With less than three weeks to go before the midterms, the GOP appears to be gaining momentum, as inflation and the economy dominate voters’ concerns. And while the Senate outlook still remains plausibly optimistic for Democrats, the House presents a darker picture. Dave Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, has been closely tracking the relatively small number of competitive races, and he sees Republican momentum. I spoke with Wasserman, whose Twitter catchphrase “I’ve seen enough” signals a race’s conclusion for many political junkies, about the forbidding landscape for Democrats, why even big names like Katie Porter and Sean Patrick Maloney may be in trouble, and the muddled state of political polling.
On the heels of some Democratic strength last month, is this shaping up as a more standard midterm, where the opposition party does well after all?
I think Nate Silver, my friend and fellow prognosticator, asked the right question over the summer when he wondered whether this would be an asterisk election. Today, we’re somewhere between an asterisk year, in which there’s a minimal wave, and a classic midterm election, where Republicans do quite well. I think this is probably a Category 2 or 3 hurricane headed Democrats’ way, just not a Category 4 or 5.
Biden’s approval ratings have sucked all year. That hasn’t changed much. Democrats have come home a bit to him since Dobbs, gas prices have come down a little bit, and he’s been able to pass an agenda during an election year, which is impressive — but that’s only gotten him to between 42 and 43 percent. Historically, that’s still a very rough place to be. The silver lining for congressional Democrats is that their approvals are still outpacing Biden’s. And the main reason is that the Democratic incumbents had the luxury of stockpiling cash all year while Republicans were locked in bitter primaries. That allowed Democrats a head start to communicate what benevolent bipartisan people they were, and to run as moderates, whereas the Republicans were stuck running to the right.
That dynamic applies in the House as well as the Senate?
Yes. And now, as we see Republican super-PAC dollars kicking into high gear, Democrats aren’t defying gravity by as much as they were in the summer. But they’re still overperforming Biden — or, I would argue, Biden is underperforming them. We’re seeing the more typical midterm dynamic assert itself in the homestretch.
You tweeted a couple of weeks ago that Democrats need to win about 80 percent of the seats you deem tossups at Cook in order to retain their majority. Has the situation worsened since then for the party?
We’re still in a similar place, where Republicans only need to win about one in every five tossups to win the majority, and Democrats would need to win more than four out of five. That’s a really tall order. It’s true that in most years, tossups break heavily in one direction or another. But I would also point out we have a bunch of races — 17 to be exact — in our Lean Democratic column, which means there are a lot of races teetering right on the edge, and we wouldn’t be shocked to see some of them fall to Republicans. And those races include some pretty prominent names. I don’t think Katie Porter is out of the woods, despite her ridiculous fundraising numbers.
I hadn’t realized she was in any danger.
Well, keep in mind that about three-quarters of that district is new to her because of redistricting. The same is true for Sean Patrick Maloney — about three quarters of his district is new. The DCCC chair is not out of the woods.
Is there a House race that encapsulates the headwinds Democrats are facing right now?
The most emblematic House race might be Oregon’s sixth congressional district. This is a new seat that Democrats drew last year, and it’s a terrific pickup opportunity in a Portland suburb. Democrats were downright gleeful when Republican Mike Erickson won the nomination in May, because there were allegations from an old race that he had paid for an ex-girlfriend’s abortion. And they figured, “All we need to do is point out his position and his baggage on this issue and the race is over.” Well, Erickson’s a wealthy logistics and supply-chain consultant. He has spent lavishly on this race using his personal resources, and the Democrat, Andrea Salinas, is tied at best against him.
That allegation sounds familiar from a certain Senate race.
But in Georgia, I might argue Herschel Walker is tied at best.
Oregon is a uniquely problematic state for Democrats, as many people have pointed out. But it just goes to show that some of Democrats’ biggest struggles this year are in blue states where the threat to abortion access is not as potent a November voting issue as it is in midwestern battlegrounds, where there have been ferocious fights between Democratic governors and Republican legislatures over the issue.
In Senate races, Republicans nominated a lot of candidates who may not be ready for primetime, people like Walker and Blake Masters. Has that dynamic been true as much, or at all, in the House?
There are three structural advantages that Republicans have in the House that Senate Republicans don’t. One is redistricting. One is retirements — we didn’t see Democratic retirements in key Senate seats, but we have 19 vulnerable Democratic open seats in the House compared to just six vulnerable open Republican seats. So that’s a huge difference between the Senate and House. The third, and this is key, is that Senate Republicans were at war with each other over who to recruit and nominate, and Trump took an interest in the Senate contests in a way that led to chaos. Mitch McConnell and Rick Scott are still playing a blame game three weeks from Election Day.
Whereas in the House, Kevin McCarthy has had a much more disciplined candidate-recruitment operation. He’s also been more successful in keeping Trump on the sidelines, to the extent possible. McCarthy’s M.O. has been to diversify the party. And on that metric, he’s been more successful than his Senate counterpart. Seventy percent of Republican challengers in the most vulnerable Democratic seats are women, minorities, and/or veterans. Thirty-eight percent of those candidates are military veterans, 34 percent are women, and 23 percent are nonwhite. There are even two nominees who are all three of those things. And that makes it a lot harder for Democrats to portray these nominees as the second coming of Donald Trump.
