Oped: Dems gaining ground in House midterms

Jonathan Bernstein
Tribune News Service

It's becoming more likely that this fall's elections will go very well for the Democrats. I haven't looked for a while at how the House is shaping up, so here's what we know now: The margin of error in any prediction about the House is large, and it's certainly very possible that Republicans will retain a small majority there, but Democrats should be clearly favored to reach the 218 seats needed.

The indicators have looked good for them all year, from good results in special elections to their polling lead in generic ballot questions to seat-by-seat analyses. Looking at the Cook Political Report's ratings, Democrats are now favored in 201 districts. If they can win all of those plus the two Democratic-held toss-up seats, they'll only need to win 15 of the 22 Republican-held toss-ups to get to 218. And that's ignoring another 26 "lean Republican" and 29 "likely Republican" districts.

A huge factor here has been the Democratic Party's intensity. It's produced a deep field of candidates, which means Democrats are well positioned to take advantage of either a late overall shift their way or Republican stumbles. Granted, Democratic recruiting isn't perfect; for example, they may well lose in Pennsylvania's 1st District because a weak candidate won the primary there. No doubt others who looked strong in the spring will turn out to be busts in the fall. But overall, Democrats have exploited enthusiasm to field a strong group of candidates.

And those candidates will have resources. Second-quarter fundraising totals are still being reported, but so far Democrats have an astonishing 13 challengers and open-seat candidates who each raised $1 million in that quarter. That simply hasn't happened in previous cycles. Again: Some of these, such as Andrew Janz running against Devin Nunes in California's 22nd District, don't appear to have very good chances of winning. Democrats are going to burn a lot of money in some of those districts. But they're going to have what they need in competitive races, and it's always possible a few well-funded candidates will surprise in what currently look to be safe or nearly safe Republican seats.

House elections depend on two factors. One set is locked in by the end of the primary elections; those factors are almost done, and they overwhelmingly favor Democrats. The other set has to do with how voters actually feel about the parties (and the president) in the final weeks of a campaign. The numbers now say that Democrats will be helped there, too, although not by as much — but there's still plenty of time for President Donald Trump to become more or less popular and raise or lower Republican candidates with him.

To put it another way: Of the elected presidents during the polling era, Trump at this point is slightly more popular than Jimmy Carter and slightly less popular than Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — and in all four of those cases, the president's party had a terrible midterm election. Trump can take comfort in knowing that three of those four were re-elected. But for Republicans running in 2018, the only real question is how bad it's going to be.

— Jonathan Bernstein wrote this for Bloomberg News.