Is the GOP facing a 'thumping' or 'shellacking' — or can it pull off an escape?

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Early voting in Ohio. (Photo: John Minchillo/AP)

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In 2006 President George W. Bush called it a “thumping.” In 2010 President Barack Obama compared it to a “shellacking.” If the polls and prognostications are correct and Republicans end up losing the House on Nov. 6, how will President Trump describe the experience?

It’s worth asking after the week Trump’s GOP just had. For months now forecasters have given Democrats a better chance than Republicans of running the next House of Representatives. History shows that the president’s party usually loses ground in the first midterm election of his presidency, and with Trump’s net approval rating hovering near historic lows, the pattern has long seemed likely to hold.

Still, because Democrats need to flip a full 23 seats to retake the House, there’s also long been a very real possibility of them falling short.

This was the week that appeared to change.

On Oct. 8., the data journalists at FiveThirtyEight gave Democrats a 73.8 percent chance of winning the House; at that point, Republicans had a 26.2 percent chance of keeping control. Today those numbers are 84 percent and 16 percent respectively — a 20-point swing in the Democrats’ direction.

Why the shift? And is it likely to hold through Election Day?

Before we proceed, it’s important to note that the Senate is a separate story. Since the beginning of the month, the odds that Democrats will win back the Senate have been steadily declining (from more than 30 percent to roughly 20 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight), while the Republicans’ chances of keeping control have been climbing (from less than 70 percent to roughly 80 percent).

Yet this shouldn’t surprise anyone. With 10 Democrats up for reelection in states that Trump won in 2016 versus only one blue-state Republican, the 2018 Senate landscape may be the most GOP-friendly in modern U.S. history.

And so, unlike in the House, whatever happens in the Senate is likely to say more about the map than the mood of the country. If Republicans keep the Senate while losing the House, the two results shouldn’t be seen as canceling each other out. In fact, the same thing happened to Obama in 2010 — the House went Republican; the Senate stayed Democratic — and he still conceded that it had been a shellacking. Nobody called it a split decision.

So why was this such a dire week for House Republicans — and, by extension, the GOP as a whole? The first rule of political reporting is to follow the money. The third quarter of 2018 ended on Sept. 30; campaign fundraising reports were released to the public Monday, giving us our final pre-election glimpse at the perennial money chase.

It was an epic blowout.

Josh Harder, Katie Hill, and Harley Rouda. (Photos: Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP, Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images, Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP)

According to a preliminary count by the National Journal, Democratic challengers in House races outraised at least 92 Republican incumbents, and more than 60 Democratic candidates in the House hauled in at least $1 million last quarter. In California alone, three Democrats — Josh Harder, Katie Hill, and Harley Rouda — passed the $3 million mark.

Overall, 65 percent of this election cycle’s House donations have gone to Democratic candidates, according to analyst Nate Silver. During the last 20 years, Democrats have only topped the 50 percent mark once before (in 2008), and neither party has ever raked in more than 57 percent.

As Politico put it, “there is no historical precedent for financing this broad and deep for congressional challengers.” Additional stats from Politico’s analysis put the size and scope of the Democratic advantage in perspective: 51 House Republicans were outraised by at least two-to-one, 71 were outspent by their opponent and 33 have less cash on hand going into the final stretch before the election — a position that precisely zero Democratic members find themselves in.

“We’re getting our asses kicked,” one Republican consultant told the site. “Nothing else to say.”

Of course, fundraising totals aren’t election returns. Having more money doesn’t guarantee victory, and Republican candidates are also benefitting from spending by outside groups. That said, donations are one of the only tangible measures of voter energy and enthusiasm we have, and at this stage of the game, they even start to correlate with the results on Election Day. In the past four elections, for instance, two-thirds of House incumbents who ended September with less cash to spend than their opponents wound up losing their seats a few weeks later. Apply that ratio to this year’s midterms, and Democrats would already be netting 22 of the 23 seats they need to flip the House.

Money isn’t the only bad sign for Republicans this week.

