Democrats hoping to seize the U.S. House majority this fall need Donald Trump’s help. More precisely, they need a historic anti-Trump landslide.
That’s because to have any chance of winning the 218 seats needed for a majority, Democrats would have to defeat supposedly “safe” Republicans like Rep. Kevin Yoder in Kansas. That’s no easy task, since Yoder won re-election by 20 percentage points in 2014.
“Republicans will lose the House if Yoder loses,” Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political scientist, said of the three-term conservative congressman who represents the Kansas City suburbs.
Yoder’s district is exactly the kind that makes the prospect of dislodging the Republican majority so daunting. It was redrawn in 2012, stripping out liberal voters from the county that includes the the town of Lawrence and the University of Kansas and leaving it firmly conservative. The House is full of such seats engineered to stay in Republican or Democratic hands, which helps explain why at least 90 percent of House incumbents won re-election in 2012 and 2014.
Democratic and Republican campaign strategists, academics and other independent political scientists identified Yoder’s race as an example of the kind of long-shot contests that Democrats must win to recapture the House majority they lost in 2010. Others include seats held by Darrell Issa of California and an open seat in a conservative Indiana district.
At this point, Republicans seem likely to hold onto all three of those seats.
“I think Yoder and Issa are unlikely to lose, but Trump’s volatility at the top of the ticket and Democrats’ interest in the races make them worth keeping an eye on,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report.
Congressional Democrats are doing their best to aggressively tie Republican congressional candidates closely to their party’s controversial presidential candidate. Still, they would need a net gain of 30 seats to reverse what is currently the largest Republican majority since 1928 — 247 seats to 186. Two seats, formerly held by Democrats, are vacant.
More realistically, party strategists and independent experts are predicting a net pickup of about 12 to 16 seats — even if Hillary Clinton soundly defeats Trump. Democrats could oust Republicans in upstate New York, Illinois, Nevada, Florida, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Iowa, Minnesota and Texas.
Even Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine has said he expects the House to remain in Republican hands, though the margin will be narrowed.
Yoder is running against a local businessman and political newcomer, Jay Sidie. Still, the incumbent has been exhibiting some public concern over Trump’s standing in his district, as well as jitters over the plummeting popularity of his state’s Republican governor, Sam Brownback.
In fact, Yoder’s campaign manager, Cate Duerst, points out the congressman has taken the unusual step of publicly releasing an internal poll showing him with a 53-36 percentage point lead on Sidie.
That was part of a campaign memo boasting also that Yoder is out-raising his opponent $2.18 million to $73,000 at the end of the latest reporting period.
Buried in the numbers is that Trump currently trails Clinton in the district, 44-38.
“Bottom line: Even though Donald Trump does not score well here, neither does the prospect of Democratic control of the House of Representatives,” Neil Newhouse, of Public Opinion Strategies, wrote in the memo.
Indeed, Trump’s unpopularity in Johnson County, outside of Kansas City, “cannot be good news for Yoder,” said Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas. And he added, “I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Hillary winning Johnson County, which would be the first time since the state was incorporated that the county has voted for a Democrat.”
While low Republican voter turnout could hurt Yoder, Smith said that local Democrats “have been very lax about organizing voter-registration efforts” in some parts of Yoder’s district, which he called “bad news for Democrats.”
For Sidie to win in Johnson County, Smith said, “he has to do more than link Yoder to Trump — he has to find some negatives and go after Yoder himself.”
Miller says that apart from the negative splash several years ago caused by Yoder skinny-dipping late at night with other House Republicans in the Sea of Galilee during a trip to Israel, “he’s been a pretty low-profile, noncontroversial Republican.”
Issa also should be able to hold onto this district north of San Diego, barring a Trump-related tidal wave. The founder of the nation’s largest car-alarm maker is best known in Congress as the former Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman who kept up a ubiquitous media presence during his string of jabs at the Obama administration on topics including Benghazi and the Internal Revenue Service.
“Hell would certainly have to freeze over for Darrell Issa to lose,” said Thad Kousser, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. But then, he added, if there were ever an election year in which Issa was at risk, “it is the year that Donald Trump is on the ballot.”
Issa, one of Congress’ most wealthy members, won re-election in 2014 by nearly 21 percentage points and in 2012 by nearly 17 points.
But the Republican edge in his district has been shrinking. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has released poll numbers showing Trump is unpopular in the district, with 60 percent viewing him unfavorably. Some polls show Clinton even leading Trump in the district.
In addition, there are openings for voters to link Issa directly to Trump, including his role as a Trump delegate to the Republican National Convention.
Issa has tried to keep some distance from his party’s nominee, with campaign spokesman Calvin Moore noting that Issa has been “a critic of Trump’s style and divisive language.”
“The voters in his district know him well as in independent voice in Washington with a proven record of holding administrations accountable — regardless of who was in the White House,” Moore said in an e-mailed statement. “That trend will continue.”
The problem for challenger Doug Applegate is that California won’t play a big role in the national presidential election, said Kousser. Since Democrats aren’t worried about defending California, they aren’t likely to spend time and money in the state for Clinton, he said, which could limit a spillover effect for Applegate.
“If you’re a party trying to decide where to spend money, you are not going to spend it on a dream,” he said.
There’s also a battle in south-central Indiana for a seat being left open by Republican Rep. Todd Young’s decision to run for governor.
Democrat Shelli Yoder, a former Miss Indiana, is making her second bid as a congressional candidate in an open race for Young’s seat. Democrats hope the appearance of a popular party member, former Senator Evan Bayh, seeking a return to the Senate on the November ballot could help lift Yoder this time around against Republican House contender Trey Hollingsworth. But the state’s Republicans may rally around Trump’s vice presidential running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence.
Democrats have sought to make a big issue out of Hollingsworth only recently moving to the state, casting him as a “carpetbagger.” And the DCCC has added the race to its red-to-blue program — an indication it intends to provide resources to Yoder’s campaign.
“The DCCC thinks it’s competitive enough this year to warrant resources. There are several good reasons,” says Marjorie Hershey, an Indiana University political scientist.
This area of Indiana swung between parties in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, she said. “Its current Republican leanings are not etched in stone,” she added.
Gonzales agrees that some of these factors may be making that race competitive, but that he still considers Shelli Yoder a “long shot.”
Back in Kansas, Kevin Yoder’s campaign spokeswoman Duerst insists that any path to a new majority in the House led by Democrat Nancy Pelosi will not be paved through his district.
“If Washington Democrats want to waste their money pushing a Clinton-Pelosi agenda in Kansas, they are welcome to,” she said. “All that means is the Republican Party will surely keep control of the U.S. House of Representatives in November.”
(c) 2016, Bloomberg · Billy House