How Republicans Could Regain Lost House Seats in 2020

Published June 7, 2019

The Washington Post

House Republicans are still trying to figure out how to come back after their 40-seat midterm loss. A close reading of the results show they have a better chance to do that than is commonly believed.

Most of the GOP’s losses occurred in the suburbs. In 2016, suburban voters in many longtime Republican districts were split between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and Democratic House candidates captured nearly every one of those seats last November. In 2020, Republicans would need to draw a political inside straight and win nearly every Democratic-held seat that Trump carried in 2016 to regain the majority, unless they can retake some of these districts.

But new data from elections analyst J. Miles Coleman suggests that Republicans might be better off than they think.

Coleman has compiled the gubernatorial and senatorial results for each congressional district that changed hands in 2018. Many of them, especially in suburban Texas and Georgia, abandoned their GOP pedigrees and voted for the Democratic candidate. But many of them again offered a split verdict, voting for Republicans for the statewide office while giving the U.S. House seat to the Democrat.

California is a case in point. The Golden State was ground zero for last year’s blue wave. Democrats picked up seven House seats there, including five in districts that Republican nominee Mitt Romney had carried in 2012. The sweep was so complete that Orange County, once the heartland of Reagan conservatism, no longer has a Republican representative in Congress.

Coleman’s data, however, shows that the Republican candidate for governor in California, John Cox, won four of the districts Democrats picked up including three in Orange County. Cox was not a competitive candidate, losing by nearly 24 percentage points statewide. The fact that he carried those four districts, therefore, means that there is a latent pro-GOP tilt to these seats even in the Age of Trump.

Other educated suburban districts have similar patterns. Republicans lost suburban Chicago’s 6th Congressional District, but the party’s candidate for governor, Bruce Rauner, won it by 5 percentage points even as he was losing by 16 points statewide. New York’s Marc Molinaro lost by more than 23 points statewide, but he carried two upstate congressional districts — the 19th and 22nd — that Democrats flipped.

Including some victories by successful Republican statewide candidates, 10 of the 42 seats Democrats captured went GOP at the top of the ticket. This does not include a further five seats that statewide Republicans who did not face a serious Democratic challenge won in Texas, Arizona, or Utah, or four seats in New Jersey that the Republican nominee carried against scandal-tarnished Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez.

The patterns get stronger if one looks at the data Coleman has compiled for elections in 2016 or 2017, too. Republican Kim Guadagno won two of those four New Jersey districts in 2017 despite losing by 14 points statewide. Virginia GOP nominee Ed Gillespie carried Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, picked up for the Democrats by Abigail Spanberger, even as he lost by nine points statewide. Washington’s 8th Congressional District, which encompasses much of suburban Seattle, was lost in 2018 but carried by the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 2016 by 7 points even as he lost statewide by 9 points.

In sum, excluding wins by incumbents without serious Democratic challengers, Republican statewide candidates won in 17 of the 42 lost districts between 2016 and 2018. Adding in those incumbent victories and Trump’s own wins, Republicans have won at least one statewide race in 32 of the 42 lost seats since Trump’s 2016 nomination.

This data should give Republicans hope. Voters in these seats are far less Republican than they were five years ago, but enough retain some interest in the party that they can be spoken with. GOP House campaigns, therefore, need to consciously address this gap between a pro-GOP partisan inclination and an anti-Trump/D.C. House inclination.

They could do that in a couple of innovative ways. First, it might not be a coincidence that many of these seats are in high-income areas in which the ability to deduct state and local income taxes was severely restricted by the GOP’s 2017 tax bill. Reversing their stance on this could help overcome any lingering anger voters in those districts hold toward the GOP. That would increase the deficit, but it’s very clear that neither party is serious about controlling spending or reducing the deficit before the election.

House Republicans could also invest in ads that talk about the elephant in the room: Trump. Rather than distance themselves from him, however, they could campaign on trying to convince recalcitrant Republicans that they should back a Trump-led government despite their distaste for him personally. This might not work, but the alternative to convincing voters who supported Cox and Rauner to also back Trump is to concede their votes to the now-incumbent Democrat.

Republicans still face an uphill battle in their effort to regain the House majority. But Coleman’s data provides a silver lining behind the national cloud.

Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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