For the first time this cycle, Democrats averaged more than 50 percent on the generic ballot, which asks voters which party they would support if the election were held today. And even though that average slipped just below 50 percent by week’s end, Democrats have led Republicans by 8-plus percentage points for each of the last 10 days — significantly more than the 5.5-point popular-vote margin that experts estimate they’ll need to gain at least 23 seats on Election Day.

Over at the Cook Political Report, 70 GOP-held House seats now qualify as at-risk — last month that number was 66 — and most of the rating changes over the past week have moved in the Democrats’ direction.

Demonstrators stand outside a building where House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke at a get-out-the-vote event for Florida Democratic congressional candidates Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell on Oct. 17, 2018, in Coral Gables, Fla. (Photo: Wilfredo Lee/AP)

Meanwhile, on the airwaves, Republicans have pivoted away from ads about immigration in favor of attacking House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. In fact, over the last six weeks, the number of anti-Pelosi GOP ads (61,741) has wildly outpaced the number of anti-Trump Democratic ads (39,637). The hope, according to Cook’s Amy Walter, is that “low-tax, less-government conservatives” in affluent suburban districts will be more afraid of a “liberal” takeover on Capitol Hill than two more years of unchecked Trumpism. But “ultimately,” says Walter, that’s “a tough sell,” because “fear of the future unknown is tougher to sell than fear of the present.”

To be sure, there were some bright spots this week for House Republicans. As Politico reported Thursday, Democrats “have retreated from several battlegrounds once considered prime targets” in Minnesota, California, Texas, and Florida, and recently started spending again to “blunt an unexpected surge” by Republican incumbent Rod Blum in Iowa. Politico also reports that “internal [GOP] polls show the president’s approval ratings have increased by an average of 5 points in a handful of swing districts.”

But the big picture is still bleak, and elsewhere, desperation is showing. That’s certainly the case in California’s traditionally conservative 50th Congressional District, east of San Diego, where Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter was indicted earlier this year for misspending more than $250,000 in campaign funds on everything from tequila shots to airfare for his family’s pet rabbit.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, left, leaves court as a woman holds a sign for his opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, on Sept. 24, 2018, in San Diego. (Photo: Gregory Bull/AP)

Last quarter, Hunter’s Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, raised $1.4 million — roughly $1.3 million more than Hunter himself — and most of the latest polls show the 30-year-old former Obama official within striking distance. As a result, Hunter doubled-down this week on false claims that Campa-Najjar is a “security risk” who is trying to “infiltrate Congress” because his grandfather (who died before Campa-Najjar was born) was a Palestinian terrorist.

Even Trump seems slightly concerned. “It’s a tough year,” he told the Associated Press earlier this week. “The midterms are very tough for anybody the opposite of president, for whatever reason, nobody has been able to say.”

Don’t hold your breath for Trump to deliver his own version of “thumping” or “shellacking,” though. When the AP asked whether the president, like his predecessors, would accept any “responsibility” for a loss on Nov. 6, he did not sound open to the idea.

“No,” Trump said. “I think I’m helping people.”

And anyway, he added, “I’m not running.”

 

Verbatim

 

Best of the rest

Inside the Blackburn surge in Tennessee: Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the GOP Senate candidate in Tennessee, has argued for months that her opponent, former Gov. Phil Bredesen, is a Democrat and would vote that way, something he says his record belies, reports Yahoo News National Correspondent Holly Bailey. And she has sought to tie him to Hillary Clinton and to unpopular party leaders like Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader who helped recruit him for the race.

But the contentious battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court appears to have given her campaign new life. A New York Times/Siena College poll last week had her up 14 points among likely voters, a dramatic shift after spending much of the summer in an average 50-50 tie with Bredesen.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, running for Tennessee’s open Senate seat, campaigns in Mount Juliet, Tenn. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

Part of the shift is a turnaround with women. Before the Kavanaugh vote, Bredesen led Blackburn by an average 10 points among likely women voters, but the NYT/Siena poll found the congressman with a 3-point edge — a result still within the survey’s margin of error but a trend that has Bredesen supporters worried. The former governor was attacked by Blackburn for taking weeks to say whether he would support Kavanaugh’s nomination. And when Bredesen ultimately did say he would have voted for Kavanaugh, he appears to have angered some of his own supporters.

