Just about every poll predicts it won’t happen: Suburban voters are too fed up with Donald Trump, and Democrats too awash in cash, for Nancy Pelosi’s party not to seize the House on Nov. 6.
And yet House Republicans — and privately, even a few Democrats — say the GOP could still hang on, if only by a few seats. The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court has given GOP voters a badly-needed enthusiasm boost, they argue, and several races seen as unwinnable just weeks ago are suddenly back within reach for Republicans.
Democrats, meanwhile, have retreated from several battlegrounds once considered prime targets. They’ve also deserted a Democratic-controlled open seat in Minnesota, creating a new, rare pick-up opportunity for Republicans in a cycle where they’ve consistently been on defense.
“The environment has significantly improved over the past few weeks,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the GOP super PAC, Congressional Leadership Fund. “For the first time in months, we have the wind at our backs instead of in our face. Now it is incumbent upon Republicans to keep that up.”
There’s also the still-fresh memory of Election Night two years ago. Even Trump, by some accounts, expected to lose, and all the political experts who predicted a Hillary Clinton romp were left red-faced.
“Let’s not forget the same geniuses that predicted a huge romp by that woman who lost in 2016 are the same people predicting a huge win by the Democrats this time,” Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News last week. “So we have to be a little bit cautious.”
Nevertheless, it’s indisputable Republicans are in a serious jam: Democrats have infinitely more paths to win the chamber than Republicans do of holding it. Even Republicans admit that Democrats have already closed out about 15 races, well over halfway to the 23 seats they need to win the majority. Democrats are competing in more than 75 districts currently represented by Republicans, giving them ample room to secure the final dozen seats needed to take the majority.
At the same time, Republicans say there’s no question that their lot has improved the past few weeks. Their internal polls show the president’s approval ratings have increased by an average of 5 points in a handful of swing districts, giving Republicans who were underwater a fighting chance.
GOP fortunes have improved in a grab-bag of districts, from Trump strongholds where the Kavanaugh battle has energized conservatives, to racially diverse districts where incumbents with strong connections to voters appear to be staving off challengers.
After pulling money out of Republican Rep. Rod Blum’s Iowa district, figuring they had his seat won, Democrats recently started spending there again to blunt an unexpected surge by the incumbent. GOP internal polling has Blum up 4 points, and Republicans are pouring in another $1 million to help Blum, who’d previously been viewed as a lost cause.
Republicans are also feeling increasingly hopeful about holding onto retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s open Florida seat, long considered a tossup. Their internal polls show Republican Maria Elvira Salazar tied or slightly ahead of Democrat Donna Shalala, who served in Bill Clinton’s cabinet.
At the same time, Democrats have pulled money out of several districts that should be competitive, indicating that Republicans have solidified their leads in the closing days of the campaign. In the past two days, Democrats have retreated from an open seat in Minnesota where Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan is retiring and GOP recruit Pete Stauber is ahead in internal GOP polling.
Democrats are also taking money from the race to unseat GOP Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, whom Republicans say has a healthy lead. That came just days after Democrats pulled out of Hispanic-populated districts represented by Rep. David Valadao in central California and Rep. Will Hurd along the Texas border. And they’ve withdrawn $800,000 in planned ads from Rep. Vern Buchanan's Florida district, where the Democratic challenger, David Shapiro, trails the incumbent.
Democrats should have had "these seats put away by now, and they don’t,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in an interview. “I feel like they’ve hit a ceiling and held there — and we’re coming back.”
Of course, everything would have to break their way for Republicans to eke out a victory. For one, several party officials said it’s critical that President Donald Trump not antagonize more suburban women in the run-up to the election with comments like the “horseface” insult he hurled at Stormy Daniels this week.
They also said they need to prolong the momentum of the Kavanaugh confirmation for a few more weeks — or, better, build upon it.
The party is laying the groundwork to try. Congressional Leadership Fund is planning to run a series of new Kavanaugh ads in swing districts. Trump and senior Republicans like McCarthy have also increased their focus on issues that excite the base, such as immigration and the border wall. The president is expected to start talking about work requirements for food stamp recipients, a popular idea with the right.
Independent analysts have recently downgraded the number of seats Democrats are expected to flip. As of two weeks ago, Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman predicted Democrats could pick up 30 to 40 seats; now he puts the range at 25 to 35. Wasserman estimated that Republicans have a 30 percent chance of keeping the majority.
But while Wasserman noted the new enthusiasm boost on the right, which are limiting Democrats’ potential gains in Trump country, there’s still a question about whether its enough, he said.
“Republicans would have to win about two-thirds of these tossups [races] to hold the House,” he said. “That’s pretty hard to do.”
Republicans argue that they’ve put some of those seats away already. They feel good about Texas, where Democrats were targeting Reps. Pete Sessions, John Culberson and Hurd. They say California isn’t lost, pointing to what they call the improved prospects of GOP candidate Young Kim and Rep. Steve Knight (R-Calif.), both running in battleground districts.
At the same time, incumbents in traditional GOP strongholds have solidified their leads after scares from the left, Republicans say. They point to internal Republican polling showing leads for Reps. Andy Barr of Kentucky, Steve Chabot of Ohio, Mike Bost and Rodney Davis of Illinois, John Katko of New York and Brian Mast of Florida.
Democrats, however, are making inroads in several districts too, forcing Republicans to cut off some incumbents. In addition to writing off Reps. Kevin Yoder (R-Kansas), Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.), some Republicans now think Minnesota Reps. Erik Paulsen and Jason Lewis are finished.
Republicans admit that Pennsylvania is going to be a “bloodbath,” as one GOP campaign source called it. And Reps. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.) and Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who are both closely aligned with GOP leadership, are in trouble, they say.
Indeed, while Democrats' target list has contracted in some places in recent weeks, it has expanded in others. The DCCC began airing its first TV ads against Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Mast this week, while a pair of independent polls showed a close race brewing in retiring Rep. Dennis Ross' (R-Fla.) seat outside Tampa, which has been reliable Republican territory in recent years.
Democrats also argue that the recent GOP enthusiasm boost has been overstated, pointing to Democratic candidates they say are outperforming Reps. Mike Kelly (Pa.) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (Wash.).
“Given the way the district lines are drawn and the massive Republican outside money advantage," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Tyler Law, "we intentionally built the largest battlefield in a decade to create multiple paths to the majority and spread Republicans thin, including in deep-red districts."