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Is Retaking the House a Democratic Pipe Dream?

If Trump drags down the GOP candidates, there's a chance. But there are also a lot of obstacles—of the Democrats' own making.

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Partisan Democrats get incredibly excited when Republicans pick lousy candidates who enable them to stumble to victory. Names like Christine O’Donnell, Todd Akin, Sharron Angle, and Richard Mourdock are etched in recent political history as extremist conservatives who handed Democrats seats they were fated to lose. You’ll be hearing references to those names a lot, because liberals are now back at it, giddy that a Donald Trump presidential nomination—or a Ted Cruz nomination, for that matter—could put the 30-seat Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives into play. 

Some prominent political analysts have begun to agree with them. David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report recently altered ten House ratings to favor Democrats, commenting, “It’s impossible to know just how bad it could get for Republicans sharing a ballot with Trump or Cruz.”

True enough. But before liberals get too excited, a reality check may be in order: To take advantage of the Republicans’ terrible choice at the top of the ticket, Democrats would have to actually run candidates for the House who can win. A lot of them. And after two historic wipeouts in recent midterms, combined with a thin bench of state legislators who can move up and a learned helplessness about redistricting that assumes many seats off the table before elections even begin, Democrats may not be well-positioned for sudden viability in a sufficient number of House races. 

Even experts who give Democrats a chance to flip the House recognize that everything would have to go perfectly. Wasserman notes in his report that, despite the recent alterations, he rates only 31 Republican seats at risk of a loss. (Daily Kos Elections puts it a bit higher, with 36 Republican seats potentially threatened.) This means Democrats would have to win virtually every seat in play, and lose none of their own, just to regain a bare majority.

But it takes years to recruit and train candidates who can raise enough money to win a congressional election; you can’t throw it together in a few months. You can see how unprepared Democrats are for this scenario by looking at how many districts won’t have a Democratic candidate at all. Nineteen states have already closed their filing process for House elections, representing 163 Congressional districts. And as Stephen Wolf points out, in 27 of those 163 seats—about one in six—no Democrat will appear on the ballot.

Most of those seats are hopelessly Republican, but not all of them. Six of the districts have a Cook Partisan Voting Index score (a measure of how much more partisan a district is than the median) of “Republican+10” or less. Democrats held two of them, the 3rd and 10th districts in Pennsylvania, as recently as 2010. Illinois’s 16th district, held by Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger, is only R+4, but no Democrat emerged to challenge him. Given their thin margin for error, Democrats need surprises in seats like Kinzinger’s to win the majority. But they cannot get his.

If this pattern continues, dozens more Republicans (in the states where candidates can still file) will see no general-election opposition from Democrats. To give one glaring example, Virginia’s 2nd district, which Mitt Romney won only narrowly in 2012, has an open seat; incumbent Scott Rigell is retiring. But while two Republicans have announced they’re running, no Democrat has declared yet, and filing closes March 31. There’s also no Democrat currently running in Colorado’s 3rd district, an R+5 seat where incumbent Scott Tipton only won 53 percent of the vote in 2012. 

Even if most of the Democrat-free districts are deep red, the lack of candidates on the ballot robs the party of capitalizing on a backlash against Trump, or a scandal involving a GOP incumbent. The lack of competition also allows the Republicans to focus more heavily on seats where they’re strongly challenged, preventing the party from being stretched thin financially.

Even in districts where they’ve managed to find a candidate, Democrats aren’t always primed to win. Daily Kos Elections’ David Nir looked at two winnable Republican seats in southern New Jersey, where antipathy to Trump could produce unexpected results. In the 2nd district (D+1), Representative Frank LoBiondo will likely face a Democratic challenger who raised only $55,000 when he was on the ballot in 2014, losing his primary by 64 points. In the 3rd district (R+1), freshman Representative Tom McArthur will compete against one of two Democrats: perennial losing candidate Frederick LaVergne, or Jim Keady, who got pummeled in a state legislative race last year. 

Other races have similarly weak candidates. The Democrat in Florida’s toss-up 7th district (R+2), Bill Phillips, has less than $20,000 in his campaign account, nowhere near enough to mount a serious race. In two California races, the 21st (D+2) and 25th (R+3) districts, locally supported candidates Daniel Parra and Lou Vince have raised so few funds that national Democrats sent “carpetbaggers” from outside the district into the primaries, leading to anger from local activists. 

In California, opportunities to pick up House seats like those mentioned above may be frustrated by the unique primary system. Because California’s June primary will be key for Republicans—with Trump needing a good showing to reach the 1,237 delegate threshold for the nomination—his presence could drive high turnout, as it has elsewhere. California’s primary ballots for non-presidential races allow voters to choose any candidate; the top two advance to the general election, even if they are from the same party. The possible upshot: In some districts juiced by Trump (or anti-Trump) turnout, you could see two Republicans in the general election, keeping Democrats off the November ballot.

But let’s say everything breaks right for Democrats, and they earn the House majority—narrowly. That may not translate to a bumper crop of progressive legislation, because in districts where Democrats are facing off in primaries, the winning candidates won’t necessarily be liberally inclined. For example, in Iowa’s toss-up 1st district (D+5), either former House Speaker Pat Murphy or Cedar Rapids city councilor Monica Vernon will face Republican incumbent Rob Blum. But while Murphy was endorsed by most progressive organizations when he lost narrowly to Blum in 2014, Vernon was a Republican until 2009. That hasn’t stopped the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from endorsing Vernon.

In Pennsylvania’s suburban 6th district (R+2), Democrat Mike Parrish—an oil-services executive and a Republican until 2013 who donated to John McCain and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns—has picked up several local party endorsements, and one from former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell. A second candidate, Lindy Li, could win the primary, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee left this winnable race off their target lists, signaling they have no faith in either Democrat. Nevada’s 4th district (D+4), with Bernie Sanders supporter Lucy Flores facing more establishment contenders, represents another ideological fulcrum point.

Even in safe Democratic seats, primaries could tip the balance of power in the House, ideologically speaking. Maryland’s 8th district, where Representative Chris Van Hollen is giving up his seat to run for U.S. Senate, could go to state Senator Jamie Raskin, seen as a progressive stalwart—or to rich wine retailer David Trone, or to Kathleen Matthews (wife of Hardball host Chris Matthews), a Marriott Hotels executive with significant financial support from the corporate wing of the party. Without progressive victories at the primary level, a Democratic House majority won’t be inclined to rack up the kind of meaningful accomplishments that are the purpose of elections in the first place.

The Democrats’ lack of preparation for a path to a House majority is somewhat understandable: Plenty of people, after all, have been blindsided by Trump’s rise. But the situation only reinforces why it’s an inexcusable mistake to not have viable candidates available to run everywhere. National parties need to plan for unforeseen events. And so should those on the left, fighting for the ideological soul of the Democratic Party.