The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats focus on cutting off path to victory for Trump if presidency is thrown to House to decide

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has pleaded with her caucus and her donors to open their checkbooks to help flip states’ congressional delegations to majority Democrat, on the remote chance the presidency is decided by the House. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Some House seats might count a lot more than others in this chaotic campaign season.

Take Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, where Joe Biden is expected to visit Friday. Though Biden’s trip to Grand Rapids will boost his bid to claim a state President Trump narrowly won four years ago, Hillary Scholten hopes the former vice president can help her win a Western Michigan district that Democrats have not held in 28 years.

And, if successful in elevating Scholten, Biden’s trip could serve as a backstop for his own presidential bid.

A Scholten victory would likely give Democrats eight of Michigan’s 14 seats in the House, helping House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s newly stated goal of blocking Trump from a last-gasp effort to remain in the White House if he does not win the November election.

It’s all very complicated, but there is a remote chance that neither Trump nor Biden will be a clear winner in the electoral college.

In such a scenario, deciding the presidency falls to the House of Representatives, but in a rare twist mandated by the 12th Amendment after the contested 1800 election, each state’s delegation counts as one vote. So Montana and Alaska, with just one at-large representative, count the same as California with its 53 members and Texas with 36 members.

The victor must receive at least 26 votes, a clear majority. Trump, in recent days, has proclaimed he is ready to fight in courts if he should lose the race, and that he is ready to force the matter all the way to the House.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Trump argued against each other in a tense debate on Sept. 29. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I don’t want to go back to Congress, even though we have an advantage if we go back to Congress,” Trump told supporters at a rally Saturday in central Pennsylvania. “Does everyone understand that? I think it’s 26 to 22 or something.”

That is true — for now. Republicans have the delegation majority in 26 states, Democrats have 22 states, while Pennsylvania and Michigan are essentially tied. But, as Pelosi (D-Calif.) noted in a memo to her caucus Sunday, the new Congress sworn in the first week of January would cast those votes early next year ahead of the scheduled Jan. 20 inauguration.

With an already huge cash advantage over House Republicans, Pelosi has pleaded with her caucus and her donors to open their checkbooks to help flip those majorities to Democrats and cut off Trump’s path to a second term.

“What we hope to accomplish is to send a very clear message on Election Day to the president: There ain’t no light at [the end of] the tunnel for you in the House of Representatives,” Pelosi said Thursday at her weekly news conference. “That isn’t going to work. So don’t cause chaos because you think it will lead to a light at the end of the tunnel, because that light at the end of the tunnel in the House is going to be a train coming right at your plans.”

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That message has landed in a select group of about 15 districts across six states, where already competitive races for the House now carry an even greater weight.

“The future of the presidency hangs in your race? No pressure there,” Scholten joked Thursday in a Zoom call with other Democratic candidates. “Right? We are certainly aware of the discussions around this.”

Michigan landed at an even seven-seven split after Democratic gains in the 2018 midterm elections. Then, Rep. Justin Amash (L-Mich.) left the GOP in protest of Trump and announced he would retire at the end of this year. Scholten has emerged as a strong candidate in a district that has seen shifts toward Democrats in recent years.

Democrats are also hoping to, finally, oust Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in the 6th Congressional District after decades of coming up short against one of the leading GOP moderates. Privately they concede their better opportunity comes with Scholten, 38, a public interest lawyer, against Peter Meijer, 32, an Army veteran whose family created one of the state’s largest supermarket chains.

Republicans privately acknowledge they have little chance of winning a Democratic-held seat there, so a Scholten victory would all but guarantee Pelosi, and Biden, could count Michigan in their column.

And Scholten is not hiding from that national impact.

“I am more than happy to talk about just how much more crucially important the issue of health care [is], and fighting for everyone to have access to affordable health care, and rebuilding our economy in the way that works for everyone,” Scholten said Thursday.

If Pelosi claims Michigan in her column, she then needs three more to ensure that Biden could win a majority of state delegations in a potential House vote — assuming that every lawmaker votes according to their party membership.

Democrats need just a single pick up in Pennsylvania and Florida, where Republicans hold a 14-to-13 margin in its House delegation, to claim those majorities.

Republicans recognize that Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), whose district Trump visited Saturday, is a bit more conservative than voters in this suburban district anchored in Harrisburg, but they believe he has a small and steady lead.

Democrats view Eugene DePasquale, who won this district in his 2016 statewide victory to become auditor general, as the perfect candidate for what independent handicappers rate as a pure toss-up race.

Republicans are eyeing the seat of Rep. Conor Lamb (D) outside Pittsburgh, while Democrats are trying, again, to oust Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R) in the Philadelphia suburbs, but both incumbents remain favorites.

In Florida, after the GOP incumbent, Rep. Ross Spano, lost his primary, Democrats have poured in resources into a district that runs along the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando, a battleground race that may depend on coattails from Biden or Trump. In South Florida, first-term Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D) is facing a stronger than expected challenge, which, if the GOP won, might lock the state into Trump’s column should the House have to decide the presidential race.

With just one at-large seat in both Alaska and Montana, Democrats have mounted their best effort in years to flip those two House seats which Republicans have held for 48 and 24 years, respectively.

If Scholten and DePasquale were to win, and Democrats held the rest of their seats in Michigan and Pennsylvania, Pelosi would need to pick up the majority in Florida and win either the Montana or Alaska seat to hold a 26-state majority in the House.

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But all that could be upended if Democrats lose one of their three House seats from Iowa, each of which is competitive, particularly an open seat in the rural southeast corner of the state.

Each of these scenarios has prompted Pelosi to make new pleas to her biggest donors, most of whom are now focused on giving to Biden and Senate Democratic campaigns. While she believes her majority is safe, she’s asking contributors to flood these dozen or so key House races to help protect Biden’s presidential race.

“The resources will not be squandered. They’re being put to good use,” Pelosi said Wednesday on MSNBC.

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