"They're about to detonate a nuclear bomb on themselves," said one savvy House Democratic strategist following Tuesday's primaries. "If Ted Cruz is your back up plan, you're screwed," the strategist gleefully added. Maybe that's true, and maybe it's not. But now that it's extremely likely that the Republican Party will nominate Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, congressional Republicans are entering uncharted and potentially dangerous territory.
So many assumptions have been wrong this cycle that it's difficult to be definitive about another: that the House majority won't be in play in 2016.
Republicans are sitting on their largest majority since 1928 - 247 seats to 188 - meaning Democrats would need to pick up 30 seats, a daunting challenge given the GOP's immense redistricting advantage and the vaporization of swing districts. But all cycle, Democrats have daydreamed about Republicans nominating an extremely polarizing presidential candidate, and suddenly it's almost certain they will get their wish.
A Trump or Cruz nomination wouldn't guarantee a down-ballot disaster for the GOP, but operatives on both sides admit it would inject much more uncertainty into races - especially if it were Trump. For one, given Hillary Clinton's high unfavorable ratings and Trump's willingness to adapt his message to fit changing political conditions, anything from an extremely close race to a total Clinton blowout seems possible in November.
Second, if November does turn into a Democratic rout, it's impossible to know just how bad it could get for Republicans sharing a ballot with Trump or Cruz. On one hand, past presidential blowouts in years like 1964, 1972 and 1984 haven't led to dramatic sea changes in House seats. On the other, there hasn't been a true presidential blowout in 20 years. Today, rates of split-ticket voting are at all-time lows and House candidates are defined by their party and the top of the ticket more than ever.
So, what are House Republicans doing to batten down the hatches?
What's more surprising than Trump's rise has been congressional Republicans' passivity and acquiescence at the prospect of nominating a candidate whose offensive statements about Muslims, Mexicans and others threaten to push the party's brand further to the fringe. Aside from Speaker Paul Ryan's condemnations, Trump's behavior and statements have been met with deafening and puzzling silence from many House Republicans, including many in swing districts.
This week, GOP Rep. Tom Reed became the first House Republican from a swing seat to endorse Trump, noting "As the people vote, it has become clear more Republicans favor Donald Trump than any other candidate" and urging his supporters to unite behind the front-runner. It's true that Trump will probably sweep the economically distressed Southern Tier district in the April primary, but it's far from clear whether Trump can carry it in November and Democrats have a credible nominee in Naval Reserve Officer John Plumb.
A few Republicans from Democratic-leaning seats, including Reps. Carlos Curbelo (FL-26) and Bob Dold (IL-10), have drawn a line in the sand, saying they would never support Trump. It's likely at least a dozen more will have to adopt that stance if they want to win reelection. But for the most part, Republicans haven't taken a side.
"We can only control what we can control," said one high-ranking House Republican, whose first pick clearly isn't Trump but who believes that speaking out against Trump would only fuel voter backlash. Other House Republicans from northeastern states rationalize that whereas Cruz would be a rigid ideologue, Trump is a negotiator they could work with. As Cook Report National Editor Amy Walter has written, resignation and rationalization have been among Trump's biggest enablers, and that's certainly been true among House Republicans.
But it's also true that Republicans' prevailing indifference has both conferred legitimacy on Trump and made them more vulnerable to Democratic attacks. Right now, we rate only 31 Republican seats as at risk, meaning Democrats would need to win an impossibly high 97 percent of them - and hold all their own seats - to take back control. But filing deadlines still haven't passed in a majority of districts, and it's worth watching how many more Democratic recruits Trump and Cruz will entice in the coming months.
Among the types of seats Democratic strategists believe Trump or Cruz could put into play are: 1) high-Hispanic districts, 2) high-education districts and 3) high-income districts. There's no doubt Trump or Cruz could cause Republicans huge problems in heavily Latino districts, including CA-10, CA-21, CA-25, CO-06, FL-26, NV-03, NV-04 and TX-23. And the heavier the drag from the top of the ticket, the more expensive these types of seats will be to defend.
Of the ten seats where our ratings are changing this week, three have high Latino shares and three are full of high-income moderates. Here are our latest House ratings.
|CA-16 Costa||Likely D to Solid D|
|CA-31 Aguilar||Likely D to Solid D|
|CA-36 Ruiz||Likely D to Solid D|
|CT-05 Esty||Likely D to Solid D|
|IA-03 Young||Lean R to Toss Up|
|MN-03 Paulsen||Solid R to Likely R|
|NY-23 Reed||Likely R to Lean R|
|NY-24 Katko||Lean R to Toss Up|
|NE-02 Ashford||Toss Up to Lean D|
|VA-10 Comstock||Likely R to Lean R|
Updated Bottom LinesCA-16: Rep. Jim Costa (D) - Central Valley: Fresno, Merced
Solid Democratic. There were rumors Costa would get an intra-party challenge from an up-and-coming Fresno Democrat, but none filed. Instead, Costa will face off in November against either rancher Johnny Tacherra, whom he narrowly beat in 2014, or Madera County Supervisor David Rogers. This is a 59 percent Latino district, and as long as Trump or Cruz is topping the GOP ticket, it's simply not in play.
