In each of the last two elections Democrats have convinced themselves that they had a shot at recapturing the House of Representatives. Quite simply they didn’t. President Obama was too divisive, the economy was too sluggish, and Obamacare was too unpopular for voters to consider a GOP majority as anything but a necessary check on Democrats’ control of Washington.
But what now? President Obama is gone, taking with him a lot of the baggage that Democrats have been carrying with them over the last several Election Days. Unsurprisingly, Democrats are coalescing around the idea that they don’t just have a chance to win the majority, they’re the odds-on-favorite to win it.
“We have a unique opportunity to flip control of the House of Representatives in 2018,” Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who leads the DCCC, wrote in a June memo. “This is about much more than one race: The national environment, unprecedented grassroots energy and impressive Democratic candidates stepping up to run deep into the battlefield leave no doubt that Democrats can take back the House next fall.”
Rep. Luján is doing his best sell, but serious fundraising issues (the Democratic National Committee’s most recent monthly haul was the lowest its been in eight years) coupled with an internecine war between the Sanders and establishment wings of the party, leaves him with a nearly impossible task. But perhaps the biggest problem facing Democrats is structural: They’ve cloistered themselves in urban centers dotting the coasts, but have abandoned the suburbs and rural enclaves that make up the vast majority of the country.
“I’ve been banging a drum since the election that there’s no path back to a Democratic majority just through these sunbelt, suburban districts,” Ian Russell, a Michigan political operative who was a top official at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told NBC News. “This is an existential dilemma for party.”
Indeed, without some significant changes to their platform, Democrats chances for substantial gains, much less securing a House majority will be impossible. As the Washington Post’s James Hohmann found:
The opposition party needs to win 24 seats to take control of the House in 2018. Understandably, operatives and handicappers have focused on the 23 districts that Republicans hold, which voted for Hillary Clinton last year. But some of the incumbents are very popular, with brands that are distinct from Trump’s, and they are unlikely to lose no matter how bad the headwinds become.
In other words, it’s inconceivable that Democrats run the table in those 23 districts. Even if they did, they’d still be one short. And Democrats must defend 12 seats in districts that Trump carried in 2016.
More damning for Democrats, according to research conducted by Third Way, even if Democratic candidates successfully won over every single 2016 Clinton voter who backed a Republican House candidate, they still would not win the House. In other words, Democrats’ path to a House majority does not exist without winning over substantial number of voters who cast their vote for President Trump .
Even that is easier said than done. In many ways, Democrats’ confidence that 2018 will be a wave election works to their detriment. James Arkin writes for RealClearPolitics:
In more than a dozen of the House districts Democrats plan to target next year, candidates who lost in 2016 are again throwing their hats into the ring, hoping an energized base and favorable national mood will swing previously unreachable races in their favor.
Some of those candidates lost narrowly to Republican incumbents last year, including several in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, while others lost by wider margins in districts that appear more favorable this cycle.
But they aren’t the only ones who have noticed the potentially favorable midterm environment. In most cases, Democrats eyeing rematches will have to contend with crowded primaries with as many as half a dozen or more candidates hoping to unseat a GOP member.
This poses two problems. One, Democrats are stuck placing their bets on retread candidates who failed to inspire excitement in the past will have more success this year. And two, crowded primary fields will inevitably force candidates to adopt positions far to the left of what a competitive district could support. For a party that has to pitch a perfect game to even have a chance to win, problems like these may prove insurmountable.