The Briefing, Vol. II, Issue 36

To: Our readers
From: David Freddoso

This week:

  • Dems begin major triage operation in House races
  • Republicans poised to gain several House seats
  • Colorado looking better and better for Republicans as Udall somehow loses the Denver Post endorsement

House 2014

At the beginning of this election cycle, Democrats talked quite a big game about House races. And they seemed to have good reason for their optimism. The 2012 election was kinder to the House GOP than one might have expected, given the up ballot result. Several relatively weak Republican incumbents survived in marginal districts. In addition, Republican retirements appeared to present several opportunities.

No, Democrats did not ever appear likely to win a House majority, but they did at least seem poised to gain a few seats, which would put them in a better position to win that majority in 2016. 

But then in recent weeks, something strange happened. House Democrats began complaining loudly that their fight was being ignored. With the nation’s — and donors’ — attention paid almost exclusively to the battle for the U.S. Senate, they weren’t getting the resources they needed to meet their potential — or perhaps even just to avoid disaster.

At first, theirs might have seemed like idle whining — a plea for more attention. But at this point, it appears the pleas were genuine. Maybe they were just in much bigger trouble than most people anticipated to begin with. Maybe the environment has become worse than expected. Either way, they now appear to be facing a rout l. They proved this late last week by pulling Democratic resources out of two seats once believed to be their best pickup opportunities.

Colorado’s Sixth Congressional District, in the eastern suburbs of Denver, was once held by the immigration-hawk and stalwart conservative Tom Tancredo. In those days, it was a much more Republican-friendly seat. But Democrats managed to draw themselves a much more favorable congressional map after the 2010 election, putting the current congressman, Rep. Mike Coffman, R, in a really tight spot. In 2012, Obama carried the district, yet Coffman narrowly (by 7,000 votes or two percentage points) survived a spirited challenge from a state representative. 

This year, Democrats had every reason to think they could beat Coffman, and they nominated arguably the strongest candidate possible — former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff, once viewed as the enfant terrible (in the positive sense) of Colorado Democratic politics. Romanoff had increased his visibility and name recognition with an unsuccessful run in the primary against Sen. Michael Bennet, D, in 2010, which ingratiated him somewhat to the state’s more left-leaning donors. If Romanoff couldn’t win this year’s race against Coffman, it seems unlikely anyone could.

But apparently, the DCCC has decided that Romanoff cannot, in fact, win. They have canceled $1.4 million in reserved airtime, announcing they will be shifting the money to defend a few newly vulnerable incumbents in California.

To the east, the DCCC has canceled an even larger ad buy of $2.8 million on behalf of a candidate in whom they once expressed immense faith — John Foust, D, who is running against state Del. Barbara Comstock, R, in the outer-suburban Washington district left open by the retirement of Rep. Frank Wolf, R.

Foust, a Fairfax County Supervisor, was supposed to be another of the Democrats’ best possible pickup opportunities, in a district that is by no means solidly Republican. Wolf’s personal popularity had long protected him from defeat, but the district went to Mitt Romney by only one point in 2012.

Given the Fairfax/Loudoun region’s immense influx of liberal suburbanites, this seemed like it would be a very difficult challenge for the GOP. And perhaps it would have been, but for the DCCC abandoning Foust on the battlefield due to a dire need for resources elsewhere. Other races where they had high hopes — such as Amanda Renteria‘s challenge to Rep. David Valadao, R — simply haven’t panned out.

Where does this leave House Democrats? In a bad way. One cannot win at any game by playing only defense. As in chess, it is counterpart that often makes an opponent’s attack fail. And House Democrats seem to be admitting with these two moves that they have no counterplay.

They do remain likely to take over California’s solidly Democratic 31st District, but that only went Republican in 2012 due to the idiosyncratic nature of the state’s new jungle primary system (two Republicans ended up making the November ballot that year because too many Democrats tried to run for it). They have a decent — but not overwhelming — shot in New York’s 11th District, where Staten Island and Brooklyn Rep. Mike Grimm, R, has actually been indicted, but their own candidate, Dominic Recchia, D, might be too weak to capitalize even under those circumstances. In Florida’s Second District, Gwen Graham, daughter of a former U.S. senator, is in a tight race against Rep. Steve Southerland, R. 

But aside from that, Democrats have only longshot pickup prospects.

Meanwhile, they stand to lose quite a few seats of their own. A handful of House Democrats who hold down GOP-leaning seats are retiring this year — Jim Matheson of Utah, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, and Bill Owens of New York — and these are all expected to go Republican. In the Maine district comprising the state’s northern and Downeast regions, Bruce Poliquin, R, is doing surprisingly well, polling ahead of his Democratic opponent for the seat being vacated by Rep. Mike Michaud, D.

And several Democratic incumbents face possible defeat as well. Both races in New Hampshire are at least competitive, with some polls (though not all) showing Republicans Frank Guinta and Marilinda Garcia with modest leads over their incumbent opponents. Democrats must also fend off two tough House challenges in Arizona, two in Illinois, one in West Virginia, one (or possibly two) in Florida, and one in Georgia. And then Democrats are nearly panicking over a few of their freshman incumbents who should be on firm ground — California Reps. Julia Brownley and Ami Bera, to whom they are now shifting late resources. (They may have caught a break in the case of San Diego-area Rep. Scott Peters, D, whose GOP challenger, who was probably winning, has been accused of some rather serious and embarrassing workplace misconduct.)

