Published in The Moderate Voice on January 18, 2017
It has long been assumed that House Republicans are safely ensconced in the majority at least until the next round of redistricting following the 2020 census. Those odds have left many Republicans gleeful and Democrats bereft that, with the Senate geographically out of Democratic hands until ’20 (a 50-50 split seems to be their best option at this point), there would be no way for voters to formally demand checks and balances on the Trump administration. Only, the House is not as far from reach for Democrats as many think. While Republicans do have a comfortable edge – 24 seats, a state-by-state analysis reveals that a Trump administration mired by low ratings could put the House in Democratic hands.
Let me preface this by saying that no matter how Americans view our president-elect, no one shall be openly rooting for anything other than success. That said, history shows that a president’s party nearly always loses Congressional seats in mid-term elections, and often (in 1982, 1994 and 2010) a substantial number. If a recent <em>Politico</em> piece is believable, many voters are vowing to hold Trump accountable should he not deliver. So if unpopular policies, Trump’s non-phlegmatic disposition or the lack of a coherent message among administration players makes the Trump administration very unpopular – and the current low ratings suggest that there is that possibility, it won’t be super-hard to flip the requisite number of seats to deliver Democratic control.
That’s not to say it will be easy – incumbency and money still loom large and, even before Trump’s surprise win, it was clear that many GOP incumbents were succeeding in convincing voters to give them the benefit of not necessarily being tied at the hip to Trump even though he shared their ticket. The difficulty of this repeating in 2018 is that Trump will be the incumbent which means if voters are disillusioned, the President and Congressional Republicans will be inextricably linked. Which means if voters do want divided government, the seats will be there.
One only has to look at what I call the “Hackett near miracle” to see what is possible. In 2005, Iraq War veteran Paul Hackett embarked on a long-shot bid to succeed Rob Portman, who had resigned to take a post in George W. Bush’s cabinet. The president had captured 64% in the district nine months earlier but Americans were just beginning to grow weary of the war and the mounting casualties. Hackett had a sharp message and came within 4,000 votes of winning.
Let’s go back to that 24 seat number for a moment. Many Republicans sit in districts that, through gerrymandering, huge financial edges, and the benefits of incumbency, they can hold indefinitely. But they are not “safe” Republican by any means, as not only did Barack Obama carry many them but so did Clinton. To put another way, while voters were opting for Trump because they believed in a key component of his message, the bond was fragile. Now let’s look at how Democrats can make up the gap.
There are 10-12 seats in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio alone that could be ripe for the taking, as these are states that have among the most gerrymandered Congressional maps in the nation. Among the incumbents that could be tied down: Ryan Costello and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Justin Amash, Mike Bishop, Tim Walberg and Dave Trott of Michigan and Dave Joyce and Jim Renacci of Ohio. If many did become Democratic pickups, even for one term, it would not be unlike what transpired in the middle of the last decade as Democrats seized seats specifically drawn for the other side. Many of these seats were targeted last time but now, there will be a referendum on Mr. Trump’s performance.
Moving on, at least four districts in California and two each in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, and Minnesota lean Democratic at least to some degree while two others in Virginia and Maine’s Second district are decidedly mixed (there is one such district in Arizona). New York State has as many as six GOP held seats that could easily flip. It begs mention that in the 2006 and ’08 cycles, Democrats flipped three seats each, reducing the number of Republican members of Congress in the delegation to a mere three, a number that plummeted yet one more when Democrats picked up a Watertown-Plattsburgh area seat in a 2009 special election that had been held by a Whig more recently than a Democrat.
Other seats would be tougher nuts to crack – but by no means impossible. One, Kansas-3 came fairly, though not heart achingly close to flipping last cycle but Hillary Clinton carried it. In Utah, Mia Love was able to put comfortable distance between a very tepid win in 2014 and a double digit margin last year, but she is by no means ensconced. North Carolina is the arch-prototype of conservative resistance but even there, at least one seat – the state’s 13th district, held by a very conservative newcomer, Ted Budd, is less than safe. The cornfields if Indiana are tougher but a St. Joseph/Elkhart district in the Northern part of the state and a rural Bloomington anchored district in the Southern part are no means certain to stick with either their GOP Congress people if Trump is genuinely unpopular. In Washington’s Fifth Congressional district, Cathy McMorris-Rodgers could struggle. In Alaska, the dean of the Republicans in Congress, Don Young, has won his last couple of cycles by unimpressive margins and an anti-GOP tide can knock him out. Finally, Democrats may try to persuade ex-Congressman Brad Ashford to try to try to reclaim the fairly competitive Omaha area seat that he won in a bad year for his party (2014), only to lost by the barest of margins in November. The election returns in Georgia even, on paper at least, suggest Democrats might have an opportunity or two in the suburban Atlanta area.
Recent history has proven that seats don’t have to lean reliably to one party or another to flip in a bad year. One of the California seats I cited was Darrell Issa’s. Though the San Diego-Orange County district is not as reliably Republican as it once was, it still is a tough hoe for Democrats. But Issa held his seat this past year by just 1,500 votes after a protracted count that dragged past Thanksgiving.
In the wave year of 2006, Arizona’s J.D. Hayworth, New York’s Sue Kelly and Pennsylvania’s Melissa Hart lost seats that George W. Bush had carried two years earlier. Ditto for Ric Keller in Florida two years later. Even a seat as fertilely Republican as J. Dennis Hastert’s went Democratic in a 2008 special election following his resignation. The climate made it possible. Similarly, in anti-Democratic 2010, scores of lawmakers lost in districts that were mixed or even Democratic leaning. These included longtime barons such as Jim Oberstar of Minnesota and Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania and newcomers like Pat Murphy and New Yorkers Dan Maffei and John Hall. Very few seats were on the other party’s radar even months before the election which means that, who knows where a few more vulnerables will be found (Texas)?
In closing, the House at this point is still Republicans to lose but, if voters genuinely want a two-party government, a Democratic House could very much be in the cards.