Trump puts GOP House majority in jeopardy

March 21, 2016

By Theodoric Meyer and Elena Schneider 

Donald Trump is on the verge of two things once thought to be impossible: winning the Republican presidential nomination, and putting Republicans’ historically large House majority in danger.

Democrats have for the past year discussed the GOP’s 30-seat majority as a long-term problem, solvable only by shrinking it over several successive elections. But Trump’s remarkable rise in the GOP presidential race, and the backlash he has already provoked among the larger electorate, has suddenly raised the prospect of a large November wave against Trump and the Republicans who would share the ballot with him.

The House GOP’s leading indicators – its most vulnerable members, like Reps. Bob Dold and Carlos Curbelo – are already sounding the alarm against Trump and his rhetoric on women, Hispanics and other groups. The party’s outside groups are preparing an intensified fundraising push to help defend the chamber. The respected Cook Political Report downgraded Republicans’ chances in 10 districts Friday. And while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has been stung by overzealous predictions in past years, won’t say outright that the majority is in play, the party is clearly thinking about it.

Democrats already had reasonable odds of flipping a dozen or so House seats. But DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján this week started highlighting “reach” districts, like Rep. John Mica’s in Florida and Rep. Steve Knight ‘s in California, that broaden Democrats’ target list enough to take back the chamber – if local candidates can take advantage of the sudden opportunity. And strategists are now turning their attention to moderate suburbs around Detroit, Minneapolis, Washington and other areas where House Democrats have struggled in recent years but where Trump has already shown weakness.

“The idea that Trump is going to help with federal races is like putting lipstick on a pig,” said Jason Roe, a California-based Republican strategist and a former spokesman for Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “To deal with that, most people with a brain are cutting and running, redirecting resources from the presidential to keeping control of Senate and House.”

A handful of particularly vulnerable Republicans have already distanced themselves from Trump.

“Donald Trump’s hateful words towards wide swaths of our country, from women to Latinos to veterans and Muslims, disqualify him from ever serving as president of the United States, and he will never have my support or my vote,” Dold told Crain’s Chicago Business in a statement earlier this month. The Chicagoland Republican faces a tough battle to keep a Democratic-leaning seat.

But most House Republicans are keeping quiet . “The hardest part about it is having to answer every time the nominee says something,” one worried Republican consultant said. “If he says this, ‘Do you agree?’ If he says that, ‘Do you agree?’ That’s the hardest part, not being able to control your race more. I think Trump makes every district tougher and every state tougher for a Republican.” 

To combat that, Republican outside groups are planning a bigger-than-expected fundraising push to protect the House. “I think there are lots of major donors who may have been budgeting to play in presidential who are now saying we need to make sure we keep the House and the Senate,” said one top GOP strategist, who requested anonymity to describe private conversations.

Meanwhile, Democrats’ flagship House super PAC, House Majority PAC, is setting aside resources to explore pickup opportunities in seats that haven’t been competitive recently. “I believe the House could be in play if Donald Trump is the nominee,” Alixandria Lapp, the super PAC’s executive director and a longtime House strategist, wrote in an email.

The National Republican Congressional Committee remains bullish on maintaining its majority.

“House Democrats have been pushing their far-fetched fantasy about a wave election sweeping them to a majority every cycle since voters rejected Nancy Pelosi’s speakership in 2010,” said Katie Martin, the NRCC’s communications director. “Here in the real world, a combination of their recruiting failures in races across the country and their own presidential candidate’s abysmal favorability ratings ensure that Democrats’ chances of winning the majority this year are as laughable as they were in 2012 and 2014.”

One major question mark for Democrats is whether they have the candidates to ride a wave, if Trump generates one in their direction. With the filing deadline approaching in Colorado, Democrats still don’t have a candidate in GOP Rep. Scott Tipton’s district, which the party targeted in as recently as 2012 and which has a substantial Latino population. Bill Phillips, the Democratic candidate in Mica’s Florida district – one of the seats Luján mentioned this week – had less than $20,000 in his campaign account to start the year. In key California districts, Democrats face primaries and feuding between local activists and the national party.

And both parties caution that, more than seven months out from Election Day, they don’t yet have enough polling data on individual House races to make a definitive judgment on the state of play. This summer, the effort will kick into high gear, after Republican delegates either nominate Trump at their convention in Cleveland or rally behind another candidate after multiple ballots.

Democrats need to net at least 30 seats to retake the House – even more than the 29 seats they flipped to take the majority in 2006. But John Lapp, who ran the DCCC’s independent expenditure program that year, said this year was starting to feel familiar. “The type of people who came in during 2006 – when the campaign broke late and they were able to ride that wave – I think it’s the early stages of that,” Lapp said.

A potential path toward 30 seats, once thought to be totally outside the realm of possibility, has become clearer for Democrats in recent days. Luján ducked when asked whether Democrats could win back the House at a press conference last week, but his committee is actively preparing to compete in districts that weren’t on the radar months ago. Democrats are targeting seats with “high numbers of independent voters, socially moderate voters, millennials and minority voters,” Luján said.

“We are going to keep recruiting through filing day because of this momentum that has been created by Donald Trump,” Luján added.

Luján specifically mentioned upstate New York’s 22nd District, a battleground seat where moderate GOP Rep. Richard Hanna is retiring, and the fast-changing districts currently held by Mica in Florida and Knight in California. He also cited freshman Rep. Mia Love, who represents a conservative Utah district, as a target.

National Democrats say they’re also looking closely at a collection of socially moderate suburban districts. Many of them haven’t elected Democrats in years, but they have high shares of the college-educated voters who have been least keen on Trump in the GOP presidential primary so far. Democrats figure that lack of enthusiasm could weigh down Republican House members in November.

Those off-the-beaten-path GOP seats getting a new look include Rep. Erik Paulsen’s district in the Minneapolis suburbs, freshman Rep. Dave Trott ‘s seat outside of Detroit, veteran Rep. Dave Reichert’s district outside of Seattle, and Rep. Kevin Yoder’s district, in Kansas City’s suburbs.

In Knight’s California seat, a Simi Valley district north of Los Angeles that President Barack Obama carried in 2012, Democratic candidate Bryan Caforio says he wants to voters to think of Trump and Knight as “two peas in a pod.”

“Knight is the Donald Trump of Southern California. He’s the man who, shortly after taking office, threatened to beat up a constituent,” Caforio said, citing an incident in which Knight, baited by an anti-immigration protester, threatened to “drop [his] ass.” “[Knight] has extreme immigration views, extreme family planning views, so I’m not surprised he hasn’t condemned [Trump] because of those extreme positions he’s taken.” 

Knight, like most other House Republicans, has stayed silent on Trump in recent weeks. But he told The Santa Clarita Valley Signal in January that he didn’t think the billionaire “could win the general [election] in a million years.”

“The hard part is that a lot of people are making absolute statements about what Trump is going to do for the electorate, but it’s shown to be an incredibly unpredictable impact so far,” said Matt Rexroad, a Republican consultant who’s advising Knight.

GOP state Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, who’s running for the open upstate New York seat Democrats are eyeing, said she doesn’t think Trump hurts her chances at all.

“I don’t think Trump is going to be as negative as everyone thinks in this particular district,” she said, adding that Trump’s fierce criticism of trade deals resonates in a district that has lost manufacturing jobs. “Honestly, I meet a lot of Democrats who like him,” she added.

Democrats believe they will gain more voters than they lose.

“Look, I don’t have a crystal ball,” Luján, the DCCC chairman, said on Wednesday when asked if the House was in play. “I don’t know what’s going to happen in November. But I’m optimistic about the environment that’s being created today.”