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Despite signs of trouble, GOP has a road map for winning in November

Why We Wrote This

A discussion with the House Republican in charge of keeping his party in control reveals the GOP's strategy for holding onto the majority. More than ever, it comes down to turning out the base.

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor
Rep. Steve Stivers (R) of Ohio, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, speaks at the St. Regis Hotel on Sept. 7, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

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Political observers say the path to a Republican victory in the House in the fall midterm elections is narrow, though not impossible. It may be an uphill battle, but Rep. Steve Stivers (R) of Ohio feels “pretty good” about his party’s ability to hold the majority, he told reporters at a Monitor Breakfast on Friday. As chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, he’s charged with winning the House for the GOP. And as a brigadier general for the Ohio Army National Guard, of course he’s got a battle plan – one aimed at overcoming significant political hurdles. Working against Republicans are the president’s lackluster approval ratings, a “generic” House ballot that favors Democrats, a surge of Republican retirements, and a historic trend of losses for the president’s party in midterm elections. “We’re not denying Democrats are excited,” said Congressman Stivers. “But it’s not my job to cover the spread. This isn’t Las Vegas. My job is to win.” And if the best Republicans could do in a blue wave is to secure the bare minimum of 218 seats, that’s still a win. “That’s how I define success as a majority.”

As Election Day nears, it’s looking better and better for Democrats to take over the House. Independent political analysts keep shifting their election rankings for competitive House seats toward Democrats. The FiveThirtyEight blog now gives Democrats a 7 in 9 chance of taking control. 

It may be an uphill battle for Republicans, but Rep. Steve Stivers (R) of Ohio feels “pretty good” about his party’s ability to hold the majority, he told reporters at a Monitor Breakfast on Friday. As chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, he’s charged with winning the House for the GOP. And as a brigadier general for the Ohio Army National Guard, of course he’s got a battle plan. 

It’s not very complicated: A positive message of “peace and prosperity” under Republicans, contrasted with a dark future of “poverty and insecurity” if Democrats win, and a full-bore effort to bring out the base – including using President Trump as a motivator.

“We’re not denying Democrats are excited,” said Congressman Stivers. “But it’s not my job to cover the spread. This isn’t Las Vegas. My job is to win.” And if the best Republicans could do in a blue wave is to secure the bare minimum of 218 seats, that’s still a win. “That’s how I define success as a majority.”

Despite a string of negative indicators for Republicans this year, Stivers and House Republicans could still pull it off – though the path to victory is narrow, say political observers. Working against them are the president’s lackluster approval ratings, an average 41.6 percent according to Real Clear Politics; a “generic” House ballot that favors Democrats by an average of more than 8 percentage points (Republicans say that anything over 7 points spells serious trouble); a surge of Republican retirements; and a historic trend of losses for the president’s party in midterm elections.

And then there’s that Democratic enthusiasm, gunning to secure the 23 seats needed for a takeover.

“We don't take anything for granted in the election, but there is a good chance we'll have the gavel on the Democratic side and we will be ready,” minority leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters at the end of House members’ first week back from a five-week recess. “We have come out of August very strong.”

Playing to the base

Quentin Kidd, a political scientist and pollster at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., sounds a cautionary note. History may not apply in this midterm. 

People are looking at 2018 as if it were the tea party wave of 2010 – but this time favoring Democrats, he says. Eight years ago, Republicans gained 63 seats, flipping the House as swing voters moved against President Obama in a “shellacking” just two years after he took office. 

“Everyone thinks this might be 2010 on steroids, but what if it’s not? What if we’ve become so polarized...[that] there is no middle to swing?” Mr. Kidd poses. The swing vote, which he defines as college-educated women with children, is disappearing, moving away from Republicans because of objections to Mr. Trump. 

“If this one little swing vote that’s left out there isn’t excited to vote for any individual Democratic candidate, I think that’s the path that Republicans could walk to retain a slim control of the House – or lose the House by a really slim two, or three, or four seats.”

The disappearing swing vote means that more than ever, the 2018 midterms are about turning out the base. And Republicans do that by following the brigadier general’s basic plan, observers say.

The road to Republican control of the House is “not very complex,” says Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pa. The challenge for Republicans is to motivate their voters when Trump is not on the ballot. “They’ve got to go to the biggest positive of the administration in an election that’s a referendum on the president,” he says. “If you’re a Republican, that’s the economy, the economy, the economy.”

Indeed, Stivers rattles off the economic highlights: strong economic growth, a jobless rate below 4 percent, wages starting to grow, high consumer confidence. “The economy is undoubtedly roaring.”

The flip side to the positive message is a virulent attack on Democrats. 

“They’ve got to completely destroy the credibility of the Democratic candidates that are running against them, or their members,” says Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan analysis of campaigns. That will gin up GOP turnout, and, some analysts believe, perhaps discourage more Democrat-leaning voters who get so turned off by negative advertising that they don’t vote. If a tepid Trump supporter may be considering change, the idea is to get them to think twice about that.  

This week, the Republican National Committee released a video ad, titled “Crazytown?” It turns the tables on Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” in which Chief of Staff John Kelly is quoted as saying of the president, “He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown,” according to The Washington Post. 

The RNC ad portrays leading Democrats – including Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Maxine Waters, as well as Representative Pelosi, the minority leader – as encouraging confrontation and uprising, then finishes with what appears to be a clip from street rioting during the president’s inauguration. The last line is: “The Left is Crazytown.”

The role of the president

In an interview with the Monitor, moderate Rep. Tom MacArthur (R) of New Jersey echoes the GOP strategy as he describes his efforts to keep his seat, rated “toss-up” by the independent Cook Political Report. In a swing district where Trump is both vilified and lauded, he says he’s running on GOP results and his own local achievements. 

As for the election being a referendum on the president, he says: “If we lose the House, I think what you get is dysfunctional government. The Democrats have made it crystal clear that the fights they want to have are over shutting down ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], impeaching the president, doing things that will grind any sort of progress to a halt.” 

Pelosi has said repeatedly she’s not pushing impeachment, yet at the breakfast, Stivers said the impeachment threat plays well among Republicans.

“Every time [Democratic billionaire] Tom Steyer runs an ad about impeachment he gets a few Democrats excited, but he gets a few Republicans excited too.”

Stivers pushed against the idea that Trump is best used to motivate voters in competitive, red-state Senate races rather than the slew of tight House races that Democrats could win.

“He is part of getting the base out and we will use him,” Stivers said – though not necessarily at big rallies. It might mean robo-calls in some districts, or even direct mail.  

Even as Stivers acknowledges the challenges this fall – among them, raising enough money to fund all the candidates he would like to – he says Republicans have learned how to turn out their base by winning eight special elections. Democrats also turned out, but they did not win, he says.

“I’m happy to congratulate [Democrats] on their moral victories,” he said. “But the last time I checked, moral victories don’t get a vote on the House floor.”

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