The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats set sights on expanding House majority amid GOP troubles

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks during an event on policing reform June 25 at the east front of the U.S. Capitol. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Just two months ago, House Republicans had been upbeat about their 2020 prospects following the surprise victory of GOP Rep. Mike Garcia in a California special election to replace Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, who had resigned.

But President Trump’s bungled coronavirus response, and his embrace of Confederate statues and other divisive messages in the wake of the nationwide racial justice protests, are now causing heartburn for downballot Republicans, allowing Democrats to go on offense in hopes of expanding their majority in the House, where they hold 233 seats.

In recent days, nonpartisan political handicappers have moved several races in Texas as well as GOP seats in suburban areas from Indiana to Pennsylvania in Democrats’ favor. At the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, political aides are eyeing races in Alaska and Montana, two GOP-held states the party never dreamed would be potentially in play.

Across the nation, Democrats and Democratic candidates are also announcing impressive fundraising hauls, war chests that House lawmakers say will fortify their changes at growing their numbers next Congress.

“Today, we would pick up seats,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) predicted in an interview, noting that the environment has shifted considerably in recent weeks — but also that it could shift again. “We didn’t have a pandemic six months ago. We didn’t have beautiful George Floyd losing his life before our very eyes two months ago. And we didn’t have Russian threats to our troops in Afghanistan one month ago, so who knows what comes next?”

The shift in fortunes marks a turnabout for House Democrats, who originally predicted trouble for 31 members representing seats Trump won in 2016. As recently as February, the party was sweating Republican attempts to tie their vulnerable members in swing districts to prominent self-described democratic socialists such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) as well as progressive policies such as Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal. Some also feared political blowback for their votes to impeach Trump, who used the effort to solidify his own base.

But Trump’s political standing in many of those same districts has fallen, as Biden has taken a clear lead in public polling. Plus, 37 of the most vulnerable front-line Democrats raised more than $500,000 last quarter, with 34 now stockpiling more than $2 million cash on hand, according to the DCCC.

“I think that if you had asked me a year and half ago, would we be in this situation electorally, I wouldn’t have said that some of these races would be where they are,” said Abby Curran Horrell, executive director of the House Majority PAC, a super PAC helping elect House Democrats. “Now Biden is ahead in many of these [Trump] districts . . . [The president is] just out of touch with where voters are, and that continues to be a drag on these Republican candidates.”

House Republicans counter that the election is still nearly four months away and that Democrats holding seats in districts that Trump carried by double digits — including Reps. Kendra Horn in Oklahoma, Anthony Brindisi in New York and Collin C. Peterson in Minnesota — face an uphill battle no matter how much money they raise.

“Democrats crowning themselves victors in July after their 2016 debacle is too perfect,” said Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “House Republicans are fighting in favorable territory across the country and have ample evidence to show voters how Democrats’ socialist agenda will hurt middle-class families.”

According to a Monmouth University poll released July 2, Democrats maintain an eight-point advantage in the generic congressional ballot, with 50 percent of voters saying they would back a Democrat for Congress over 42 percent preferring a Republican. That’s similar to the seven-point margin Democrats held in the same poll in June 2018 before they went on to flip 40 House seats.

Democrats say the potential political realignment is most apparent in Texas, where the party flipped several GOP-held suburban seats in 2018. Democrats saw additional Republican vulnerabilities in the Lone Star State, however, so the DCCC sent staff members to Texas early this cycle to “kick-start the campaigns of Democrats running in once ruby-red districts,” according to Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the DCCC. She said the investment “paid off” — three of the party’s top Texas targets retired rather than face difficult reelections, putting Democratic challengers in strong positions to pick up those posts.

Those include a suburban Houston district being vacated by retiring GOP Rep. Pete Olson, the district that former House majority leader Tom Delay held for 20 years. Democratic candidate Sri Preston Kulkarni, a former diplomat, raised more than $950,000 in the second quarter of 2020, a stunning sum in an area that went for Trump by eight points in 2016.

On Tuesday, in the sprawling border district represented by retiring centrist Republican Will Hurd, GOP voters will choose between Raul Reyes, a conservative candidate backed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and Tony Gonzales, who has been endorsed by GOP establishment and House Republican leaders.

Either way, Democrats feel confident that their own candidate, Gina Ortiz Jones, a 39-year-old ex-intelligence officer who raised $800,000 in the second quarter, will give the winning Republican candidate a run for his money. Ortiz Jones lost to Hurd, the well-known incumbent, by less than one point in the midterms.

Democrats are also targeting the open seat being vacated by GOP Rep. Kenny Merchant in the suburbs between Fort Worth and Dallas, as well as those held by Reps. Michael McCaul and John Carter, though the latter are tougher fights. They also note that Wendy Davis, who ran for Texas governor in 2014, raised an eye-popping $1.4 million last quarter, giving her a total of $2.8 million cash on hand in her bid to unseat Rep. Chip Roy in the suburbs of San Antonio and Austin.

That’s to say nothing of four GOP-held Texas districts that political handicapper Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics recently moved from “safe” to “likely” Republican in a sign of the changing landscape. “[I]f Biden wins the state without much ticket-splitting . . . there could be some unpleasant surprises down the ballot for Republicans in Texas,” Sabato’s analysis read, pointing out vulnerabilities for Reps. Dan Crenshaw, Van Taylor, Roger Williams and Ron Wright.

Democrats are pushing the election battlefield into additional GOP-held suburban areas in other parts of the nation as well. An open Indiana seat held by retiring Rep. Susan Brooks, which Trump carried by 11 points in 2016, is now looking increasingly competitive. Democrats are also eyeing Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), who leads the House Republicans’ Suburban Caucus, as well as another Trump-carried suburban Atlanta district long held by conservative Rep. Rob Woodall.

Democrats also like their chances of winning the remaining GOP-held districts that Clinton carried in 2016. Those include the suburban areas north of Philadelphia, where Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R) is in the fight of his political life, as well as the suburbs of Syracuse and Rochester in New York, turf held by Rep. John Katko (R).

Many Democrats are betting they can repeat Pelosi’s 2018 playbook, focusing their message on a single issue: “health care, health care, health care,” as the speaker often says. Pelosi predicted that access to affordable coverage will become even more salient this fall because of the pandemic, as well as Trump’s attempt to ax the Affordable Care Act in court at a time when coronavirus infection numbers are climbing.

Despite the current political climate, however, Pelosi has her eye on two outside factors that could cause problems for her members: She expressed concern about Trump being at the top of the ticket, which could draw out additional Republican voters who didn’t show in 2018. And she’s worried about Trump and GOP efforts to thwart voting, hindering would-be Democratic supporters and upping the pressure on Democrats to turn out the vote.

“Republicans seems to think [it] is their mission in life to diminish the number of days that people can vote, the hours they can vote, the location in which they can vote, standing in the way of voting at home,” Pelosi said, later adding: “But as I say, one advantage we have this time over the last is people are vigilant. They are attuned. . . . I say, ‘Own the ground; don’t give one grain of sand; get everybody out. . . . No wasted time, no underutilized resources and no regrets the day after election.’ ”