GOP wipeout feared as impeachment fever spills over into House and Senate races

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 97 days until the Iowa caucuses and 371 days until the 2020 election.

As the impeachment battle rages in Washington, Democrats’ position appears to be improving up and down the ballot.

Projecting current trend lines — admittedly a risky undertaking — shows it’s entirely possible the party could win the presidency, the Senate and the House next November.

Let’s start with impeachment itself. Before news of the Ukraine scandal began to snowball, only about 40 percent of Americans supported impeachment, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average; a majority opposed it. Today, those numbers have pretty much flipped, with nearly 49 percent in favor and about 43 percent opposed. Ask only how people feel about starting the impeachment process, meanwhile, and the gap widens; about 52 percent say yea versus about 42 percent who say nay. Particularly problematic for Trump is the increase in support for impeachment among independents, to 47.5 percent from 33.9 percent in late September. And the latest impeachment developments — the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council plans to testify Tuesday about how troubling he found Trump’s Ukraine call, and Democrats are set to begin public hearings — are unlikely to help the president’s cause.

In parallel with the shift in sentiment on impeachment, Trump’s approval rating has fallen from about 43 percent in late September to 40.6 percent today, while his disapproval rating has risen from 52.8 percent to 54.2 percent. These aren’t huge swings, but the president’s approval numbers rarely move much — Americans already know how they feel about the guy — so any movement tends to be significant. And a net approval rating of negative 13.6 percentage points heading into a reelection year is not good. For comparison, the only modern president in worse shape at this point in his presidency was Jimmy Carter; even Barack Obama, who faced similar polarization and a much worse economy, was performing about 8 points better in October 2011 than Trump is now. Carter lost reelection; Obama won.

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At the same time, Trump is trailing by wide margins in national head-to-head matchups with each of the three leading Democratic presidential contenders. According to RealClearPolitics, Joe Biden currently leads the president by 6.7 percentage points, on average — 50.1 percent to 43.4 percent. Bernie Sanders now leads Trump by 6.5 points — 50 percent to 43.5 percent. And Elizabeth Warren leads Trump by 5.7 points — 49.7 percent to 44 percent. It’s especially significant that all three Democrats are at or near 50 percent.

A presidential contest, of course, is not waged nationwide but in key Electoral College swing states. But even there, Democrats are ahead. Recent polls from WisconsinFloridaMinnesotaVirginiaOhio and North Carolina all show the same thing: The top Democrats are beating Trump where it matters most. In Minnesota, which Hillary Clinton won by only 1.5 points, a Star Tribune poll shows the president losing to the leading Democrats by 9 to 12 points. In Wisconsin, which Trump carried in 2016 by less than a point, a Marquette Law School poll shows Biden beating Trump by 6, with Sanders up by 2 and Warren ahead by 1. In Florida, a University of North Florida poll shows Trump stuck at 43 percent or 44 percent; he trails Biden by 5 and Warren by 3. Even in Iowa — a state Trump carried by 9 points in 2016 — an Emerson College poll shows Trump essentially tied with Biden, Sanders and Warren.

The congressional outlook is similarly gloomy for Republicans. On Monday, Rep. Greg Walden — the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the only Republican in Oregon's congressional delegation —shocked the party by announcing he would not run for reelection, making him the 19th GOP House member to retire. The problem for House Republicans isn’t lack of targets; Democrats are defending seats in roughly 30 districts that Trump won in 2016. Instead, the problem is Trump’s relative unpopularity.

According to the expert handicappers at the Cook Political Report, only 18 Democratic-held seats are currently considered toss-ups, and Republicans are defending six toss-ups of their own. Unless the president’s approval rating rises by next November — and unless Republican incumbents stop retiring — it will be difficult for the GOP to net the 21 seats it needs to regain control of the House. Democrats also have history on their side: They’ve gained House seats in five of the past six presidential cycles, and the House majority hasn't flipped during a presidential cycle since 1952.

Republican Sens. Cory Gardner, Martha McSally and Susan Collins (Photos: J. Scott Applewhite/AP, Joshua Roberts/Reuters, Alex Brandon/AP)

Until recently, the Senate seemed like a bright spot for Republicans; to preserve their majority, they simply need to prevent the Democrats from netting three seats (if Trump loses) or four seats (if he wins and a Republican vice president becomes the tiebreaker). According to Cook, only three GOP-held seats are even considered toss-ups (Cory Gardner in Colorado, Martha McSally in Arizona and Susan Collins in Maine), and Democrats are defending a toss-up of their own (Doug Jones in Alabama). That means to flip the Senate, Democrats would need to pitch the electoral equivalent of a perfect game.

The trouble for Republicans is that impeachment is making that more possible, not less. With the Democratic House almost certain to impeach Trump, a Senate trial is looming — and with it tough votes that force Gardner, McSally and Collins to either enrage the GOP base (by voting to convict) or alienate swing voters and motivate Democrats to turn out (by voting to acquit). Adding to the GOP’s headaches is the recent news that Democratic Senate challengers in Arizona, Maine and Iowa raised more money last quarter than the senators they’re running against; in Colorado, the polls show former Gov. John Hickenlooper leading Gardner by double-digit margins.

For these reasons, “a growing number of Republicans are privately warning of increasing fears of a total wipeout in 2020: House, Senate, and White House,” according to Axios. It’s hardly guaranteed that Democrats will sweep the GOP next November; a lot can change in a year. But if the election were held today, the data suggests Democrats could pull it off — and with D.C.’s impeachment drama likely to heat up in the weeks and months ahead, Republicans are probably right to be anxious.

At least one Republican, though, insists there’s nothing to worry about: Donald Trump, who Tuesday morning predicted that “the Do Nothing Dems will lose many seats in 2020.”

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