The tense battles for control of the White House and the Senate have entered a new, six-months-out phase. But while there’s less of a media focus on the House, that battleground rages with firefights as well. The suspension of normal politicking (and fundraising) during the coronavirus pandemic, however, has frozen trends to the benefit of the Democrats defending the turf they won in 2018, making Republican hopes for an upset more improbable than ever, as the Cook Political Report’s House wizard, David Wasserman, reports:
Just ten weeks ago, House Republicans could barely contain their excitement at the prospect of tying 30 Democrats in Trump-won districts to self-avowed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and their votes to impeach President Trump. Today, Joe Biden is the presumptive nominee, and impeachment feels like ancient history.
The COVID-19 pandemic has all but frozen House recruitment and fundraising, shielding Democratic incumbents with big financial head starts. Now, Republicans’ path to picking up the 18 seats needed to win back the majority now looks slim to non-existent.
Yes, Donald Trump’s performance at the top of the ballot remains a variable that’s hard to nail down given the unprecedented nature of the sudden public health crisis and its economic consequences, with the short-term path to “normalcy” exceedingly hard to predict. But as Wasserman points out, even reelected presidents seem to have short coattails in House races:
In 1996, Bill Clinton won reelection comfortably, but Democrats picked up just two of the 13 seats they needed for a majority. In 2004, Republicans picked up just three seats as George W. Bush won a second term. And in 2012, Barack Obama’s win helped Democrats gain only eight of the 25 seats they needed for a majority.
In seven of the past eight presidential cycles, the net shift in House seats has been in the single digits, and the last five changes in House control have all been in midterms.
The uphill struggle House Republicans face has been made more daunting by a big Democratic advantage in open seats:
Fresh off losing the majority, nearly three times as many Republicans (27) as Democrats (9) are retiring or running for other office. These numbers have remained fairly stable over the past two months, and give Democrats “insurance” against losses: just one of their open seats is at risk of GOP takeover — Rep. Dave Loebsack’s (IA-02) — while up to nine of the GOP seats are at risk.
And in terms of the national dynamics, the congressional generic ballot (an estimate of the national House popular vote) is looking good for Democrats. The latest RealClearPolitics polling averages show Democrats up by 7.7 percent. They led by 7.3 percent on the eve of the 2018 elections, which gave the their current majority.
Republicans need to look a lot better for a serious shot at Pelosi’s gavel. Right now they are treading water, as Wasserman concludes:
Overall, we rate 220 seats as solid, likely or leaning to Democrats and 193 seats solid, likely or leaning to Republicans. If the remaining 22 Toss Up races were to break evenly down the middle, Republicans would net four seats. But the GOP’s fundraising woes could allow Democrats to expand their own offensive battlefield and force GOP outside groups to spend even more money on defense.
In truth, the best hope Republicans have for taking back the House will be in 2022 if Joe Biden is president and suffers the usual White House midterm blues.