Mired in a 30-seat minority, it’s hard to find any Democrats who will say publicly or privately that their party has a shot at winning the House majority.
Even so, many Democrats insist the party is at its low-water mark in the House and predict they’ll pick up seats on Election Day 2016. But how many they can gain will depend on whether they can recruit people who can win in competitive districts.
That’s proved to be more challenging than predicted when the cycle began.
Democratic operatives thought the prospect of Hillary Rodham Clinton topping the ticket, coupled with a map rife with pickup opportunities in districts where presidential turnout often benefits their party, would be a strong draw for candidates.
Yet Democrats are without quality recruits in nearly a dozen competitive districts across the country. As the third quarter of the year comes to an end, the clock is running out to put strong recruits in place.
Democrats chalk up the recruitment struggles to the prospect of being in the House minority until at least 2022 — the first cycle after the 2020 redistricting process. Party strategists add that a number of other potential recruits fear they’d be giving up their current jobs to run for a seat that may be unwinnable in 2018 — a midterm cycle that could be treacherous for Democrats if the party holds on to the White House next year.
“The promise of being locked into the minority until the next round of redistricting gets wrapped up is just not really appetizing,” says one national Democratic strategist who insisted on anonymity. “If you’re a bright young Democratic star, why do that? Even if you win you’re in a tough seat, and you get stuck running for re-election in an off cycle, which is really, really, really bad.”
Places where Democrats are finding it challenging to find top recruits include New York’s Syracuse-based 24th District. Freshman GOP Rep. John Katko won here in the 2014 GOP wave, despite President Barack Obama having carried it by a 16-point margin two years earlier. In a presidential year, the district would have a strong Democratic lean. But Democrats have yet to find a nominee to take on Katko.
Recruitment is also proving problematic in Illinois. GOP Reps. Rodney Davis and Mike Bost both hold seats in districts with an even partisan split, making them prime pick-up opportunities. But Democrats still don’t have top-tier recruits in place there.
“In places like New York or Illinois, where Democrats have majorities in the legislature, why would you give that up … to come to D.C. to be in the minority for what could be several cycles?” says Rob Simms, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“After three bad cycles in a row, it’s tough to say, ‘Hey, join the team!’ I don’t envy the place that they’re in,” Simms says.
Still, at a minimum, Democratic strategists predict their party will pick up a handful of seats, as a number of Republicans were swept into districts in the 2014 GOP wave that Democrats usually carry by large margins in presidential years.
They add that a few states forced to go through a mid-decade redraw of their congressional maps could provide the party with some other opportunities to flip districts.
In Florida, a judicially mandated congressional redraw could net the party at least one seat. The same holds true for Virginia, where a court-ordered redistricting could net Democrats at least one seat.
It’s also possible North Carolina will be ordered to redo its congressional lines, although it’s unclear whether a new map could be ready for the 2016 cycle. The state Supreme Court heard arguments on the map last month, and any decision it releases would likely get caught up in what could be a lengthy appeals process.
Half a Loaf
Optimistic Democrats say the best case for the party would be to chop their current House deficit in half.
“No matter how confident the NRCC says they feel, they know it isn’t a matter of if they will lose seats, it’s how many,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee communications director Matt Thornton said in a written statement.
The scenario where Democrats cut their seat deficit in half, however, would require Democrats to nearly sweep the 25 GOP-held contests currently rated competitive by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call. It’s a task that would require Democrats to have a strong recruitment class while at the same time not losing any of their own vulnerable incumbents or the competitive open seats Democrats currently hold.
Early signs on election night that Democrats could climb into the higher range of pickups will be if members such as Rep. Ryan A. Costello, a freshman Republican from Pennsylvania, fall behind. Costello represents a seat in the Philadelphia suburbs that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won with 51 percent in 2012. If a marginally Republican seat like Costello’s goes Democratic, it could portend a good night for Democrats.
Also adding a layer of uncertainty is the murkiness of the presidential nomination process that could affect the state of play in down-ballot House contests.
Historically, both parties pick candidates who appeal to independent-minded voters.
Yet, as Vermont independent Sen. Bernard Sanders’ rise in Iowa and New Hampshire threatens to drag out the Democratic nomination process, and with businessman Donald Trump’s meteoric ascension to GOP front-runner status, there’s a possibility that conventional wisdom could be turned on its head.
If either party selects an ideologue with views outside the mainstream as its presidential nominee, that could put in play a number of marginally competitive districts on either side of the aisle.
For example, a fringe Republican nominee could depress GOP turnout. It could also cause an awkward situation for down-ballot Republicans, who would be forced to either support or distance themselves from their nominee.
For Democrats, however, if the GOP nomination fight stretches into late next spring, it could be too late to put strong recruits in place to take advantage of that scenario.
“By the time the Republican nominee becomes clear, if they nominate someone who’s a real tough sell, it would be too late to get good people,” says a second Democratic operative.