Political leaders generally try to project a mind-set of unshakeable confidence, even if they are a quivering mass of tapioca inside. So it’s not surprising that Speaker Paul Ryan described talk of a House Democratic “wave” in 2018 as “blah, blah, blah, blah,” in an interview with Hugh Hewitt.
He did restrain himself from babbling about giant GOP gains in 2018, but did not object to Hewitt’s description of the “wave” talk as just “mainstream media out there blocking and tackling … for Pelosi,” as though there are not decades of evidence that the president’s party usually loses House votes in midterms.
In any event, Ryan’s equanimity about 2018 coincides with some hard adverse data.
If you take a look at the trend lines for pollsters who regularly test the generic congressional ballot asking which party voters want to control the House, they’re pretty emphatic of late. Politico/Morning Consult has gone from showing a four-point Republican margin a month ago to showing a seven-point margin for Democrats last week. YouGov/Economist had Democrats with a three-point margin in mid-April; it’s up to a seven-point margin now. PPP showed the Democratic margin increasing from 6 points in April to 11 points in May. If you buy Nate Silver’s rough estimate that Democrats might need an eight-point win in the national popular vote to take back the House in 2018, it seems the donkey party is drifting into that territory already.
If there is something of a “wave,” then the Cook Political Report’s impeccably empirical David Wasserman has more bad news for Ryan: It might hit pretty close to the Speakers’s own property, in the form of veteran House Republicans who are increasingly at risk.
[T]he list of 40 Republicans who sit in districts where President Trump won less than 50 percent includes some pretty notable names: Foreign Affairs Chair Rep. Ed Royce (CA-39), 30-year Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (CA-48), former Oversight Chair Rep. Darrell Issa (CA-49), former Chief Deputy Whip Rep. Peter Roskam (IL-06), Appropriations Chair Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (NJ-11), and former NRCC Chair Rep. Pete Sessions (TX-32).
All in all, 14 of these 40 will have served at least a decade by 2018. What do they have in common? With the exception of Issa, who won by 0.6 percent last year, none of them have faced credible, well-funded challenges in the last decade. And ironically, this could make them more vulnerable in a wave scenario than less senior but more recently battle-tested GOP colleagues who know how to run races in the smartphone era.
Some of these warhorses, moreover, are, as Wasserman puts it, “showing their rust.” Frelinghuysen recently drew an official ethics complaint. Rohrabacher is in danger thanks to his pre-Trump record of noisy affection for Vladimir Putin, which has come to light again this week with the story of Kevin McCarthy’s “joke” that he and Trump were getting paid by the Russian strongman. Issa lost his temper and gave a reporter the finger this last week after a routine question about the Comey brouhaha.
Washerman offers an instructive analogy from a past “wave” election:
Some of these mistakes will fade away with time, but they are more likely to gain velocity in a wave. In 2010, Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge (NC-02) never recovered after he was caught on video grabbing the neck of a meddlesome GOP tracker. Before that, he hadn’t faced a tough campaign in a decade. His loss showed that the most damaging episodes are the ones caught on tape, which explains why many GOP incumbents view town halls as a trap.
All in all, this is no time for GOP complacency, and Republicans better hope Paul Ryan is not as blasé about 2018 as his public utterances would suggest.