The quarterback of the New York Jets, Sam Darnold, had the worst game of his career against the New England Patriots on October 21. It was bad. The Jets were shot down 33-0—a total shutout. Darnold was mic’d up for the game for some reason, a point that many sports beat writers felt was absurd. You don’t do that. Not with this team and especially not this season when the Jets might have another top first-round pick for the 2020 draft. One thing a struggling Darnold said that game made waves in the world of sports journalism.
“I’m seeing ghosts,” he said as his team was getting pummeled.
Well, while the GOP isn’t down and out like the Jets, the party could be facing familiar “ghosts” that hamstrung its 2018 efforts to hold onto the House. Right now, we could have a problem on our flank, and while impeachment is dominating the news, it doesn’t mean this potential problem has gone away. First, let’s recap that cycle.
The 2018 midterms were noted for the Democrats retaking the House, the talk of impeachment seeping in, and the GOP losing the suburban vote. The latter is true. These soft voters decided that they just couldn’t vote Republican in 2018, so they decided to back socialism. It wasn’t an unwinnable election for Republicans. There were seams that could have been seized on, especially when it came to the economy. Here's the conundrum for the GOP: Trump isn’t popular, according to the polls (I’m skeptical about these), but his policies paint a different picture. The GOP had the devilish task of trying to parse these two points. As Kimberley Strassel at The Wall Street Journal noted at the time, polling from WPAi found that nearly a quarter of voters from competitive districts could be persuaded to vote Republican if they heard an agenda catered to the economy and the protection of constitutional rights. WPAi is a firm that told a very worried Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) that he had a pathway to re-election in 2016 against his opponent Russ Feingold, who he had beaten six years prior. They were right. Johnson won by four points (via WSJ):
WPAi just handed the club in-depth polling of the people who matter most this midterm—1,000 likely voters in 41 competitive House districts. The results are quietly making their way to Republican leaders, and the club agreed to give me an advance look. Bottom line: Many of these races are winnable—if Republicans have the courage of their convictions and get smarter in tailoring their messages to voters.
On the surface, the results mirror other recent polls. President Trump has a net-negative approval rating across these districts, with his unfavorable ratings notably high among women (57%), independents (58%) and suburban voters (52%). Those who answered prefer a Democratic Congress that will check Mr. Trump (48%) to electing Republicans who will pass his agenda more quickly (42%). The biggest alarm bell is the 12-point enthusiasm gap—with 72% of Democrats “very interested” in this election, compared with 60% of Republicans. In suburbia, the 12-point gap widens to 24.
Yet this thundercloud has silver linings. One is that Republicans still hold a 3-point lead on the generic ballot in these districts, meaning they have a real chance if they get their likely voters out. An even bigger opening: Approximately 25% of those polled remain “persuadable” to vote Republican—if they hear the right things.
Republicans have [or had] an opportunity in highlighting the left’s more doolally ideas. Uncommitted voters reacted strongly against Democrats’ calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and strongly in favor of GOP promises to defund “sanctuary” cities and states, which refuse to follow immigration law. These were top messages for those crucial suburban voters, who have watched in alarm as urban violence creeps into their neighborhoods. (Interestingly, the other top suburban message was repealing ObamaCare.)
As for the Republican base, the poll finds they are driven most by Democrats’ threats to the presidency, the economy and constitutional rights. They will be inspired by Republicans who promise to protect the Second Amendment. They are likewise stirred by promises to defend Mr. Trump from the partisan impeachment effort that would inevitably accompany Democratic House control. And they want to hear Republicans vow to guard against intrusive and specific Democratic job-killing proposals—a $15-an-hour minimum wage, regulations on autos and drinking straws, government health care, etc.
…the trick for Republicans is to target different microcosms of their districts, tailoring their messages via digital marketing, calls, mailings and events. Some issues, like taxes, resonate everywhere, but for the most part the emphasis and message needs to be entirely different depending on block-by-block geography.
Strassel added that Trump's nationalizing of races makes this more difficult. Regardless, we blew the play. The Democrats won. And that paved the way for the impeachment circus that’s engulfed the Hill. There’s been no movement from House Democrats to do anything else. No infrastructure bill and nothing to fix health care or prescription drugs. The Democrats have done nothing with their new majority other than trying to find the most pathetic reasons to impeach President Donald J. Trump solely for the reason that he won the 2016 election.
The GOP regrouped and is now preparing for 2020, which is gearing up to be one of the nastiest and most vicious cycles in recent memory. While a large swath of the seats the Democrats gained in 2020 was close, one would think the GOP could mount a good campaign to retake the House. The impeachment circus is not popular with battleground state Democrats. First of all, most of the proceedings up until recently were carried out in secret, with summaries being released by Democrats that only propped up their impeachment narrative against the president. You all know the story: Trump made a July phone call to the Ukrainian political leadership, supposedly threatened to withhold military aid unless the Ukrainian government opened a corruption probe into Hunter Biden’s position at an energy company for which he has zero business being on its board, and alas the quid pro quo charge that’s making a mockery of our government.
