How The GOP Retakes The House

The Briefing, Vol. VI, Issue 50 – This week:

  • Possible re-do of one House election
  • Democrats jockey to take on Trump
  • How Republicans win back the House in 2020, Part One

House 2018

North Carolina-9: When Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., lost his primary earlier this year to Mark Harris, he complained to state Republican Party officials about potential absentee ballot fraud based on ballot harvesting. His concerns were ignored, but now it appears that one of Harris’ campaigners was indeed harvesting ballots and possibly manipulating them. (Note that this is the very procedure by which some Republicans believe that Democrats have been winning in California, where ballot harvesting is perfectly legal.)

At this point, everyone seems to agree that something untoward occurred, both in the primary and in Harris’ narrow victory over Democrat Dan McCready.

There are two possibilities going forward. One is that North Carolina authorities will order a re-run of the general election, as state law allows. The other is that the U.S. House (which per the Constitution is the final judge of its own elections) will refuse to seat Harris. In that case, a vacancy would be declared and a special election — primary and general — would be held for the seat.

Given the circumstances, this may just mean that Republicans lose one more seat.

President 2020

Democrats: You’d expect Democrats to be chomping at the bit to get a shot at President Trump. And they are. A few minor developments already this month:

Deval Patrick has ruled out a run. A former black governor, he could have been viewed as the next Barack Obama, but he was never as talented a politician.

The Boston Globe, whose editorial board in 2016 called on Elizabeth Warren to run for president, is now calling on her to stay out of the race. Her appallingly bad political judgement shone through in her decision to take a DNA test for Indian heritage. It’s a big turn-off on the Left, which is of course obsessed with identity politics.

Michael Bloomberg is quite clearly serious about running for president, so much that he’s now groveling at the feet of Big Ethanol, reversing his opposition to the heavily subsidized fuel. A candidate with his money can never be ruled out in a Democratic primary (or caucus), especially one who has such a strong claim to the gun-control vote.

Governor 2019

Kentucky: Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, who was never supposed to win in the first place according to the polls in 2015, has already drawn two Democratic challengers — Attorney General Andy Beshear and state Rep. Rocky Adkins.

Bevin has run up against rocky shores with his recent attempts at pension reform. But he’s also an incumbent with self-funding capabilities in a state whose Republican lean is only becoming more pronounced. Republicans have closed the partisan registration gap in Kentucky to an 8 to 7 ratio, down from more than 2.5 to 1 Democrat in the late 1980s. The driver of this has been rapid growth among registered Republicans and stagnation among registered Democratic voters, whose number today, at 1,686,046, is exactly four voters (yes, incredibly) less than it was in May 2015.

As of this June, for the first time in modern memory, registered Democrats no longer make up the majority of Kentucky voters. Not that most of them have been voting Democratic for some time anyway, but at the local level they really still did until 2016, when Republicans finally took over the state House.

Another recent milestone came in the governor’s primary that made Bevin the GOP’s nominee. For the first time in the modern era (and possibly ever), more Republicans than Democrats voted in their respective party’s primary.

That doesn’t make Bevin invincible, but the state has been changing in his favor. One definitely has to like his chances better than those of the last Republican governor, Ernie Fletcher, who in 2007 lost his re-election under a cloud of scandal.

Louisiana: Rep. Ralph Abraham, R, is the second Republican (after businessman Eddie Rispone) to jump into the off-year governor election against Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. Republicans, who have only truly taken over in Louisiana in the last six years, view the defeat of Edwards as both elimination of a potential future threat (successful former governors have a tendency to run for Senate) and the reclamation of a governorship that they ought to hold by virtue of the state’s recent realignment.

Louisiana is only getting redder, but the Democratic incumbent hasn’t stepped on any big landmines just yet. He has to be at least slightly favored by default for the moment.

House 2020

The Republican road back: It’s highly unusual for a chamber of Congress to change hands in a president’s favor during his re-election campaign. In fact, it hasn’t happened since 1948, when Harry Truman (not actually an elected president up to that point) regained control of the House of Representatives, which his party has lost in 1946.

