The GOP's narrow path to holding the House

A key Republican sits down with reporters to discuss notable matchups and bellwether races ahead of the midterm elections.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor

Monitor Breakfast host Linda Feldmann was on the road with President Trump last week, so I had the pleasure of filling in for her as the moderator for our guest, Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, on Sept. 7. As chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), he’s tasked with making sure his party holds on to its majority in the House come November.

As the Monitor’s correspondent on Capitol Hill, I was eager to hear the congressman’s strategy for winning, especially given that independent analysts are increasingly confident of Democratic chances to take over the lower chamber.

As I took him around the long, oval table for introductions, he stopped to chat with one of those well-known, well-respected independent analysts – Charlie Cook, of The Cook Political Report. That morning Mr. Cook had published an assessment, “A Grim Fall Awaits GOP,” in which he said Democrats were likely to gain between 20 and 40 seats (they need 23 to take control).

Sometimes you just can’t control the political environment in an election, Cook commented – to which Mr. Stivers laughed that he had first-hand experience with that. He lost his first campaign for Congress by a mere percentage point in 2008 amid the Democratic wave that accompanied Barack Obama’s ascent to the presidency. But looking at November, Stivers offered: “I actually feel pretty good, considering.”

Then he told Cook about his favorite matchup this year: Florida’s 27th Congressional District, which includes a big chunk of Miami and the Cuban-American neighborhood of “Little Havana.”

On paper, Stivers told reporters later in the breakfast, “it isn’t very good for us,” since Hillary Clinton trounced Donald Trump there by 20 points. But Stivers likes the matchup of candidates: the Republican, Maria Elvira Salazar, is a Cuban-American who is a former Spanish-language television reporter, while the Democrat is President Bill Clinton’s former secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala.

Ms. Shalala is “77 years old and does not speak Spanish – in a district that is 77 percent Hispanic,” Stivers noted pointedly. He added wryly: “My understanding is Maria has already agreed to translate in any of the debates for Donna.”

Who knows? The GOP could win this seat, which was held by a Republican Cuban-American before she decided to retire. As the NRCC chair, Stivers has to sound optimistic. It’s his job description – and it comes naturally to this Eagle Scout and brigadier general in the Ohio Army National Guard.

“We’re not denying Democrats are excited,” he told the 30 or so reporters in the room. Click here to watch the session on C-SPAN. “We just need to keep from losing 23 [seats].” His overall strategy is pretty simple: Emphasize a booming economy under the Republicans, blast the Democrats as leftists with a socialist and obstructionist agenda, and rev up the base with President Trump.

Several reporters, including me, wrote about his road map for keeping the House. At a breakfast like this, though, regional reporters like to ask about specific races in their states, and he weighed in on close ones in California, Texas, Michigan, and Missouri, calling four races in Minnesota bellwethers.

Remember that last week was a big one for White House news (what week isn’t?), and The New York Times reported on Stivers saying that neither the Bob Woodward book nor the newspaper’s anonymous op-ed would make much of a dent with voters outside Washington. The op-ed claimed a secret “resistance” was working against Trump from within his administration.

As for Mr. Obama hitting the campaign trail for Democrats, The Daily Caller picked up on his point that Obama could actually hurt Democrats by motivating the Republican base: “For three cycles, President Obama fired up Republicans like nobody,” Stivers said, referring to the elections of 2010, 2012 and 2014. “I’m happy if he wants to do it again.”

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