New York Times
By John Harwood
May 3, 2016
When the Republicans seized control of the House of Representatives in 2010, both parties agreed on this much: Democrats wouldn’t get it back anytime soon.
Now with 247 seats, Republicans hold their largest majority since the Great Depression, and because state legislatures draw district lines to benefit incumbents, fewer than 40 seats are now considered truly competitive.
But the political force that is Donald J. Trump has called that shared assumption into question. By alienating huge blocks of general election voters in his drive for the Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Trump has created the possibility of a Democratic breakthrough.
“What Trump has done is inject unpredictability into 2016 House races,” said David Wasserman, an expert on House races at the Cook Political Report newsletter.
The Republicans’ 54-to-46-seat majority in the Senate has always been in jeopardy. They hold 24 of 34 Senate seats on the ballot this fall, seven of them in states that President Obama carried twice.
But the House had been considered out of reach for Democrats. Mr. Wasserman began the election season projecting the loss of between five and 15 seats for the Republicans, which would still keep them in the majority.
In the wake of Mr. Trump’s rise, Mr. Wasserman has bumped up that forecast to between 10 and 20 seats. At the high end, that still falls below the 30-seat gain Democrats need to return the speaker’s gavel to Nancy Pelosi.
But Mr. Wasserman says the potential for Mr. Trump, if he ultimately secures the nomination, to lose in a landslide this fall means larger gains cannot be ruled out.
In the modern era of polarized, evenly matched parties, a popular-vote margin of 10 percentage points or more is rare in general elections for president. It hasn’t happened in more than three decades. But current polling suggests it’s not out of the question.
In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey last month, Hillary Clinton led Mr. Trump 50 percent to 39 percent in a prospective general election matchup. In the four previous presidential races, only once has an eventual nominee ever led another by a margin that large in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
Behind Mr. Trump’s deficit lie negative evaluations of him by a series of crucial target groups. They include millennial voters (80 percent unfavorable in Washington Post/ABC News polling this spring), white women (68 percent), Hispanics (85 percent) and white college graduates (74 percent).
Given current boundaries for House members’ districts, Mr. Wasserman has identified dozens of Republican-held districts with one or more of six “risk factors” that could give Democrats a chance if Mrs. Clinton routs Mr. Trump at the top of the ticket.
They include the 26 Republican-held districts that Mr. Obama carried in 2012, districts where Latinos and Asians make up at least 20 percent of the electorate and districts where at least 25 percent of adults hold a college degree.
Forty Republican incumbents have at least three of the six risk factors. Retirements by Republican incumbents have left Democrats in position to compete for an additional 10 seats this fall.
“There’s a danger for Republicans,” Mr. Wasserman said.
To capitalize, Democratic House candidates will attempt to tie Republican opponents to Mr. Trump as closely as possible.
Republican candidates in turn will have to choose between embracing their party’s nominee, in the hopes of galvanizing core constituencies, or joining the small number of House members explicitly refusing to endorse Mr. Trump.
Democratic unity, or the lack of it, will play a critical role if Hillary Clinton, as expected, overcomes a feisty challenge from Bernie Sanders.
To have a chance at recapturing the House, Mr. Wasserman said, “Democrats need Bernie to voice strong support for Clinton, and to campaign for her actively in the fall to drive out his voters.”
Even if he does, House Democrats face an uphill fight. Not since 1980, when Ronald Reagan walloped the Democratic incumbent, Jimmy Carter, has a party gained at least 30 House seats while winning a presidential election.
Mr. Reagan’s popular-vote margin that year: just under 10 percentage points.
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