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Democrats poised to win House, but uncertainty remains

The party would have to win a majority of the seats now considered tossups, and President Trump is a wild card.

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington is shown

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington is shown on Oct. 2. Photo Credit: CQ-Roll Call / Bill Clark

WASHINGTON — Democrats stand poised to win control of the U.S. House on Election Day Tuesday after an unusual, expensive and fiercely fought midterm campaign, political analysts said, but they still face a major political wild card: President Donald Trump.

Nonpartisan political analysts point to a host of factors that indicate Democrats should win at least the 23 net seats needed to take the majority — including the fact that the battle is being fought overwhelmingly in districts now held by Republicans.

“Democrats are favored to take over the House, though the exact margin is very much disputed, and the Senate will stay Republican, and probably becoming a bit more Republican,” said Larry Sabato, director of University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Democrats’ path to victory wends largely through suburban districts held by Republicans but that backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Many of them are in California, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida and Minnesota, with others scattered in other states.

Democrats also have a chance of flipping seats held by Republicans in New Jersey, Virginia, Colorado and Michigan as well as in the Republican-leaning states of Arizona, Kansas and Iowa. Even in solid GOP Kentucky, Texas and Utah, there are races too close to call.

Yet Amy Walter, national editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, put a widely acknowledged asterisk on that consensus forecast: “This year there’s the added uncertainty and chaos spurred by President Trump in the waning hours of the campaign.”

Trump has put himself front and center in the election, making it as much about him as about the Republicans scrambling to save their seats, by staging 25 events over the last two months to rally his base. He has five more scheduled for Sunday and Monday.

“I am not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket,” Trump told a rally in Southaven, Mississippi, just weeks ago. “I want you to vote. Pretend I’m on the ballot.”

Trump, whose overall approval rate is about 42 to 44 percent but is 87 percent or higher among Republicans, hit the road to urge his base of supporters to vote, in a bid to buck the usual loss of seats in Congress by the party of the president in a midterm election.

In the past two weeks, Trump has made his closing argument immigration, warning of the perils to Americans of a caravan of about 4,000 Central Americans crossing Mexico to seek asylum in the United States. Trump has ordered military troops to the border.

Democrats have deployed their own star, former President Barack Obama, and have doggedly stuck with a theme that has resonated among their base of supporters — health care.

In a revisiting of the issue that lost them 63 seats in 2010, Democrats are arguing that Republicans plan to rescind health care measures in the Affordable Care Act that ensure insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions.

Interest in this midterm appears to be unusually high. About 33 million people have voted early, and in more than half the states many more people voted early this year than in the 2014 midterms, according to Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor.

But that may be an indication that many more people who were likely to vote anyway were just voting early, said John Barry Ryan, an expert on voting at Stony Brook University.

There are other wild cards that make this year’s midterm House races unusual and their outcome a little more uncertain, according to key indicators and political analysts.

No one knows the effect on voters of recent violence and threats: an anti-Semitic gunman charged with killing 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue a week ago, the day after the FBI charged a Trump supporter in Florida with mailing bombs to prominent Trump critics.

And some political analysts said the effect of the raucous and bitterly partisan confirmation process that put Justice Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court bench has faded for many Republican voters but still could be a factor for Democrats and women.

Another question is whether Democrats have an edge because they have raised and spent about 50 percent more money during the election cycle than Republicans.

House candidates have spent a record-breaking $1.35 billion, and outside groups and political parties, funded by small donations and new highs in contributions by wealthy donors, have spent a record-breaking $641 million on House races, almost doubling 2014 spending, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money.

That money has flooded the airwaves, and two thirds of the more than 1 million ads — twice the number aired in the 2014 midterm — boost Democrats, according to the nonpartisan Wesleyan Media Project's analysis of data from the firm Kantar Media/CMAG.

“The surge in spending this cycle is historic and that's most evident, and consequential, in House races, where party control is most question,” said Sheila Krummholz, the center’s executive director. “That’s good news for the Democrats, because they were the big beneficiaries of that surge, increasing their share by about 15 percent compared with the last midterm election cycle.”

Many voters also will choose among a more diverse set of candidates as more women, people of color and LGBQT run this year. A record number of women — 237 — are running in House races, 166 of them for open seats or against an incumbent, according to Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics.

Another factor analysts are watching is whether Trump and Republicans get a boost from the Labor Department report Friday of a better-than-expected addition of 250,000 jobs, a 3.7 percent unemployment rate and, over the past year, a 3.1 percent increase in hourly earnings. A strong economy usually works in favor of the president and his party.

Republicans hold 240 seats and Democrats 195, and about 70 of those seats are considered very competitive.

Political forecasters at the Cook Political Report, Center for Politics, FiveThirtyEight and Inside Politics predict Democrats’ net gain of seats could be somewhere between 20 and 40 seats, with several of them suggesting about 30.

But as of Friday, they all allowed there is uncertainty in the outcome — Democrats need to win a majority of the races considered too close to call, which includes somewhere between 19 to 29 seats.

Five states could play a crucial role in determining the outcome.

California races will play a big role with seven Republican districts in play — including two open seats and strong challenges to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and Rep. Duncan Hunter, who was indicted on a charge of misuse of campaign funds. As many as five seats are considered too close to call.

In Pennsylvania, courts forced a redistricting that has made seven Republican districts competitive, with three seats expected to flip to Democrats, two leaning toward Republicans, one leaning toward Democrats and one a tossup.

Florida also has seven competitive Republican House races, with four leaning to or likely to result in a Republican win, one likely to elect at Democrat and two tossups.

Five of Minnesota’s eight districts are in play, drawing an unusual amount of outside spending and a visit from Trump, with two suburban seats expected to flip to Democrats, one Democrat to hold on to his seat, a rural seat expected to flip to Republicans and one tossup.

And New York has four upstate Republican districts where incumbents are facing stiff challenges. Rep. Claudia Tenney of New Hartford and Rep. John Faso of Kinderhook are in races considered too close to call. Analysts say the races lean Republican for Rep. John Katko of Camillus and Rep. Chris Collins of Buffalo, despite the indictment of Collins for insider trading.

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight gives Democrats a 6 in 7 chance of winning control of the House — but he stresses that means Republicans have a one in seven chance of retaining their majority.

But political analysts are hedging their predictions more than usual this year. Sabato acknowledges that is because “our data and models failed us in 2016,” though he said forecasters have made “solid adjustments” since then.

“The second reason for hedging is unknown last-minute events,” Sabato said. “Trump is a master at them. He may well come up with a November surprise or two before Tuesday.”

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