But if recent history has taught us anything — including both Trump’s election and the mixed results of the election just ended — it is that election precedents were made to be broken. On those grounds, even with a rightly uncertain eye toward the 2020 presidential election, Republicans should be thinking about a way to retake the House. And indeed, their chances of clawing back the necessary 18 or 19 seats are not nearly as bad as you might expect.

There is a tendency among commentators, after each election, to assume that the results are much more permanent than they really are. After Trump’s victory, people just assumed that Democrats couldn’t win again in the heartland and especially not in the Upper Midwest, which proved to be false.  This time, commentators are assuming that Republicans will be forever shut out in suburbia — something that wasn’t true after they lost there in 2006, and probably isn’t true now.

In any event, over the next few issues, we will look at a number of House seats where Republicans have an excellent chance of bouncing back in 2020 — in some cases whether or not President Trump is doing especially well at the top of the ticket.

Today, in the first installment of a multiple-part series, we look at five seats that are especially attractive pickup targets for the GOP in 2020.

Maine-2: This one is pretty simple: President Trump’s campaign will be playing to win in Maine’s Second District, where a number of scenarios make its single electoral vote the clinching or the tying vote for the presidency. Trump won this district in 2016, and there’s every reason to think that, like the rest of the Rust Belt areas where Trump performed well, it is only going to become more Republican in the long run.

Rep. Bruce Polliquin, R, just lost this seat. Although he won more first-choice votes, the new ranked-choice voting system caused him to lose. His lawsuit over the new system will likely fail, but the district’s tendency will only continue to slouch in the Republicans’ favor.

To compete here, obviously, the GOP will need to recruit well, and to take advantage of any missteps or liberal votes by Rep.-elect Jared Golden.

Minnesota-2, 3, 7: The Trump campaign will definitely be fighting hard for Minnesota and its ten electoral votes in 2020, after coming so heartbreakingly close to winning them in 2016. The effort there is likely to eclipse even the herculean 2018 Florida effort that caused a mini-Red wave in the Sunshine State this year.

Minnesota offers him a rare chance to expand the map, and its electoral votes could make be the deciding ones if he cannot repeat his feat of winning Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

That means that the state’s Republicans should be looking for ways to capitalize on Trump’s heavy presence in order to pick up House seats — not just the ones recently lost, but also the one they keep gunning for.

Minnesota is always quirky in that it bucks left and right in successive elections. This year, after nearly going for Trump in 2016, the Gopher State’s voters slammed the Republicans in the state legislature and the governor’s race, and deep-sixed the party’s U.S. Senate candidates (in the regular and special election). Yet in House races, their pattern was different. Republicans picked up two rural seats (the first and eighth districts) but lost two suburban seats (the second and third).

The race in the suburban second district was close enough, with a five-point margin, that Republicans would be foolish to write off the seat. The glaring flaws of their defeated incumbent, Rep. Jason Lewis, proved too much this time, but it stands to reason that a stronger candidate could reclaim the seat.

The third district requires a bit more soul-searching. Rep. Erik Paulsen, R, was absolutely clobbered, despite several good polls leading up to the election and his resilience in past contests. If Republicans can attract a quality candidate, they have at least some reason to hope they can do better here next time.

Then there’s the rural seventh district in northwest Minnesota, long held by moderate Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson. This one is just waiting to go Republican the moment Peterson chooses to retire, or perhaps even sooner than that. Peterson nearly lost in 2016, and he only won in 2018 by four points.

Oklahoma-5: Rep. Steve Russell, R, had won his seat in 2014 by 24 points. This time, he didn’t raise any red flags or appeal for outside help, and he ended up losing by less than two points. It was an unforgivable case of political malpractice. Russell raised less than $1 million and spent less than $700,000 on his losing campaign. He appeared to be completely taken by surprise in his defeat.

The other side of the coin, however, is that this will be a nearly impossible seat for Rep.-elect Democrat Kendra Horn to hold amid the 2020 presidential contest. There is ample Republican talent within the district, in a state where the Republican realignment is still young, and Oklahoma was not a state in 2016 (like Texas, Arizona and Georgia) where President Trump underperformed.

Next week: A further look at House seats that Republicans will target in 2020.