There’s little good news for Republicans when it comes to the battle for control of the U.S. House, save for one district in southwestern Pennsylvania that every prognosticator says is a virtual lock to flip to the GOP next month.
The tradeoff for that, however, is six or seven other Pennsylvania seats that Democrats have designs on — all because of a major court-ordered redraw earlier this year of the state’s congressional maps, moving them from overwhelmingly Republican to competitively Democratic.
Indeed, if things go the way Democrats hope, Pennsylvania alone could account for more than a quarter of the 23 seats they need to win control of the House.
Just how Democratic the year is shaping up was underscored last week when Nathan L. Gonzales, who runs Inside Elections, released his latest prognostication on House races, making changes in 24 contests — all of them in Democrats’ favor.
“At this stage we’re talking about whether Democrats have a good night or a great night in the House,” Mr. Gonzales said in releasing his update
Democrats have recruited a good crop of candidates, their fundraising in House races is solid, and perhaps most important to their prospects, Donald Trump is still president.
And while the fight over Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh has awakened Republican voters, GOP strategists acknowledge it’s not enough to reverse the momentum Democrats have built up since Mr. Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.
That’s hurting in districts like the one held by Rep. Barbara Comstock, just outside of Washington, D.C., where the Virginia Republican faces a stiff challenge from state Sen. Jennifer Wexton, and in races in Florida and California where longtime GOP incumbents are retiring.
In former GOP stronghold Orange County, Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, California Republican, is in real jeopardy for only the second time in 30 years.
“They’re all suburban seats, they’re all places where we’re having trouble with women, and they’re all places where Republican voters — not necessarily Trump voters but Republican voters — want to send a message to the administration,” said Mike McKenna, a GOP strategist.
He said Republicans are desperately trying to convince those voters to find a different channel for their anger, hoping to convince them of the consequences of a protest vote.
“The message they want to send is going to have a lot of terrible baggage to it,” Mr. McKenna said. “What they don’t seem to understand is the net effect of that is you’re handing the keys over to Nancy Pelosi and her crowd.”
He said the Kavanaugh surge has helped somewhat, perhaps lowering Democrats’ ceiling by five seats — though he predicted they’re still on track to win the 218 needed to claim a majority.
Analysts approach congressional elections by dividing seats into districts that are safe for one party or the other, then breaking down the remainder into ones that lean one way or the other, and those that are pure toss-ups.
Every major analysis suggests Democrats have far more “safe” seats than Republicans. FiveThirtyEight.com, one leading prognosticator, this week calculated Democrats have 191 safe seats, and Republicans have just 140. Mr. Gonzales is the most bullish on the GOP’s chances, with 162 safe Republican seats — though Democrats in his analysis still top that with 186 safe seats.
Republicans do have far more seats in the “lean” category that they are projected to win, and analysts say there are also enough toss-up seats that the majority could still be won by either party.
But another metric also leans against Republicans: The “generic” ballot, in which pollsters ask whether a voter plans to pull the lever for a Democrat or a Republican in the local congressional race, has also been decidedly blue. The Real Clear Politics average of polls gives Democrats a 6.9 percentage point lead nationally.
“The energy on the Republican side, I don’t think it’s ever been greater,” the president said as he jetted off to Iowa for a campaign trip Tuesday.
But Stuart Rothenberg, an analyst for Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication, said the fundamental trajectory of the election hasn’t changed — and it’s still good for Democrats.
in his latest evaluation Wednesday he said Democrats who stayed home in 2016 or who voted for a third party candidate, finding Hillary Clinton flawed, are more enthusiastic to turn out to cast a vote against Mr. Trump. Meanwhile, many suburban Trump voters in 2016 who held their noses to cast ballots for him “now dislike Trump and are likely going to vote for Democratic candidates in the fall.”
“Right now, the House still looks poised to flip party control, while the Senate does not,” he concluded. “That’s the way things have looked for months.”
House GOP officials point to their success in winning special House elections over the last 20 months, where in competitive races they lost only one, in southwestern Pennsylvania.
But analysts also point out how expensive those races were for Republicans, and how badly their candidates underperformed compared to Mr. Trump’s performance in 2016, or to past GOP House candidates in those districts.
That was the case in that Pennsylvania race in March, where Conor Lamb, a Democrat, edged out Republican Rick Saccone by about two-tenths of a percentage point, in a district Mr. Trump won by 20 points in 2016.
Mr. Lamb is now given the edge in his battle to win a new seat, part of the court-drawn maps the state is using in November, where he faces Rep. Keith Rothfus. It’s the only race in the country to pit two incumbents against each other.
A Monmouth University Poll released Wednesday gives Mr. Lamb a 54-42 lead over Mr. Rothfus, pointing to energized Democratic voters and a decidedly anti-Trump sentiment. Though he won the district by 2 percentage points in 2016, his approval rating is just 41 percent, compared to 58 percent disapproval.
Out of Pennsylvania’s 18 seats, 13 were won in 2016 by Republican candidates. Analysts say the GOP’s take this year could be only 7.
“We have three that I would say are very likely to go Democratic, one that’s somewhat likely to go Democratic, and three what we’ll call could go any way, with maybe the 17th that leans Democratic,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Frankly & Marshall College in Lancaster. “The wave is what matters — the size of the wave.”
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