CLEVELAND, Ohio – Severe thunderstorms pounding downtown Cleveland were an ominous beginning to the Republican National Convention on Monday morning, but House Republicans in the city for the festivities don’t see a wave in the forecast that would jeopardize their majority in the November elections.
Republicans are enjoying their largest House majority since 1928, but it feels more tenuous because of the potential that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump could create a backlash against the entire party.
“Trump, rightly or wrongly, is his own unique brand,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Executive Director Rob Simms in a briefing with reporters at the Drury Plaza Hotel, just a few yards outside the convention security perimeter.
Democrats believe voters will hold GOP candidates responsible for Trump’s sins but polling in competitive races , up to this point, indicates that the connection between vulnerable House Republicans and their presidential nominee is not automatic.
NRCC Chairman Greg Walden praised GOP House members for “creating their own identities in their own districts,” singling out Reps. John Katko of New York, Martha McSally of Arizona, and Will Hurd of Texas for their campaign prowess.
In the face of a potentially tumultuous convention and election cycle, Walden and Simms took refuge in Hillary Clinton’s slumping favorability ratings and behind a simple table covered by a chocolate brown, floor-length tablecloth as they briefed less than a dozen reporters concerned about House races.
The duo, who specializes in not making news, described several other factors that will help Republicans hold the majority including what they called failed recruitment by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The NRCC briefing took place less than eight miles from the Ohio’s 14th District, where GOP Rep. David Joyce is running for re-election.
Mitt Romney narrowly won the Northeast Ohio district by less than 1 percent in 2012 over President Barack Obama, but Democratic strategists do not include the seat in their takeover plans. Democratic nominee Michael Wager had just $83,000 in his campaign account through the end of June while the congressman had $363,000 on hand (after spending over $1.5 million in his primary).
Even though current polling and the lack of competitive districts favors Republicans, that doesn’t mean a national wave can’t or won’t develop.
For example, in 2006, when Democrats gained 31 seats and took over the House majority, Republican incumbents such as Clay Shaw of Florida, Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, Anne Northup of Kentucky, John Sweeney of New York, Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania, and others, were still leading their races in late August and early September before the bottom dropped out and they all lost.
Obviously, the 2006 and 2016 cycles are not identical, considering the Mark Foley scandal accelerated the decline of the Republicans that year and 2006 was a midterm election with an unpopular Republican in the White House. But it’s an important reminder that the House outlook can change quickly.
Ohio is a good example of the lack of overlap between competitive House races and the presidential race. Of the 35 Districts rated as competitive by The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call, just a third of them are in states broadly regarded as competitive at the presidential level. States such as New York and California have several competitive contests each, but will not be in play on the presidential level, despite any Trump campaign statements to the contrary.
Democrats need to gain 30 seats to regain the majority.
The lonely defense of the majority isn’t necessarily a negative to Walden and Simms, who stressed the NRCC’s preparation and “ability to control our own destiny” by not relying on the Trump campaign or Republican National Committee.
And distance from Trump can’t hurt some vulnerable incumbents, such as Illinois Republican Robert J. Dold, who is running for re-election in a competitive, suburban district north of Chicago, as long as they avoid the rhetorical wrath of Manhattan business mogul.
A private confrontation between Trump and Sen. Jeff Flake, in which Trump told Flake he would lose re-election, was recently made public. (Flake reminded Trump that he is not up for re-election this year.)
“I haven’t seen him call out any House Members,” Walden said, “I hope he won’t, but that’s up to him.”