With 50 days from the midterm elections, the likelihood that Democrats flip the House has never been higher. And for the first time in the cycle, strategists in both parties are seriously contemplating the prospect that the Senate could change hands as well.
In interviews with a dozen House and Senate strategists of both parties granted anonymity to speak candidly, there has been a notable uptick in Democratic confidence and Republican concern about the battlefield for both sides of Congress in the last few weeks.
Top Republicans working on House races concede that holding the chamber is a steep uphill battle.
“The House is probably lost,” one GOP strategist involved in a number of House races told TPM, putting the odds of his party holding the chamber at “20 percent at best — and that’s being generous.”
“We’re almost mathematically eliminated from the majority in the House already,” said another senior Republican strategist.
And while Democrats admit their path to a Senate majority remains a narrow one, some Republicans now acknowledge that it could indeed happen.
“I still think we hold the Senate — but I’m not as sure,” said one GOP strategist.
The further erosion of Republicans’ hopes in recent weeks come as much because their dire situation hasn’t improved in the past few months as anything — and time for a major shift their way is running out. But things have grown somewhat worse for them at both the macro level and in particular races in recent weeks, with President Trump dragging his party down and Democrats on offense on both health care and taxes.
Trump’s poll numbers have fallen further into toxic territory for his party in the past few weeks, with his approval ratings slipping back down into the high 30s in many recent polls — his worst standing since last spring. That’s led to a double-digit Democratic lead in the generic congressional ballot, above the 7 percent threshold most strategists believe is the rough line at which Democrats should take the House.
Trump’s downturn came in the wake of heavy coverage of the guilty plea from his former fixer, Michael Cohen, and the guilty verdict against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, whose decision Friday to plead guilty and cooperate with the FBI probe into Trump’s campaign won’t help any.
That comes after two major inflection points against Trump already occurred over the summer: His decision to separate migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border and his disastrous Vladimir Putin-hugging press conference in Helsinki.
“There were two big polling points where there was a huge shift against us: Post-Helsinki and after separating children at the borders. Trump did that to us,” said one House GOP strategist. “If Trump goes any lower, we’re losing a lot more people.”
Dems In Command For House Control
Republicans concede that the House is likely lost — a view supported by a bevy of recent public and private polling, as well as the national parties’ and super-PACs’ spending decisions.
There are almost a dozen open GOP-held House seats that Republicans are essentially admitting with their spending decisions they can’t win, getting Democrats roughly half way to the 23 seats they need to retake House control.
And some recent House polling backs up the theory that suburban Republicans are in for an absolute bloodbath on election day.
Reps. Mike Coffman (R-CO) and Erik Paulsen (R-MN) have trailed badly in recent public polls, numbers that track internal surveys. GOP strategists privately concede that they’re unlikely to be able to bounce back in their Democratic-leaning districts, joining Reps. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) and Rod Blum (R-IA) as incumbent Republicans that face daunting odds at returning to Congress. And they say the fact that the two battle-tested veterans appear cooked is a very bad sign for the map as a whole.
“When you have the guys who are doing everything right in trouble, that’s a really bad sign,” said one House Republican strategist.
More than a dozen other Republican incumbents are already essentially tied with their Democratic opponents in public and private polls — a tough place to be for incumbents with higher name recognition than their challengers. And while Trump’s standing has badly tarnished his party, Republicans’ major policies aren’t helping either. Democrats are running more ads on the GOP tax cuts than Republicans, a sign that it’s not the political winner GOP leaders had hoped for, and Democrats are heavily advertising on Republicans’ aborted attempts to repeal Obamacare.
The one thing Republicans have going for them right now is money, and they’ve looked to leverage that early to keep their hopes of holding onto Congress alive. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the GOP’s main House super-PAC, was the first group to go on air in 21 House districts, and believes it’s helped stabilize floundering incumbents like Reps. Andy Barr (R-KY), Claudia Tenney (R-NY) and Leonard Lance (R-NJ), giving them a chance to bounce back and win.