Now, there are some glaring exceptions at the House level where Republicans didn’t end up with ideal nominees.The first two that come to mind are J.R. Majewski in Toledo, Ohio, and John Gibbs in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And I would argue there are probably five or six other Republican nominees in House races who have significantly boosted Democrats chances of holding or picking up a seat. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that many, but it does lower the ceiling on Republicans potential gains. Earlier this year, we thought Republicans could maybe gain 35 seats. I think that’s a lot harder now because we know Republicans have problematic candidates in five to ten seats.
Going back to the second of the three factors that you mentioned: After Republicans did surprisingly well in the House elections two years ago, there was widespread fear among Democrats that they would be able to gerrymander their way into a semi-permanent majority with all the redistricting power they retained. They did reduce the number of competitive seats. But all things being equal, the map is actually fairer than it has been in a while. What has the impact of gerrymandering for this cycle ended up looking like?
I’m not sure I agree that it’s fairer than it has been in a while.
Well, some people are saying that. Many people are saying that, to quote our former president.
We’re all looking at the same number and drawing several different conclusions. I would estimate Republicans netted a small handful of seats from redistricting. Are there two more Biden-won districts under the new lines? Yes. But many of the seats that became bluer in redistricting were already represented by Democrats who would probably win. Many of the seats that became redder are also represented by Democrats, but now those seats are much more precarious. And Republicans are able to gerrymander far more states than Democrats, because so many blue states employ independent or bipartisan commissions: California, New Jersey, Virginia, Washington State, Colorado.
In Florida alone, Ron DeSantis was able to ram through a plan that gives Republicans an additional four seats. Democrats sought to do the same in New York State, but it was struck down by the state’s top court. So after that, I think redistricting probably gives Republicans three House seats of the five they need for the majority. At one point, that looks like a drop in the bucket of their overall potential gains. Post-Dobbs, I think it is a very valuable insurance policy.
I know you’re the House editor at CPR, but I just wanted to get your quick Senate take. How do you view the odds of a Republican takeover there?
I think it’s much closer than most of the modelers would suggest. The conventional algorithmic wisdom seems to be that Democrats have somewhere between a three-in-five and two-in-three chance of holding the Senate. I’m much closer to 50/50, because any one of Pennsylvania, Arizona, or Georgia could go south for Democrats on a bad night. I don’t think New Hampshire or Colorado are completely over either, but if Republicans win one of those, they’ve already won the Senate. These races are still all a polling error away from Republicans winning one of them, or more than one of them.
A few days ago, there was a surprising poll out of Iowa. Ann Selzer, often considered the gold standard of polling, showed longtime Republican incumbent Chuck Grassley only up by three points. Do you believe that?
I believe that Mike Franken will get around 43 percent. I don’t believe Grassley will end up at 46 percent. And one thing that leads me to believe Republicans have a bit more upside in the final weeks is who the undecided voters are. Democrats are encouraged by generic ballot polls that have the parties tied in the mid-40s. But to me, what that says is that there’s still between 7 and 10 percent of voters who have not tuned into their congressional vote choice. These are what I would call normal people, who are not mainlining news about the midterm elections. And in the most recent NBC poll, Biden’s approval rating when it came to handling of the economy was at 27 percent among independent voters. These undecided voters are disproportionately unaffiliated, and their top concern is their pocketbook, even more so than voters as a whole. So if you were to tell me that the outcome on November 9 fell outside of our estimates in the House and Senate, I’d guess that it would fall higher on the Republican side.
I asked your colleague Amy Walter this when I interviewed her a couple months ago. How does the unreliability of polling, at least in 2020 and 2016, factor into the way you rate and think about races this year?
I tend to weigh the last election results perhaps a bit more heavily than some other colleagues who are a little more poll-based in their models. I think we have to get used to flying blind. With response rates as low as they are, it is fairly miraculous that polls can tell us much about the state of politics at all. Every pollster is up-weighting rural or non-college voters or some other cohort to try and solve for the problems that we saw in 2016 and 2020. And that means every pollster is making a different assumption about who will show up on November 8. That may or may not be accurate. And so even though I’m an avid consumer of national polls that test how perceptions are changing from month to month, I have less faith in horse-race polls of Senate and House races to tell us where things stand with precision.
I spoke with the founder of the Trafalgar Group last week. He thinks he’s got it figured out. What do you make of his work?
I would be happy to offer an opinion as soon as he lets me observe a poll in person, and explains exactly how he gets from survey design to results.
Will you be on Twitter on Election Night, unlike two years ago when you weren’t and I was confused because I needed somebody to tell me when the elections were over?
I hate to disappoint …
… but I like to think I have a good sense of my limits. There is so much fog of war on a major election night, with races across 50 states, that trying to simultaneously discern what’s happening in all of these contests and communicate the state of play to an entire website, is more than one person can or should attempt. So, since 2008, I have been perched a good distance from the camera at the NBC News Decision Desk, crunching the data for House races there. And that’s still where I’m happy to be.
Perhaps you’ll use your famous catchphrase on a crowd of NBC employees, if not on Twitter. Anyway, I’ll leave it there — thank you very much for your time.
Thanks a lot. I’ve seen enough — you can print that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.