The bottom line is that Democrats are now clearly on track to lose, not gain, House seats, with losses ranging from a mere handful to more than a dozen. If they prove to be as weak as this new triage exercise suggests, they could find themselves springing new and unexpected leaks in the final days of the campaign, as happened in 2010 — for example, Reps. Collin Peterson and Rick Nolan, D-Minn., should win, but both will have closer-than-hoped-for finishes, and either or both could be sucked under if everything breaks against them. There are a few other seats like theirs that will likely go Democratic but contain the potential for a surprise.

Even so, there is a saving grace for Democrats in the House. Republicans cannot gain much more than 20 seats, given the current state congressional maps.

Senate 2014

Colorado : For a Democratic incumbent senator, the Denver Post editorial board should be low-hanging fruit — pretty easy to win over and enthusiastic in support. Unfortunately for Sen. Mark Udall, D, he’s blown his race badly enough that the Post has rather shockingly endorsed his opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner, R. To say the endorsement was critical of Udall campaign would be an understatement. Essentially, the Post scolded Udall for insulting the intelligence of the state’s population with his one-issue pro-abortion campaign:

Rather than run on his record, Udall’s campaign has devoted a shocking amount of energy and money trying to convince voters that Gardner seeks to outlaw birth control despite the congressman’s call for over-the-counter sales of contraceptives. Udall is trying to frighten voters rather than inspire them with a hopeful vision. His obnoxious one-issue campaign is an insult to those he seeks to convince.

Indeed, Between two-thirds and three quarters of the campaign ads Udall has released (and several outside ads supporting him) are about abortion or contraception. He talks about little else. Udall has earned the mocking sobriquet “Senator Uterus,” which was not popularized by conservative hacks but by one of the journalists questioning him in a recent debate. He was lustily booed at another recent debate between the candidates when he resorted once again to the very tired (at least in Colorado) “war on women” theme.

But perhaps such incidents can be written off. The Post endorsement cannot. The fact that a paper with a strongly pro-abortion editorial position has just endorsed a former supporter of Colorado’s personhood amendment goes a long way in showing just how terrible an impression Udall has left.

Democrats have been anonymously criticizing Udall in the press for his all-abortion-pandering-all-the-time campaign strategy for weeks. He has taken the theme to such an absurd level that many voters may be figuring out for the first time that it is a political gimmick for the weak-minded.

Gardner, meanwhile, is simply everything right. He has slammed Udall on a variety of non-abortion issues, even bringing up a tactical floor vote that Udall took in 2005 to poison the House immigration bill by making illegal immigration a felony.

Based on the polling and the dynamic of the race, it is probably Gardner’s to lose from here out — and the Post endorsement gives him an easy topic for strong positive ads in the election campaign’s final days.
  Leaning Republican takeover.

Kansas: As we noted last week, there’s something unusual about independent challenger Greg Orman in that his support is soft. The race is unusually fluid for a general election — almost resembling a primary, in which minds seem capable of changing late. We referred to the possibility of an “Orman bubble” that could burst quite suddenly.

And sure enough, there were signs last week that the wind was suddenly blowing in Sen. Pat Roberts’ direction. This comes after a campaign reshuffle and a concerted effort on Roberts’ part and on that of the NRSC to show off his conservatism, bring conservative Republicans (such as Ted Cruz and Tom Coburn) in to campaign for him, and trash Orman over the airwaves as an Obama-loving liberal. Conservatives, turned off by the ugly primary, seem to be coming back into the fold. Two polls, from CNN and FOX, shifted heavily in Roberts’ direction last week.

Still, given the strange nature of the race, it remains hard not to view Roberts as an underdog still. He will need to get close to 50 percent and it is by no means a settled question whether he can do it. (There is a libertarian on the ballot as well who could draw away some of the disaffected anti-Roberts vote from Orman and allow a plurality victory.)

Another reason Roberts still cannot be viewed as a clear favorite is that several liberal billionaires have decided to intervene in the race on Orman’s behalf. They fill a vacuum because any substantial effort by the national Democratic Party apparatus would probably backfire on Orman. They may or (if their track record is any indication) may not have a substantial effect on the race in Orman’s favor. Leaning Democratic takeover.

South Dakota: Here’s another wild and crazy one where Democrats are trying to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Former Republican Sen. Larry Pressler, now l running as a liberal-leaning independent, is nearly broke but running on all cylinders. His declaration that he would be a friend to Obama if elected indicates that he thinks he can win more votes cannibalizing the struggling Democratic nominee, Rick Weiland , than he will lose because of Obama’s rock-bottom popularity ratings in the state. (Pressler, by the way, is amusing as a Washington-outsider candidate — his wife has been one of the more prolific realtors on Capitol Hill.)

The Republican nominee, former Gov. Mike Rounds, is struggling and maintains only a small lead in the three-way race in large part because the only negative ads on the air are aimed at him. He refuses to run any, and he naively believes he can get away with it because he has won that way twice before.

Democrats have thrown some late money at the race in hopes of making a miracle happen, but it’s more likely that the simultaneous influx of GOP cash — likely for negative ads against Presler — will improve the situation for Rounds and help him win a much closer victory than anyone would have expected a few months ago. Leaning Republican Takeover.