At the same time, nonpartisan analysts continue to move races that once seemed unfathomable for Democrats to win in their direction. Among them are Alaska and Montana, as well as GOP strongholds in rural Minnesota to conservative parts of Virginia, including one district that hasn’t backed a Democratic candidate for president since Harry S. Truman.
“I don’t think too many people would have thought [this] at the beginning of this cycle, but we’re playing deep into Trump country,” said DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) “I’m confident in saying this: We’re going to hold on to the majority; we’re going to grow our majority. . . . We’re well positioned to have a good night.”
House Democrats won’t put a number on their projections, but outside analysts say they could gain from three to 15 seats as Trump sees his advantage shrink over Joe Biden.
Democrats currently hold a 232-to-197 majority after gaining 41 seats and the majority in 2018. There are five vacancies.
Republicans, meanwhile, say Democrats are celebrating too early.
“This list is laughable to start and becomes downright hilarious given the recent shift in polling we’ve seen in races around the country,” said Michael McAdams, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, referring to its internal polling.
During Thursday night’s presidential debate, Trump even suggested the GOP would win back control of the House — an outcome House Republicans say is not remotely possible.
Democrats’ offensive is particularly striking within the context of their success two years ago, when voters sent a clear message to Washington that they wanted a check on Trump. In 2018, three Democrats won in districts Trump carried by more than 10 points. Democrats are boasting about expanding that exclusive club, which includes Reps. Jared Golden of Maine, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma and Anthony Brindisi of New York.
The party’s confidence stems from the massive amount of money it has raised — about a third of a billion dollars, dwarfing GOP accounts — and also the candidates they persuaded to run. Just as Democrats recruited several no-nonsense national security candidates who flipped GOP seats in 2018, the party has attracted atypical political newcomers with compelling stories at the right moment, including physicians who are treating coronavirus patients.
In Virginia’s expansive 5th District, where Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by more than 11 percentage points, political handicappers have moved the lean or likely Republican seat to toss-up status. The district, which includes Charlottesville, hasn’t backed a Democrat for president since the late 1940s.
Republicans ousted the first-term Republican Rep. Denver Riggleman at the party convention after he presided over a same-sex marriage. Riggleman lost to Bob Good, a former Liberty University fundraiser who describes himself as a “biblical conservative.”
In looking to claim the open seat, Democrat Cameron Webb and allies are outspending Good by more than a 2-to-1 margin on the airwaves, about $3 million to $1.4 million.
If elected, Webb, a physician who has been treating coronavirus patients during the campaign, would be the first Black doctor in Congress. Former president Barack Obama has endorsed him, and Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, appeared at a canvassing event with Webb in Charlottesville earlier this month.
Webb has been highlighting his past health-care-related work as a White House fellow in the Obama and Trump administrations and emphasizes the need to get the pandemic under control. He tells voters that he has personally seen the damage and grief up close. He also is married to a front-line health-care provider.
“I know what this virus is doing to individuals,” he said in an interview. “Making sure at the federal level we’re invested in getting our arms around this, that resonates with people — to have a plan for how we get through this.”
Good said recently, “I think on balance, the president has done a solid job on it. . . . We understand what the risks are, we now understand who’s at greater risk that we’ve got to safely reopen the economy, safely get folks back to work, safely get kids back in school.”
In Montana, a state Trump carried by 20 percentage points in 2016, Democrats are upbeat about Kathleen Williams, a former state legislator with bipartisan credentials who could be the Democrat to win the Big Sky State’s at-large district for the first time in more than 25 years.
The race is still pegged as “lean Republican” by most handicappers, and voters have only backed Democrats for the presidency twice since 1948. But Williams is outrunning Biden: An NBC poll this past week found Trump favored over Biden by eight percentage points while Williams and GOP candidate Matt Rosendale were tied at 46 percent, with about 8 percent undecided.
“If I didn’t think I could win this, that it would be competitive, I wouldn’t have gotten back in it,” Williams said bluntly in an interview, arguing that while Trump is ahead, Montanans are “proud of being ticket-splitters.”
Williams, who came within five percentage points of defeating Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte last cycle, has tried to capitalize on Montana’s fierce independent streak by casting herself as an atypical Democrat. In one of her first introductory ads, Williams is seen fly-fishing, shooting her gun and drinking beer while she talks about working with people “of all political stripes.”
“The Washington Playbook says I shouldn’t tell you I voted for [Ronald] Reagan when I’m running as a Democrat,” she said. “That I can’t be a proud gun owner and support background checks on gun sales. . . . Well, I don’t care what Washington thinks. In Montana, we do things our way.”
In looking to gain seats, Democrats also hope to capitalize on GOP mistakes. In Arizona’s 6th Congressional District, another district Trump carried by double digits, candidate Hiral Tipirneni has clearly benefited from Republican Rep. David Schweikert’s fall from grace.
Schweikert admitted in July to 11 ethics violations in relation to improper spending and financial rule-breaking, and he agreed to pay a $50,000 fine. His opponent has argued that he has “shown himself not to be worthy of the trust of the voters.”
In a rare rebuke, the House voted unanimously in July to reprimand Schweikert.
Meanwhile, Democrats are spending $4.5 million compared with the GOP’s $2 million to boost Tipirneni, a former emergency-room physician who is also running on her support for expanding health care, compared with “this guy” who is “chomping at the bit to repeal the ACA.” Tipirneni argues that “we need more physicians and scientists in office.”
“We have the momentum because people understand what the choices are: We’ve got somebody who has failed the families of the 6th District, who has no plan for getting us out of the current crisis,” she said. “I’m somebody who will follow the science, follow the data — not partisanship.”
She added: “If there’s ever been a moment we need more people who respect science, who follow the data, who implement an evidence-based approach to policy, it’s right now.”
In Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District — which borders South Dakota, includes a large rural population and went for Trump by 15 points in 2016 — Democrats are outspending GOP incumbent Jim Hagedorn, $2.7 million to $1.8 million. Candidate Dan Feehan, a former Army Ranger in Iraq and onetime public school teacher, almost defeated Hagedorn two years ago, coming up 1,300 votes short. Now he’s trying again.
The race is a microcosm of the presidential race. Feehan has focused on the deadly coronavirus and health care, while Hagedorn has argued that Democrats would do little to stop a liberal movement to defund police departments in the wake of the protests and riots over racial injustice. The district is just a couple of hours’ drive from Minneapolis, where George Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old Black man, died at the hands of police.
Democrats agree that their greatest stretch may be far-flung Alaska, where independent candidate Alyse Galvin is running against Rep. Don Young, who was elected nearly 50 years ago. Only once in the state’s 60-year-history have voters turned to a Democrat for the White House: Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
Yet House Democrats are so awash in cash that they have the resources to go on offense there. This week, the DCCC went up with its second TV ad, hitting Young for past ethics violations that led to him repaying more than $59,000 in campaign money he used for expenses on 15 hunting trips. And Democrats overall have spent $3 million on TV ads, compared with just over $800,000 spent for Young.
Democrats also are outspending Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), a fierce Trump ally whose race has been moved toward the Democrats and chemist Nancy Goroff, who has focused on the importance of science amid the pandemic. Trump carried the district by 12 points and a Democratic win is still a stretch.
“If you look back at the start of this campaign cycle, nobody thought that we were going to be playing in any of these districts,” Bustos said, calling it “pretty remarkable.”