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Democrats strengthen hand in seeking control of House, even if odds of a blue wave are diminishing

Here's a recap of the winners and losers from June 5 primaries in Alabama, California, Iowa, Montana, South Dakota, New Mexico, New Jersey and Mississippi. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Halfway through the primary season, election results across the country have strengthened the Democrats’ hand in their quest for control of the House, even as shifts in the national mood raise the possibility that an anticipated electoral wave could flatten into a ripple.

After votes in 21 states, including California and seven others that held primaries Tuesday, Democrats have avoided potential pitfalls and secured general-election candidates in many Republican-held districts who have compelling biographical stories and political profiles that party leaders hope will have broad appeal in a nation that tends to vote for change in off-year contests.

Many of the Democratic nominees are younger, more diverse and less tied to Washington than their GOP rivals.

The Fix: Winners and losers from the biggest primary night of the year

Fresh evidence of the party’s primary success came Tuesday, when Democrats on California’s “top two” ballot succeeded in salvaging spots for several House seats that are considered toss-ups. Party leaders had feared divided Democrats would cede the seats to Republicans, but voters rallied sufficiently to push Democrats forward to November.

With Democrats eyeing the 2018 elections as a chance for a blue wave, here's how they're fighting to win the 24 seats they need to take control of the House. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Republicans are counting on an improving economy and the local roots of their incumbents, buttressed by a financial advantage among outside fundraising groups.

Their fears of an electoral catastrophe in November have been eased by declining concern among voters about the direction of the country and rising approval ratings for President Trump, who continues to dominate the daily news cycle by embracing polarizing issues such as immigration, criticism of federal law enforcement and the racially fraught topic of National Football League players kneeling during the national anthem.

But that appears to have been offset by the Democratic results so far.

“They have enough seats in play and enough quality candidates in those seats to win the majority,” said Nathan Gonzales, who handicaps House races for Inside Elections. “Democrats have done a good job of turning enthusiasm into a large number of candidates, of turning enthusiasm into fundraising,” Gonzalez said. “But now they have to turn that enthusiasm into votes because that is what is going to matter in November.”

Voters have cast primary ballots in 32 of the 56 Republican-held House districts most vulnerable to a Democratic takeover, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Of the 28 races that have been called, Democratic women have won in half the districts, with women leading the Democratic ticket Wednesday afternoon in one of the four remaining seats still being counted in California. The party’s nominees in these crucial districts also include six military veterans and seven nominees who are black, Latino or Asian.

The winners include new political stars such as Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot running in Lexington, Ky., and Mikie Sherrill, a Navy pilot and former prosecutor running in northern New Jersey.

Democrats also have benefited from a rare unity between the party’s wings. A predicted liberal Democratic rebellion has not materialized at the polls, in part because mainstream candidates have shifted to the left on policy. Liberal activists have defeated an establishment-backed candidate in only one congressional race this year, for a House district that includes much of Omaha.

At the same time, several key establishment recruits have easily sailed to victory, including moderate New Jersey Democrat Jeff Van Drew, a state representative who voted against legalizing same-sex marriage and raising the minimum wage. Like Van Drew, many of the recruits appear more palatable to the general-election audience in their districts.

“The pieces are set. So now it is how these things play out,” said Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster at the Global Strategy Group, which has been working on congressional races. “The Democrats have done what they need to do to be in the position to have that wave happen if it comes.”

Democratic leaders continue to coach their candidates to steer clear of the fireworks surrounding Trump and the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race, both to reinforce their focus on local concerns and to avoid riling Republican voters.

“Our candidates aren’t talking about him a lot. Republicans are having to explain about the president,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who leads the Democrats’ House midterm effort. “Our candidates and our colleagues are traveling around the country talking about the economy.”

Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to retake the House and have benefited from a playing field that is largely located in the suburbs of major American cities, where polls show swing voters, especially educated white women, are more likely to reject Trump’s conduct in office. Strategists consider only five Democratic seats, including two in Minnesota, vulnerable to a Republican takeover.