Truth be told, Hunter Biden’s position, which he held when his daddy was in office, does present a conflict of interest and the allegation that he was there selling access for $50,000 a month. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to hold an official vote on an impeachment inquiry in the last days of October shows that she knows how to read the polls too. While it was assumed that some of the Democrats who won in swing districts would not back this, Pelosi might have given them the keys to the castle in terms of money if they signed on, which they did. The final vote got 232 Democrats. The National Republican Congressional Committee sent moving boxes to Democrats in competitive districts with the words “get packing” written on them. It was a nice touch, but the GOP once again has an issue in its backyard that could put its campaign to reclaim the lower chamber in peril: retirements. And that ghost has bitten us before.
Right now, we have 16 Republicans announcing their retirement, with two announcing they’re doing so in order to run for higher office. Granted, the Democrats have to defend some 31 seats, but it’s only November. A lot can happen (via NPR):
The recent stream of Republicans announcing plans to retire in 2020 means lawmakers may be losing hope that there is a path to retaking the majority in the House of Representatives next November.
So far, 16 House GOP lawmakers have announced they will not run for re-election; two of those are running for higher office: Alabama Rep. Bradley Byrne for Senate and Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte for governor in their respective states. On the Democratic side, three members have said they will not run, and Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján has decided to run for Senate in New Mexico instead of for his House seat.
Republicans will have plenty of opportunities to play offense — 31 House Democrats represent districts that President Trump carried in 2016. Just three Republicans hold districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.
Democrats have focused their attention on Texas — the state with the most Republican retirements — five members are departing after this term. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee dubbed this dynamic a "Texodus." They have set up a satellite operation in the state to make a more aggressive push to register new voters and pump up turnout among Latino voters — a key bloc that helped Democrats win two House contests in the state in 2018.
In August, FiveThirtyEight also analyzed the string of GOP retirements and found some were because their districts were competitive while others were more do to the fact that they were safe from being booted but would no longer be able to chair their committees after three consecutive terms due to GOP conference rules. Yet, it warned, with the election months away, more can follow:
Of course, these early retirements don’t necessarily signal a wave of future exits. But considering we’re still many months away from passing the deadlines to run for federal office in all 50 states, the retirement train may keep chugging along in the coming weeks. Other rumored potential retirees include veteran members like 17-term Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, who also voted to condemn the president’s tweets. More possible retirees include the two other Republicans holding onto seats Clinton won in 2016 — New York Rep. John Katko and Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. In fact, Fitzpatrick, who also voted to condemn Trump’s tweets, already has a prospective primary challenger lining up to take him on for being insufficiently pro-Trump. There’s also the fact that the last time a party flipped the House in a presidential cycle was in 1952. With that history in mind, as well as the misery of minority status in a hyper-partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill, don’t be shocked if more Republicans decide to exit stage right.
In March, David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report mentioned another obstacle in the path of the GOP retaking the House: history.
…Democrats have history on their side: the House majority hasn't flipped twice in a row since 1954 and hasn't flipped during a presidential cycle since 1952. Democrats have gained House seats in five of the past six presidential elections (save for 2004, when Republicans drew a favorable new map in Texas) and in seven of the past eight presidential cycles, the net partisan seat shift in the House has been in the single digits.
Earlier in the decade, we theorized that for Democrats to win back the House, they would need either a resettlement program to move more of their voters into competitive districts or an unpopular GOP president in a midterm year. In 2018, they got the latter. Now, it's tough to see Republicans winning the House back unless President Trump's approval rating is significantly higher than today's 42 percent come 2020.
Republicans note that won't be the case 20 months from now. GOP strategists hope to make Democratic freshmen "one-term wonders" by tying them to "radical," economy-disrupting proposals such as a Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
However, financial deficits and retirements could complicate the GOP's path back. In 2018, Democratic candidates outspent Republican candidates in 59 of the 75 most competitive races, in some cases by 2-to-1 or 3-to-1, according to data from OpenSecrets.org. Democrats' dominance owed to their donor base's anger at Trump and their ability to bundle and direct small-dollar contributions efficiently through ActBlue.
Republicans argue 2020 will be different because Democratic House candidates will be competing against presidential contenders for attention and cash. But Democratic incumbents could continue to benefit from an increasingly wealthy base that's angry at the president. And, GOP candidates could find it more difficult to raise money out of power.
This isn’t doom and gloom. I want the GOP to retake the House. I want them to retain control of the Senate. And I want Trump to get a second term. I think the latter is going to happen. If the economy is roaring, Trump wins. In three Electoral College predictions by pollster Mark Zandi, Trump clinches 280 or more votes.
For the House, yes, Democrats will probably have more ground to defend, but they may hold on. The GOP has to do better with candidate recruitment. Some of the folks we tapped in 2018 and some of the 2019 special elections have been nothing short of awful. We have to do better on that front as well. In the end, it could be a great day if we retake the House. But the retirement ghost is ever-present this cycle like the last, and it wasn’t kind to us.