To keep the momentum going, Blackburn has seized on the Kavanaugh confirmation to argue to wavering Republicans that a vote for Bredesen is a vote for a Democratic majority in the Senate, and in her stump speech to voters, she has expanded her list of Democratic bogeymen. A vote for Bredesen, she said last week, was a vote for “Dianne Feinstein as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Bernie Sanders for chairman of the Budget Committee, Elizabeth Warren for chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.”– Holly Bailey

 

Having it both ways on Obamacare: In the second and final debate of a contentious Texas U.S. Senate campaign, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, used his closing argument to discuss the importance of protecting Americans who had preexisting health conditions, reports Yahoo News Editor Christopher Wilson.

“On Obamacare, I want to repeal Obamacare, reduce premiums, protect preexisting conditions and expand access,” said Cruz.

This is an interesting position for Cruz, who did not just vote multiple times to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement — leaving millions without health care, including those with preexisting conditions — but also proposed his own amendment that, according to one analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “would worsen [an] already harmful Senate health bill for people with medical conditions.”

From left: Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Missouri Attorney General and Republican Senate candidate Josh Hawley. (Photos: Tom Reel/Pool/Getty Images; Scott Olson/Getty Images; Jeff Roberson/AP)

Cruz is not the only GOP candidate running this election cycle who has or is currently trying to gut Obamacare while running on the importance of protecting people with preexisting conditions. Josh Hawley, the Missouri secretary of state and Republican challenger of incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill, has signed on to a multistate lawsuit seeking to overturn the ACA in its entirety. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also authorized his attorney general to sign on to the lawsuit that would repeal Obamacare and said last year that he would have considered a waiver allowing insurance companies to raise premiums on those with preexisting conditions. Now that he’s stuck in a tough reelection battleWalker has come out in support of protecting preexisting conditions while Wisconsin remains signed on to the anti-ACA lawsuit. – Christopher Wilson

 

Can Scott spend his way to victory in the Sunshine State? Florida Gov. Rick Scott has won two hard-fought elections over the past decade by spending heavily on TV early in the race, building a lead and then withstanding a late rally from his opponent, reports Yahoo News Senior Political Correspondent Jon Ward.

The first part of that scenario has played out so far in Scott’s latest campaign, his quest for a U.S. Senate seat in the November elections. Scott grabbed a lead in the race in late June but fell behind over the past month.

But a key element is missing compared to his past wins. It’s not a Republican wave year, as it was in 2010 and 2014. Instead, the Democratic base seems more motivated to vote than the GOP rank and file. That simple fact could be the biggest challenge for Scott, the former health care executive whose net worth is estimated to be around $250 million.

“Scott’s won two 1-point races with the wind at his back, and I’m not sure the wind is at his back this time,” Steve Schale, a veteran Democratic consultant in the state, told Yahoo News.

Donald Trump talks to Florida Gov. Rick Scott as the president arrives to tour storm damage from Hurricane Michael at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Scott, a Republican, is trying to unseat incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat serving his 18th year in the Senate. Scott’s advantages include his personal fortune and his ability to raise money, his relentlessness on the campaign trail — and his relative youth, being, at 65, a decade younger than the 76-year-old Nelson.

“Running against Rick Scott, at times it is demoralizing. You know you only have so much money. You know he wants to get you into a war of attrition. You know you can’t win that. You’re polling all the time and trying to figure out the amount of pain you can take,” Schale said.

Nelson’s campaign held off on spending on television until the end of summer. It did not run TV ads until Aug. 29, the day after the Republican primary ended. Schale called that strategy “very smart.”

Public polling backs up that assessment. Nelson’s poll numbers in the RealClearPolitics average were 44 percent at the beginning of September, just after he began running TV ads. Nelson has now closed that margin and is in a dead heat with Scott.Jon Ward

 

Beto goes negative: Trailing in the polls and looking to regain momentum in Texas’s fiercely contested Senate race, Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke came out swinging in his final debate against Sen. Ted Cruz. He repeatedly questioned the Republican’s honesty and work ethic as the two clashed over a litany of issues, including immigration, abortion rights and President Trump, reports Yahoo News National Correspondent Holly Bailey.

