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Opinion On the “flip list”: Dave Brat and Barbara Comstock

Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) at the Cannon Building in Washington in November. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The Wason Center’s Rachel Bitecofer has published a new paper that will hearten Virginia Democrats.

Nationally, the party is “primed to pick up enough seats to control the House.”

In Virginia, Bitecofer pulls no punches: Republican Reps. Dave Brat and Barbara Comstock will lose. And the state’s other race to watch, the 2nd District, is a pure toss-up.

And for Republicans, the bad news looks like it will continue for as long as Donald Trump is in the White House.

Part of the reason is “negative partisanship” — the negative attitudes, even extending outside of politics that members of the major political parties have toward the other party’s candidates. The negative feelings are stronger among those supporting the party out of power. All that negativity keeps them motivated.

Republicans employed that negativity to great advantage during the Obama years. As Bitecofer notes, Democratic complacency combined with GOP outrage allowed the GOP to “over perform their share of the electorate by 5 points in the 2010 midterms and 10 points in 2014 in midterms.”

And independents really aren’t the prime movers they are thought to be.  “It is negative partisanship among opposition party voters that drives the midterm effect,” Bitecofer says, “not movement of independent voters back and forth between the parties.”

The deciding factor for Democrats is getting their own partisans to the polls:

Democrats lose Independents quite often, and in elections they win and they lose because they have a population advantage in many places and when their partisans turn out in high numbers, it trumps the combined loss of Republicans and Independents, assuming they don’t lose the latter group by wide margins.

A fascinating point, and one that should send campaign consultants back to the drawing board.

Because, if it’s true, it could mean that races that were already going to be expensive and rough, such as Virginia’s 10th, will be even costlier and much rougher than we imagined.

The reason? Democrats will do everything possible to raise turnout among their base voters and to capture a good share of the true independents.

According to the Monmouth University poll of the 10th — the only data we have so far –Democrats are already doing what’s necessary to reach both goals, long before the mud starts flying. In Monmouth’s “turnout surge” model, in areas where “Trump is unpopular,” Democratic nominee Jennifer Wexton leads Comstock 51 percent to 40 percent.

Another key to Bitecofer’s model, and another troubling sign for Republicans: the number of college graduates in a district. She looked at Virginia’s 2017 House of Delegates races and discovered this:

Of the 17 Clinton districts in Virginia, Democrats won nearly all of them. They even picked up a seat in a district that broke for Trump. And the most significant factor explaining districts that flipped from those that didn’t (other than the district’s partisan advantage and challenger spending relative to incumbent spending) is the percent of college educated residents residing within the district.

This is one of the factors that convinced Bitecofer to put the 7th District in the “will flip” category. So, too are the attention, money and presence of a formidable challenger, Abigail Spanberger, in the contest.

Paul Schwartzman’s profile  of the 7th District shows that Brat’s campaign understands what may be coming his way:

“The fight will be brutal,” Brat warned in a fevered appeal to Republican donors. “The Democrats will be out for political blood, and they will throw everything they have at me.”

Indeed they are. Brat once complained,“women are in my grill no matter where I go.” Negative partisanship means they still are. The question is whether the energy can be sustained until November. Bitecofer argues it can and will be — and that it will continue far beyond then, as Republicans demonstrated when Barack Obama was in the White House.

One question Democrats may want to ponder from this research, though, is whether the gains they might make in November can survive post-Trump.