Democrats are likely to win back control of the House of Representatives. That's the conventional wisdom in Washington about November's midterm elections.
“Democrats remain substantial favorites for House control,” wrote David Wasserman, a nonpartisan election analyst for the Cook Political Report, last week.
We explained why here. The short version is: Voter energy on the left is palpable, Republicans are defending vulnerable seats, and their historic level of retirements is only making their exposure worse. Plus, Republicans are in power, which history suggests voters will try to counterbalance this November.
Not surprisingly, Republican operatives working to keep control of the House disagree with some of that reasoning. Dig a little deeper, they say, and taking back the House for the first time since 2010 is not as easy as it seems for Democrats.
“House races often are determined by micro-level factors that get lost in the national discussion,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, in a statement to The Fix. “Republican members and candidates will be buoyed by a booming economy and a laser-like focus on the local issues that voters care about.”
Here's why Republicans are hopeful they can hang onto their majority:
1. Special elections are just that, special. There's no denying Democrats have had extraordinary success in special elections in the Trump era.
Democrats have picked up more than 40 state legislative seats across the nation since President Trump was elected, some deep in Trump country. They won a Senate seat in Alabama last fall. This spring they flipped a congressional district in Pennsylvania — again, deep in Trump country. On Tuesday, they could take a deep-red Ohio congressional seat. That could trim the target number of seats Democrats need to take back the House this November from 23 to 22.
Republicans argue that each one of those scenarios was unique. Democratic donors and activists across the country were focused on a single race. That's very different from the actual game day in November, when 435 House seats are up for election and Democrats will have to decide how to spread their resources across some 60 potentially competitive races. (Though so will Republicans, for that matter.)
2. Republicans feel good about their most vulnerable incumbents. If Democrats are going to win a wave election, they need to start with the lowest-hanging fruit. And Republicans don't think that will be so easy.
There are a couple open seats that are gimmies for Democrats to pick up, notably two in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey. But the next battlefront will be GOP-held seats where Republicans feel confident they have strong, smart candidates who won't go down easily. Take Rep. Barbara Comstock in Virginia, for example. She disavowed Trump in 2016 on her way to reelection in the increasingly Democratic-shaded outer D.C. suburbs. In addition to smart campaigning, she's in an expensive media market. Other top races to topple Republicans will play out in the New York City, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle media markets.
In other words, Republicans calculate that a wave is going to cost Democrats significant money and energy to build up. That being said, the Cook Political Report is out Friday with one stat that underscores just how exposed House Republicans are this election in defending those seats: It ranks 60 Republican-held seats as vulnerable, compared to just five for Democrats.
3. There are structural barriers for Democrats to overcome. Gerrymandering is a big one. Republicans swept into control of state legislatures in 2010 in time to take charge of drawing electoral districts after the 2010 Census. Democrats have been locked out of power in the House ever since.
Voters are also increasingly self-sorting into congressional districts in a way that gives Republicans an advantage to control Congress. Democratic-leaning voters cluster in cities, while conservative voters spread out in rural areas across the rest of the state. The result is that Democrats' votes are essentially diluted by living in areas that would vote for a Democrat for Congress anyway.
Some independent analysts think Democrats will need to win the popular vote by seven to 11 percentage points just to get a bare majority. While seven points is firmly in doable territory — for a wave election at least — 11 points is a historically large margin.
4. The economy is chugging along, and there are no major international disasters. Republicans openly acknowledge that they're at a disadvantage this election because they control all major levers of government. That means they've been able to pass a tax-cut bill, but it also means voters who aren't happy with their health care or the impact that tariffs are having on their industry can reason it's Republicans' fault.
But Republican operatives also think voters have reasons to be optimistic. The economy continues to grow by adding jobs, though wage growth remains sluggish — and everything is below Trump's vocalized expectations, as The Post's Philip Bump notes.
On the international stage, Trump is picking a lot of unconventional fights, but nothing has boiled over to a crisis point. Republicans also think there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that voters inclined to support the president will give him a chance to prove that there's a method to his madness.
So even though Americans have a natural inclination to use midterms for a check on the party in power, Republicans are hopeful that voters have less of a reason to do that now than in elections past. And they're calculating that Democrats' path to the majority isn't as much of a given as it may initially seem.