O’Rourke, a three-term congressman from El Paso whose campaign has attracted large crowds and celebrity support, has spent much of his candidacy preaching a message of hope and civility and decrying negative attacks from his GOP rival.

But days after telling supporters that he would get tougher and offer more “contrast” with Cruz, O’Rourke took the stage in San Antonio and immediately went after his opponent, questioning why he hasn’t stood up to Trump or delivered more for average Texans. He repeatedly accused Cruz of being more focused on his own political ambitions than his constituents.

“Ted Cruz has put his career above the interests and priorities of Texas,” O’Rourke said. “Ted Cruz is for Ted Cruz.”

Bailey also reports that O’Rourke has new ads out in which he criticizes his Republican opponent by name. According to the Texas Tribune, which first reported the ads and obtained video of two of the new spots, O’Rourke is airing at least three new television ads around the state, each focused on a different issue: immigration, education or health care. In each 30-second ad, O’Rourke speaks directly to the camera, offering a contrast between Cruz’s approach to the policy and his own. – Holly Bailey

 

Will a Dem send Brat packing? When Dave Brat shocked the political world in 2014, beating the man who was set to become the next speaker of the House in a Republican primary, his congressional district was more favorable to Republicans than it is now, reports Yahoo News Senior Political Correspondent Jon Ward.

That political shift, combined with high Democratic intensity, has made a district that should be an easy Republican win into a tossup. The outcome of Brat’s contest against Democrat Abigail Spanberger will speak volumes on election night — less than three weeks from now — about how big a potential Democratic wave could be.

Virginia Rep. Dave Brat, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, before the vote on the House farm bill, which failed to pass, at the Capitol on May 18, 2018. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Brat, an economics professor, easily beat his Democratic opponent in 2014 and again had little trouble in 2016. But less noticed was that President Trump’s margin of victory in the Seventh Congressional District was far smaller than Mitt Romney’s had been in 2012.

That disparity reflects the changes after the state was forced by the courts to redraw a number of its districts, in a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Spanberger is a former CIA officer who served on the West Coast and in Europe, and speaks four languages. She is running as a bipartisan problem solver, trying to portray Brat as an ideologue more interested in winning arguments than fixing problems.

Spanberger spokesman Justin Jones said he expects the race to be so close it could come down to less than 1,000 votes.– Jon Ward

 

The downside of infamy: For the fourth consecutive quarter, the Democratic challenger to Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa has raised significantly more money than his opponent, and his reelection, although still likely, is looking slightly less certain than it was earlier in the year, reports Yahoo News’s Caitlin Dickson.

According to the latest filings submitted to the Federal Election Commission this week, first-time candidate J.D. Scholten’s campaign raised $661,013 during the three-month period that ended on Sept. 30 — more than four times the $161,673 reported by King’s campaign during the same period.

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, attends a rally with Angel Families on Sept. 7, 2018, at the Capitol to highlight crimes committed by illegal immigrants in the U.S. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

King’s national reputation as a strident foe of immigration has meant a bonanza for Scholten. Even in the current political environment, King is infamous for his inflammatory rhetoric.

The ability of Scholten, a paralegal and a former minor league baseball player, to consistently outraise King, an eight-term incumbent—bringing in a total of $1.42 million compared to King’s $670,000 — has drawn unexpected attention to the race for Iowa’s deeply red Fourth Congressional District. Though King remains in the lead, a recent poll shows him just 10 points ahead of Scholten. In recent months, top congressional ratings sites, including Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the Cook Political Report and Roll Call’s Inside Elections, have all reclassified the race for King’s seat from “Safe” and “Solid” GOP wins to “Likely” Republican. – Caitlin Dickson

 

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Scorecard sources:

Generic ballot: FiveThirtyEight 
Right track/wrong track: Gallup
Trump approval: FiveThirtyEight
At-risk seats in Senate: Cook Political Report
At-risk seats in House: Cook Political Report

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