Republicans are hoping to add to their success of 2020, and history indicates they will

(Lucy Naland/Washington Post illustration; Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post; iStock)

When House Democrats are asked how they feel about their chances to keep the majority, the answer often is a sigh or a groan.

As the party in the White House, the historical odds have not been in Democrats’ favor — and that was before President Biden’s approval ratings took a tumble, inflation permeated the economy and a war broke out in Ukraine.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, made a blunt assessment about the uphill battle the party has to combat the perceptions voters have of them.

“They think that we’re divisive and too focused on cultural issues. They think that we’re preachy. They think that we act like we know better than parents when it comes to their kids in schools,” Maloney said in an interview.

“The problem is not the voters,” he added. “The problem is us.”

Republicans need a net gain of just five seats to retake the House majority. The Cook Report with Amy Walter’s list of competitive races includes 26 Democratic-held seats as either toss-up races or favoring Republicans. House editor Dave Wasserman predicts that number will jump after New Hampshire and New York complete their redistricting processes. By contrast, only nine Republican-held seats are toss-ups or leaning to the Democrats.

Republicans have tried to learn the lessons of the 2018 midterms, when a Democratic “blue wave” of primarily first-time female candidates washed away their House majority thanks to high turnout by suburban women rebelling against President Donald Trump and his party’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In 2020, Republicans flipped 15 Democratic-held seats, including 11 with female candidates, by recruiting female candidates and by labeling their Democratic opponents as far-left “socialists” who wanted to “defund the police” and favored open borders.

Republicans hope to replicate that success this year by focusing on inflation and pointing to the rise in crime across the United States as evidence Democrats cannot handle law and order. House Republican leaders have tried to support candidates who better reflect the districts they seek to represent, like Hispanics in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley.

Vulnerable Democrats have also been instructed by party leaders to confront attacks like “socialism” and “defund the police” head on, even though doing so may alienate liberals.

Four Democrats elected in 2018 are likely facing rematches against the same Republican opponents, though in districts that were since redrawn to be slightly more competitive: Reps. Susan Wild (Pa.), Sharice Davids (Kan.), Angie Craig (Minn.) and Tom Malinowski (N.J.).

Asked about being labeled an extremist by Republicans, Wild said: “I think people identify me as Susan Wild, who is our representative who does this and that and the other. It’s going to be harder for the GOP to tag me as just being a Pelosi puppet or that she’s part of the Biden administration that’s screwing up everything.”

Knowing that they could lose the majority this year, Democrats spent the past year urgently trying to pass Biden’s agenda. While they were able to inject trillions into the economy to combat the pandemic and rebuild infrastructure, Democratic infighting came to define the failure of “Build Back Better” at a time when voters are sick of political toxicity.

Republicans are trying to frame Democrats as the party of fiscal irresponsibility, arguing that the coronavirus aid package was a source for inflation. Republicans also plan to hammer Democrats for stripping parents of their ability to decide when their children return to school and allowing criminals and drugs to seep across the border.

“The number one question every American is asking is can we afford it? Can we afford their policies where the gas prices rise, where home prices rise, where your rent rises?” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in debuting his party’s slogan. “The real answer is we cannot afford it.”

The National Republican Campaign Committee is bullish about flipping five Democratic-held seats: Reps. Tom O’Halleran (Ariz.), Jared Golden (Maine), Marcy Kaptur (Ohio), Cindy Axne (Iowa) and Malinowski.

In total, the NRCC is targeting about 70 Democratic seats, including 12 districts that Trump won in 2020, a number that could increase when all states complete redistricting. While 33 seats are in districts Biden carried by over 10 points, Republicans believe that they could win in those areas with high voter turnout. Independent analysts are skeptical.

Democrats hope to draw contrasts with Republicans, pointing to Biden’s campaign-trail catchphrase: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty; compare me to the alternative.” House Democrats are telling voters that they are trying to counter inflation by pushing for tax cuts, providing child-care options, lowering prescription drugs costs and fixing the supply chain.

“I’d rather get caught trying to help than sit there and just sort of lament the problem and not working on it,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who faces a tough reelection.

Democrats also hope to capitalize on differences between candidate personalities. Democratic incumbents believe that pro-Trump challengers in more moderate swing districts may turn off enough voters to secure reelection. A top DCCC official pointed to Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District as surprisingly competitive because the Republican candidate, Derrick Van Orden, marched to the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He has denied entering Capitol grounds and the building itself.

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About this story

Illustrations by Lucy Naland based on photos by Demetrius Freeman, Jabin Botsford, Nitashia Johnson and Craig Hudson, graphics by The Washington Post and additional imagery from iStock.

Story editing by Philip Rucker. Copy editing by Thomas Heleba. Project editing by Jay Wang. Design and development by Tyler Remmel and Jake Crump. Design editing by Madison Walls. Graphics by Chris Alcantara. Graphics editing by Kevin Uhrmacher. Photo editing by Thomas Simonetti. Additional editing by Rachel Van Dongen, Ashlyn Still and Jenna Johnson.