CA-31: Rep. Pete Aguilar (D) - Inland Empire: San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga
Solid Democratic. Aguilar beat anti-drug activist Paul Chabot by just 52 percent to 48 percent in 2014, but the closeness of the race had more to do with extremely low Latino turnout in San Bernardino. Chabot is running again, but economist Sean Flynn is preferred by some DC Republicans and former Democratic Rep. Joe Baca filed here as a Republican at the last minute. As long as Trump or Cruz is the GOP nominee, this 52 percent Latino district is not going to be voting for a Republican.
CA-36: Rep. Raul Ruiz (D) - Eastern Riverside County: Palm Springs
Solid Democratic. Ruiz won an impressive 54 percent in 2014 by playing up his background as an emergency room physician rather than a politician. This year, his likely opponent is pharmacist and GOP state Sen. Jeff Stone, who has been in politics much longer. He is the former mayor of Temecula, which isn't in the district and is much more Republican than the liberal-trending Palm Springs area. The bigger problem is that either Trump or Cruz is likely to top the ballot in this 46 percent Latino district. Safe for Ruiz.
CT-05: Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D) - Northwest: Danbury, Waterbury, New Britain
Solid Democratic. Esty has drawn an interesting opponent in GOP Sherman Selectman Clay Cope, a home fashion marketing executive who is openly gay. But Esty won by a healthy seven points in the down Democratic year of 2014, and this highly educated, high-income suburban district isn't likely to be a bastion of Trump or Cruz votes. Esty is well-positioned for reelection in November.
IA-03: Rep. David Young (R) - Southwest: Des Moines, Council Bluffs
Toss Up. Now that former Democratic Gov. Chet Culver has removed himself from consideration, the June Democratic primary is likely to come down to Iraq veteran and former IA-04 nominee Jim Mowrer and investment businessman Michael Sherzan, who launched his campaign with a $200,000 loan. Young, a freshman, remains somewhat undefined and is exactly the type of Republican could get dragged down by a Trump or Cruz loss. This Des Moines district voted for President Obama narrowly in both 2008 and 2012.
MN-03: Rep. Erik Paulsen (R) - Twin Cities west suburbs: Bloomington, Plymouth
Likely Republican. Paulsen is a neighborly moderate who took 62 percent of the vote in 2014 in a district that voted for President Obama narrowly in both 2008 and 2012. But Trump or Cruz would be a tough sell in this highly educated suburban district, and Paulsen, who endorsed Rubio, has been mum on whether he will support the nominee. Democrat Jon Tollefsen, a former foreign service officer and lobbyist for a state nurses' association, has announced he will run, but there could be others interested too. The filing deadline is May 31.
NY-23: Rep. Tom Reed (R) - Southern Tier: Jamestown, Elmira, Ithaca
Lean Republican. Democrats have failed to defeat Reed twice by nominating candidates who could be easily caricatured as Ithaca liberals. Now, they're much more upbeat about Navy Submarine officer and former Defense Department official John Plumb, who hails from blue-collar Jamestown, plays up his love for country music and his dog Gunner, and has raised $376,000. More importantly, Reed just became the first swing-district Republican to endorse Trump, which has the potential to make the incumbent a more polarizing figure.
NY-24: Rep. John Katko (R) - West central: Syracuse, Oswego
Toss Up.The fact that President Obama carried this Syracuse seat with 57 percent in 2012 made Katko's 59 percent win all the more shocking in 2014. But Democratic turnout cratered in 2014, and a Trump nomination could send it soaring. Katko's reputation as a tough-on-gangs prosecutor is an advantage, but after a slow recruiting start, Democrats now have two formidable candidates: former Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand aide Colleen Deacon and attorney Steve Williams. Expect a highly competitive race in November.
NE-02: Rep. Brad Ashford (D) - East: Omaha and suburbs
Lean Democratic. In 2014, Ashford became the first Democrat to represent Nebraska in the House since 1994 because of the GOP incumbent's unpopularity. According to Omaha observers, Ashford's staff has worked the district hard in his first term and he may luck out with a weak opponent once again. The filing deadline passed, and the only two GOP candidates are Tea Party former state Sen. Chip Maxwell and retired Air Force Brigadier General Don Bacon, who seems allergic to fundraising. A Trump or Cruz nomination would only help Ashford more.
VA-10: Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) - DC exurbs: McLean, Manassas, Winchester
Lean Republican. Comstock's 56 percent win in 2014 belies this high-income Northern Virginia seat's competitiveness. Mitt Romney won this seat 50 percent to 49 percent in 2012, and this seat's Latino and Asian shares grow every year. Democrats have coalesced around real estate executive LuAnn Bennett, who is former 8th CD Rep. Jim Moran's ex-wife. Republicans are already aggressively casting Bennett as a DC insider, but Comstock must be wary of Trump at the top of the ticket given Beltway types' strong aversion to him.