Republicans have been circulating white papers that suggest the political environment may not be as favorable as Democrats think. A document distributed by the Hohlt Group, a Republican lobbying firm, cites Republican statewide primary turnout in states such as Indiana, Ohio and Texas that was far higher than Democratic turnout, though the number of Democratic ballots cast in key House districts in those states rose more steeply than for Republicans, who did not have competitive primaries. The numbers are seen as a possible measure of Republican enthusiasm in the fall.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC focused on House races, has highlighted the growing number of Americans who say the country is going in the right direction. The right-direction level of about 39 percent in polling averages is considerably better than in recent wave-election midterm years, such as 2004, 2006 and 2010.

Trump has latched onto any evidence of resurgence, even if flimsy. On Wednesday, he touted a Republican candidate’s second-place finish in the race for governor of California. (Trump’s endorsement was credited with boosting John Cox, a little-known business executive.)

“Great night for Republicans! Congratulations to John Cox on a really big number in California,” Trump tweeted. “. . . So much for the big Blue Wave, it may be a big Red Wave. Working hard!”

Also in California’s Tuesday elections, a weak showing by Republicans locked them out of the November U.S. Senate race, and Democrats overcame concerns that they would lose spots on the fall ballot in several important House races.

Trump’s approval rating as measured by Gallup has improved in recent months, peaking at 43 percent in mid-May after spending much of December and January in the mid-30s. However, it remains in a danger zone for midterm elections, which tend to be referendums on the president. The share of Americans who strongly disapprove of the Trump remains higher than the historic norm, suggesting enthusiasm that could materialize this fall for Democratic candidates.

Yet the improving economic outlook appears to be having some effect on partisan sentiment, putting in question the depth of the Democratic advantage. Late last year, an average of public polls showed Democrats had at least a 10-point advantage when voters were asked a generic question about whether they wanted to vote for an unnamed Democrat or unnamed Republican for Congress. That margin dropped to six points by the end of May.

Those numbers have caused confusion among some Democratic pollsters who are uncertain whether the trend will continue. Many Republicans believe that the landscape is not as dire as the one suggested by recent special-election results, including Democrat Conor Lamb’s March victory in a Republican district outside Pittsburgh, which came despite a massive advertising blitz by Republicans and repeated visits by Trump and his aides.

“If the election were held today we would keep control of the House,” said Corry Bliss, who is running the Congressional Leadership Fund. The PAC has announced it will spend $48 million in digital and television advertising in 30 districts.

Still, other Republican-held districts could soon be considered out of the GOP’s reach. Bliss’s group has left some of the most vulnerable Republican seats without televised air cover, at least in the early spending plan.

The group has opted to announce only digital ads in the Chicago area, where Rep. Peter J. Roskam (R-Ill.) is fighting for reelection in a district Hillary Clinton won in 2016 by seven points. The group is also, thus far, sitting out spending in the Northern Virginia district of Rep. Barbara Comstock (R). By contrast, the House Majority PAC, the main Democratic outside group, has reserved $43 million for television spending, including funds for both of those districts.

Democrats are hoping that as Election Day approaches, more Americans see their congressional vote as an opportunity to put a check on unified Republican control in Washington.

“In all of our research, what we have learned broadly is that there is broad support for checks and balance,” Luján said. “What we have also heard from the voters is that while they want candidates who will work for anybody who can help the district, they also want someone who will stand up to the president.”

About a month ago, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg conducted focus groups in Michigan that reinforced the underlying dynamics of the national election landscape. Among white Republican men in Macomb County, he found enormous support for Trump. Black voters in Detroit were energized against the president and his party.

But the swing group that Democrats are depending upon could be found in the affluent suburbs of Oakland County, reflective of the places across the country that will decide control of the House in November.

“College-educated women sounded like a base Democratic group,” Greenberg said. “Trump every day gets up and drives away those voters and gives them a reason to vote.”