History offers a troubling parallel that should give Democrats pause with less than 2 months until Election Day. In September 1996, control of the House of Representatives was in the Democratic Party’s grasp. A Pew Research poll accorded the Democrats an 8-point generic congressional ballot advantage; President Bill Clinton held an 18-point lead over Bob Dole and Ross Perot. It was never plausible that such a margin would hold, and Clinton ultimately finished 8 points ahead on Election Day. In the end, President Clinton won with just a plurality of the presidential vote (49.2%). Similarly, the Democratic advantage down the ballot disappeared by Election Day. The 8-point lead faded, and the two parties each won 48.2 percent of the popular vote. Instead of finishing with 218 seats and a majority, Democrats garnered only a nine seat gain—12 seats short of a House majority that seemed within the party’s grasp just six weeks before.
Perhaps most telling: Republicans scored a gain of six open Democratic seats—contests with no incumbent running and typically most sensitive to presidential coattails.
In 1996, a late-breaking campaign finance controversy diminished President Clinton’s support, and residually damaged Democratic prospects for a majority. Not until 2006, when the Iraq War dominated the political world, did an opportunity for a new House majority reappear. That year, under Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel’s leadership, the DCCC recruited strong candidates across the board and closed the fundraising gap. Coupled with Republicans’ own ethics scandals associated with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, these efforts led to the 30-seat pickup in the House, returning the chamber to Democratic control.
Today, as the polls tighten in this year’s election, there is a sense that an opportunity may be slipping away.
Donald Trump is the most unpopular presidential nominee in modern history—the most recent NBC News poll shows his favorability rating at an astonishing 38/60 percent favorable/unfavorable split. Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton receives almost identical ratings, scoring 39/59 percent, respectively. These numbers are extremely problematic, because without a significant assist from the top of the ticket, the Democrats can not retake the House.
Scores of suburban Republicans have abandoned Trump, repudiating their party’s standard bearer. A Democratic candidate less hindered by high unfavorables and persistent Republican allegations would likely have been ahead by a minimum of 9 points, and perhaps double digits. We can say this with confidence because Clinton led by as many points just a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, endless controversy surrounding her emails, the Clinton Foundation, and now the new brush concerning her health have taken a significant toll on her candidacy. Regardless of the validity of these attacks, should these problems persist, they could significantly impact Democratic House prospects.
It remains our belief that Hillary Clinton will win this election. However, the Clinton implosion in marginal, rural/small town congressional districts has diminished the prospects of a Democratic House majority.
The House leadership and the DCCC have recruited strong candidates in marginal rural/small town districts, which has salvaged pickup opportunities despite the aforementioned troubles at the top of the ticket. Here are the best prospects—all Republican open seats susceptible to the impact of presidential coattails:
|District (Open Seats)||Democratic Candidate||Republican Candidate|
|IN-09||Shelli Yoder||Trey Hollingsworth|
|MI-01||Lon Johnson||Jack Bergman|
|NY-19||Zephyr Teachout||John Faso|
|PA-16||Christine Hartman||Lloyd Smucker|
|VA-05||Jane Dittmar||Tom Garrett|
|WI-08||Tom Nelson||Mike Gallagher|
Each of these contests features a strong Democratic recruit who can win in November, but is less likely to do so if Hillary Clinton continues to struggle.
Moreover, Republicans won several districts in 2014 due to extremely low Democratic turnout. All of these results should be reversed in a presidential year. However, in rural and metropolitan fringe districts, the race is too close for comfort. While not geographically identical, all contain a significant share of low-income white voters, which is a difficult cohort for Hillary Clinton so far. Recent polling shows that these five districts have moved from probable Democratic pickups to toss-up contests.
|District||Democratic Challenger||Republican Incumbent|
|CO-03||Gail Schwartz||Rep. Scott Tipton|
|IA-01||Monica Vernon||Rep. Rod Blum|
|ME-02||Emily Cain||Rep. Bruce Poliquin|
|NV-04||Ruben Kihuen||Rep. Cresent Hardy|
|TX-23||Pete Gallego||Rep. Will Hurd|
Few Democratic seats are in jeopardy this year, but where some vulnerability exists, it emanates from the same demographic groups: suburban and rural/small town, and lower-income voters. These three Democratic seats meet these criteria, and holding them is absolutely critical.
|District||Democratic Candidate||Republican Candidate|
|AZ-01*||Tom O’Halleran||Paul Babeu|
|MN-08||Rep. Rick Nolan||Stewart Mills|
|NE-02||Rep. Brad Ashford||Don Bacon|
|* open seat|
Overall, we believe these 14 seats—nearly half of the 30 seats needed to win control of the House—could be directly impacted if things continue unchanged.
Democrats are still poised to gain House seats, perhaps a considerable number. But regardless of the validity of the attacks on Hillary Clinton, they have had a significant impact, evidenced by the polling in the individual races. Simply put, the road to 218 has become more challenging.