And the political tip sheet lauded Democrats for recruiting Schwartz in Colorado and Nelson in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin race is now on Cook‘s "tossup" list, while Colorado is in the "lean Republican" category.

Republicans wasted no time attacking the two Democratic recruits. The National Republican Congressional Committee noted that the House Democrats’ campaign arm hasn’t put Schwartz on its list of top-flight recruits. And NRCC spokesman Chris Pack quickly dubbed Nelson "Tax Hike Tommy" and argued that his record "makes him unelectable in November."

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