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Even with Trump, Democratic House Gains Look Smaller Than First Expected

Republican candidates have proved surprisingly resilient to Trump

Democrat Monica Vernon is challenging vulnerable GOP Rep. Rod Blum, but his 1st District Iowa seat has proven harder to put away than Democrats initially expected. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Democrat Monica Vernon is challenging vulnerable GOP Rep. Rod Blum, but his 1st District Iowa seat has proven harder to put away than Democrats initially expected. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Picking up 30 House seats didn’t always seem such an impossible feat. But even with Donald Trump dragging down some Republicans, Democrats will be lucky to gain half as many seats as they would need to win the majority.

So how did a year of bright prospects turn into one of Democratic leaders managing expectations?

After losing 13 seats in the 2014 midterms, Democrats were optimistic that Hillary Clinton would help them put a solid dent in the largest GOP majority in more than 80 years.

“There is no district that is competitive in the United States where she doesn’t play well,” former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel told Roll Call shortly after Clinton officially got in the race in April 2015.   

The DCCC’s initial targets were obvious, beginning with the 26 Republicans who won seats in the 2014 midterms in districts previously carried by President Barack Obama. Many of them looked naturally vulnerable in the face of a presidential year’s higher turnout and more diverse electorate.

But Trump soon became the Democrats’ biggest recruitment tool. The DCCC had been after Minnesota state Sen. Terri Bonoff to run, for example, for six years. Only this year did she decide to challenge GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen in the state’s suburban 3rd District. 

In some places, though, it was too late: the filing deadlines in Illinois, for example, had passed by the time Trump emerged as the nominee. Democrats failed to recruit top-tier challengers in two GOP-held districts there.

Still, as Trump accepted the nomination in Cleveland, nervous Republicans began bracing for a down-ballot disaster. Looking at Clinton’s post-convention bump, the question became when, not if, the checks-and-balances strategy might be deployed to stave off Democratic gains.

Republicans will lose seats, of course, but not nearly as many as they once feared. Yes, Democrats have expanded the battlefield into traditionally red districts, forcing Republicans to spend there. But knocking off GOP incumbents like Paulsen, Kansas’ Kevin Yoder, Colorado’s Scott Tipton, and California’s Darrell Issa will require a wave, evidence of which hasn’t appeared in national or district-level polling.

Clinton must post large margins to push down-ballot Democrats over the edge. She may have the advantage nationally, but her unpopularity still rivals Trump’s in many places.

That’s one reason why Democrats have had to continue spending in districts in Iowa or Nevada, for example, that they should have put away months ago.

And while Trump has certainly been a drag on Republicans, especially in suburban districts, the biggest takeaway from this election is just how resilient Republicans have proved to Democratic efforts to tie them to Trump.

Unlike at the Senate level, Democrats had been tying House Republicans to Trump for some time. The release of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording only intensified that effort. Democrats didn’t even spare Republicans who said before the video release that they weren’t backing Trump.

But the message hasn’t stuck as well as Democrats hoped. New York GOP Rep. John Katko, for example, is on track to over-perform Trump in his Syracuse district by double digits. Elsewhere in New York, Iowa, Michigan and Maine, Trump’s appeal with white working-class voters has actually boosted Republicans.

Democrats never boasted about the majority being within reach, but with all Trump’s problems, bigger gains seemed possible. They’re on track to gain between eight and 13 seats in The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call’s latest projection. The party gained eight seats during the last presidential election and 21 seats in 2008.

Democrats may rest easier Tuesday night if they’re able to knock off big-name Republicans like Issa or New Jersey’s Scott Garrett, whose defeat they’ve made a cause celebre.

With a slightly smaller House deficit next year, Democrats will be back on the defensive in many more districts in 2018 — especially if Clinton is in the White House.   

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