The group has also unleashed some brutal ads highlighting Democrats’ personal problems, a move that could disqualify some new candidates. But while those attacks will likely save some seats, for every race Republican strategists think they’ve gotten a handle on two more keep popping up that have them breaking into a cold sweat.
Some district-by-district polling gives Republicans a bit more hope that they can hang onto particular seats they’re worried about. But the overall picture looks grim for the GOP.
The Senate Looks Swingable
Democrats still face a brutal Senate map that by all rights should lead to major GOP gains: They have 10 senators running for reelection in states Trump won to just one Republican in a state Trump lost, and four of those Democrats come from ruby-red territory. They need just about everything to go right to have a chance at winning the Senate. Right now, they think that just might happen — and Republicans are worried they might be right.
“I hope when the smoke clears, we’ll still have a majority in the Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told reporters last week.
Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Bob Casey (D-PA) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) are all sailing to reelection in states Trump won. Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) remain on both parties’ radars (and on their ad spending lists) because of the heavily Republican nature of their states, but both hold comfortable leads over flawed GOP opponents in public and private polls.
The core Senate battlefield really comes down to seven states at this point, all of which are basically margin-of-error contests that could go either way. Democrats hope to pick up seats in Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee, while Republicans are seriously targeting North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana and Florida. If Democrats can sweep their pickup opportunities and lose just one incumbent, they’ll be in the majority.
Even six weeks ago, Republicans had remained supremely confident that wouldn’t happen. They were bullish on defeating Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Bill Nelson (D-FL), and skeptical they could lose Tennessee. But recent public and private polls indicate Donnelly and Nelson are clinging to narrow leads, former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) is tied or slightly leading Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) in most public and private surveys, and McCaskill is in dogfight with Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley (R) in a race Republicans had hoped they would have a lead in at this point.
Republicans are confident only about defeating Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), who has trailed in every GOP poll this year. But Democrats think even she could still win, believing she trails by just a few points and has rallied a bit in recent weeks.
And while Republicans think Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) could still survive his reelection fight, strategists on both sides think he’s more likely than not to lose his race.
The biggest shifts in Senate races over the last six weeks or so have occurred in Arizona and Florida, with a perception shift in Indiana towards Democrats.
In Arizona, Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ) has gotten a decent post-primary bump, and Republicans think their attacks on Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) for her past left-wing activism before she moved to the center during her time in the House are paying dividends. Sinema had held a lead all campaign, but the race is essentially tied now.
In Florida, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum’s (D) gubernatorial primary win gives Democrats a candidate on the ticket who will fire up progressives, African Americans and college students in a way Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) never could, and Nelson has opened up a tiny lead over Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) even though Scott has badly outspent him on the race. President Trump’s recent claim that 3,000 Puerto Ricans didn’t die in Hurricane Maria sure didn’t help either, as Scott has tried to make inroads with the state’s large and growing Boricua population.
One top Republican predicted wins in Arizona, Tennessee and North Dakota, but said, “That’s probably where it stops. Maybe we pick up Missouri or Indiana or all of Rick Scott’s hard work pays off, but I just don’t know.”
That would leave the GOP in control of the Senate by two seats. But Democrats could quite plausibly win two or even all three of those races at this point.
While Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) remains favored over Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), Republicans have recently been sounding the alarm bells about his race’s competitiveness. They privately concede their public worries may be more a tactical move to boost Cruz’s fundraising in case he does face a tough home stretch, but strategists in both parties think the race has a small chance to become seriously competitive in the race’s final weeks.
Democrats are also keeping an eye on Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), whose ethics problems and a big-spending opponent have them a bit concerned.
Democrats are still the underdogs for Senate control, and the high number of essentially tied seats means their chances of losing ground may be as likely as them capturing the chamber. But in past years, most close races tend to break towards one party or the other on Election Day. That could mean Republicans end up netting a seat or two — but it could also give Democrats the narrowest of majorities in the Senate.
“We’ve held the pieces together through Labor Day. If we can hold the pieces together for another two months this could happen,” said one Senate Democratic strategist. “I still wouldn’t call us favorites, we’ve got to hit an inside straight here, but it’s entirely possible.”
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