A large number of races could tilt either way on Election Day, especially in California, where Democrats are hoping to unseat Rep. Darrell Issa. | Getty
House Republicans and Democrats are both flying blind into the storm of Election Day after another tumultuous week in the presidential campaign.
Last week’s revelation that emails related to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server were back under FBI scrutiny was the latest in a string of unwelcome October surprises for both parties, coming just as most House campaigns were wrapping up their private pre-election polling. It followed weeks of panic among Republicans that Donald Trump’s vulgar “Access Hollywood” tape would tank the GOP up and down the ballot.
Now, with millions of early votes already cast and Election Day looming on the horizon, operatives in both parties say there’s little evidence that those surprises have had a meaningful impact on the struggle for control of the House. But both sides remain nervous about how those episodes could affect turnout in the battleground districts, though the tightening presidential race has given Republicans hope that their worst-case scenario — a late Trump collapse that caused the bottom to follow out for candidates across the country — won’t come to pass.
“I think we’re in a much better place now than we were a couple of weeks ago,” said Gene Ulm, a leading GOP pollster working on House races.
Republicans are still looking at steeper losses than many in the party were predicting a couple of months ago, when they still hoped to hold Democrats to fewer than 10 pickups. (The House GOP currently has a 30-seat majority). An unusually large number of races in the wide-open battlefield could tilt either way on Election Day. That may be especially true in California, where Democrats — who already dominate the state delegation — are bullish about their chances of unseating Jeff Denham, Darrell Issa and Steve Knight.
“The floor fell out because of Trump a week ago, maybe 10 days ago, in California,” said Jason Roe, a GOP consultant in the state. But Republicans’ chances have since rebounded a little. “I think that has been accelerated by the Comey letter,” he continued.
But pollsters don’t see Comey’s letter or the other October surprises — from the “Access Hollywood” bombshell to new WikiLeaks revelations — as game changers.
“There’s been a temptation among many to overstate the impact” the Trump tape and other surprises have had on the race, said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster working on House races.
“I think a lot of it is just the natural ebb and flow of the cycle,” McCrary added.
Even House Republicans have been hesitant to seize on the Comey revelations as evidence their race has shifted dramatically.
“I have to imagine it would discourage some Democrats, especially those who were [Bernie] Sanders people who were not really enthusiastic about Mrs. Clinton to begin with,” Republican John Faso, who’s running for an open swing seat in New York’s Hudson Valley, told a radio host on Monday. “How much this filters into a congressional race, in the 19th District — I mean I’m cautious about it.”
But Republicans are hoping that a fresh round of headlines reminding voters of Clinton’s private email server will help drive home the “check-and balance” ads the NRCC and Congressional Leadership Fund have been running in certain districts. The ads, designed to appeal to potential ticket-splitters, portray the Democratic candidate as “rubber stamp” for Clinton and the Republican as counterweight to a potential President Clinton.
“Those [check-and-balance] numbers were already strong,” said Brian Walsh, a GOP operative working on multiple House races. “I can only imagine how much they’re improving that performance.”
The big question now for both parties is turnout. Democrats are hoping that Republicans who can’t bring themselves to vote for Trump will stay home altogether — and that enough ardent Trump supporters will refuse to vote for House Republicans who have abandoned Trump to tip those races. Republicans have been encouraged by some early voting results that have shown lower turnout among African-Americans and young voters, who tend to vote Democratic.
What’s clear is that Comey’s letter and the Democratic backlash against it don’t seem to have shifted the dynamics in early voting.
“The patterns look very similar now as they did before the news broke in terms of the distribution of the people who are voting and [their] party registration,” said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida whose United States Elections Project tracks early and absentee voting. “And we’re seeing the levels of early voting the same as well.”
Some Democrats argue that it’s House Republicans’ reaction to the biggest October surprise, the “Access Hollywood” tape, that could cost them.
More than a dozen House Republicans ditched Trump shortly after the tape of him bragging about sexually assaulting women came out. Internal polling conducted in several GOP-held districts where incumbents broke with Trump shows the Democratic “challenger has tied up the race for the first time all cycle,” said Meredith Kelly, a DCCC spokeswoman.
Rachael Bade contributed to this report.