In the wake of the GOP’s House special-election loss in Pennsylvania and amid President Trump’s increasingly erratic behavior, it’s really hard to come up with good news for Republicans. In my meetings with GOP strategists, there is a sense of doom and resignation.
On and off the Hill, Republicans are now settling into the new normal of their 2018 midterm-election plight. Unemployment and inflation are both low, consumer confidence is high, and GDP growth for this quarter is expected to come in around 2.5 percent—although it should be noted that the U.S. economy is growing pretty much at the same pace as the rest of the world in what economists call synchronized global growth. Despite those favorable indicators, Trump’s approval ratings remain at historically and toxically low numbers and his party is heading into a very challenging midterm-election campaign. At least today, it looks fairly likely Republicans will lose their House majority, while there is enormous uncertainty about how their 51-49 Senate majority will fare.
With 10 Democratic Senate seats up in states carried by Trump in 2016 and just a single GOP seat (that of Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada) up in a Hillary Clinton state, Republicans should be looking at the prospect of historic Senate gains. Instead they are forced to worry about their prospects in open seats in Arizona and Tennessee, and real questions about whether they can capture even a Democratic seat or two.
The new NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll released Sunday and Monday shows that while Trump’s overall approval rating ticked up from 39 percent in January to 43 percent in the March 10-14 sampling, that’s still by far the lowest of any elected president at this stage of his term. Republicans dropped from 6 points behind (43 to 49 percent) in the generic congressional ballot test to 10 points back (40 to 50 percent).
With those numbers, if the election were held today Republicans would surely lose the House, where their majority is just 24 seats. The Cook Political Report now rates seven Republican-held open seats as either Leaning or Likely Democratic, while 22 additional GOP seats are rated as Toss Ups—three open seats, and 19 held by incumbents. Then there are 19 more GOP seats in the Lean Republican column—two open, one vacant, and 16 occupied by incumbents—and yet another 25 Republican seats that are seen as Likely Republican, not yet competitive but where there is reason to keep an eye on them (one is an open seat, and two dozen are held by incumbents). That’s a grand total of 73 GOP-held seats that today are in play or potentially in play.
In comparison, there is just one district that is now held by a Democrat that is Leaning or Likely Republican, that of Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania’s 18th District (he will instead be running in the 17th District). There are three Democratic open seats rated as Toss Ups, two more open seats and two incumbent Democrats are Lean Democratic, and nine more Democratic-held districts are in the Likely Democratic category (one open, eight with incumbents). Totaling it all up, Democrats have 178 districts that today appear locked up, Republicans just 167.
What’s interesting about the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted by Republican pollster Bill McInturff and Democrat Fred Yang, is that Trump’s approval ticked up, the intensity of animosity dropped a tiny bit, and the Republican Party’s negatives dropped a bit, and yet the GOP fell further behind on the generic. In January, 26 percent strongly approved of Trump’s performance, while 51 percent strongly disapproved. In March, the strong approve was 25 percent and the strong disapprove was 43 percent. In January, 49 percent viewed the Republican Party negatively, 27 percent positively, while this month it was 45 percent negative to 30 percent. Negatives for the Democratic Party went from 39 to 40 percent while positives dropped by a point from 33 to 32 percent. So this month, the GOP was at minus-15 points, Democrats minus-8 points.
Another interesting thing is that while GOP candidates are attacking House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has a rating of 21 percent positive to 43 percent negative, Speaker Paul Ryan’s numbers of 24 percent positive, 37 percent negative are not that much better. Finally, while Democrats are running 24 points ahead of Republicans on the generic ballot test in Democratic-held districts, the generic is tied in Republican-held districts—and that includes interviews in the strongest of GOP districts as well as the vulnerable ones.
While things certainly could change between now and Nov. 6, they would have to change quite a bit for Republicans to salvage their House majority and take advantage of what should be a great opportunity to gain Senate seats.