This week’s vote to replace Obamacare has scrambled the 2018 House landscape, jeopardizing Republican lawmakers across the country and potentially endangering the party’s longstanding grip on the chamber.
More than a dozen senior Republican strategists, lawmakers, and potential candidates expressed varying degrees of concern over the political implications of the health care push. Some predicted that House members would face a fierce backlash from voters, while others said the party had erred badly in rushing through a bill that lacked broad public support.
The vote, combined with President Donald Trump’s record-low poll numbers and rising public dissatisfaction with how Republicans are wielding power over the federal government, has produced a cauldron of instability for the party, which is holding onto a 24-seat edge in the House. There is also the weight of history: In every midterm election since 2002, the party in the White House has lost congressional seats.
Some Republicans said the political environment surrounding the chamber had become more unpredictable than at any point since 2010, when they took power in a historic 63-seat wave.
“With this vote or not, we were headed to one of the most competitive, shifting and volatile midyear congressional elections in a number of years,” said Nick Everhart, a veteran Republican strategist who is working on a number of 2018 contests. “Between open seats, candidate recruitment, and legislative battles to come, there are still so many variables that are going to shape the playing field.”
Several operatives said they were spending the end of the week trying to gauge fallout after some House Republicans admitted in televised interviews that they hadn’t read the full bill before voting for it — footage that could well appear in Democratic commercials come next year.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who is close to Republican leaders, said House Speaker Paul Ryan and his lieutenants fully understand the peril the party now faces. “It’s very volatile,” he said.
It’s far too early to say Republicans will lose control of the House — or that Trump’s health care effort will doom them. The legislation is certain to change in the Senate: Some controversial accommodations that were made to win over the hard-right Freedom Caucus are expected to be dropped or scaled back.
The first test of the legislation’s political impact will come in upcoming special congressional elections in Montana and Georgia, where Democrats are trying to seize Republican-held seats.
Senior GOP officials acknowledge they are on guard. On Friday, one day after the vote, the Cook Political Report upgraded Democratic fortunes in 20 GOP districts.
Former GOP Rep. David Jolly of Florida, who is considering running for the seat he lost in 2016, said the early days of the 2018 cycle were filled with warnings for his party. The Republican base is depressed after the start to Trump’s presidency, he said, and Democrats are motivated.
“They’ve got to seriously turn the narrative around from where it is today,” Jolly said.
Behind the scenes, Republicans are racing to boost lawmakers who supported the bill. American Action Network, a super PAC aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, has begun airing TV ads in the districts of 21 Republicans who voted for the bill that aim to generate public support for the legislation.
The maneuvering comes ahead of next week’s Republican National Committee meeting in San Diego, a regularly scheduled gathering of top party officials and strategists where discussion of the midterms is likely to be front and center. Among those expected to attend are John Rogers, the National Republican Congressional Committee executive director, and several of his staffers.
Republicans are most concerned about growing signs of Democratic intensity. Over the past few weeks, a series of formidable Democratic candidates have announced bids against Republican incumbents. The group includes Jennifer Wexton of Virginia, Jason Crow of Colorado, and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania. All are running in suburban districts, the kind of areas where Trump’s falling political fortunes could be a weight on GOP incumbents.
Yet Democrats are also fielding serious candidates against Republicans considered to be in safer political territory. They include Josh Butner, a retired Navy SEAL seeking a Southern California seat. Paul Davis, a former minority leader in the Kansas state House, has launched an exploratory committee for a conservative Topeka-based seat.
The Democratic strategy bears the hallmarks of the approach then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel used in 2006, when he recruited Democrats to run in conservative bastions. Democrats won the House that year after more than a decade out of power.
Democratic leaders say they’ve begun an ambitious, nationwide effort to find candidates in Republican-held districts. At a closed-door meeting Tuesday of top party operatives organized by the AFL-CIO, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Executive Director Dan Sena said he had already spoken with 300 potential candidates in 75 districts, according to several people familiar with the presentation.
Democrats put just 45 GOP districts in play in 2016, Sena said. In 2018, he said, the party wants to contest three times as many.
After six frustrating years in the minority, Democrats say the increased energy is reason for optimism. A trio of left-leaning online organizations — ActBlue, Daily Kos and Swing Left — said they raised $2 million from grass-roots backers in the 24 hours following the health care vote. The total came from some 45,000 contributors.
Patriot Majority USA, a liberal nonprofit, is preparing to run TV ads against several vulnerable Republicans who voted for the bill, including Reps. Rod Blum of Iowa and Bruce Poliquin of Maine.
“This is a mirror image of the 2010 midterm election,” said former Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, a past DCCC chairman. “Moderate Democrats in tough districts voted for an unpopular bill, and 63 of them didn’t come back.
“That’s how 2018 is shaking out,” he added. “We owned the unintended consequences of Obamacare, and House Republicans will own the unintended consequences of Trumpcare, no matter what version passes. Our town hall hell will be their town hall hell.”
Some Republicans, however, caution that it’s far too early to conclude the House is seriously in play. With Trump expected to pursue an array of ambitious policies over the next 18 months, there’s plenty of time for political currents to change.
Cole, a former NRCC chairman, said the party would have paid a steeper price had it not passed any health care legislation — something, he said, that would have turned off its base.
“If we can’t defuse Dem intensity — and I don’t think we can — then our own people have to be charged up,” he said. “The only defense in a situation like that is to make sure your own people know you’re following through on your own promises and delivering.”
“The pressure is on to be productive, because the political consequences of being unproductive could mean losing our majority,” he added.
Curt Anderson, a longtime Republican strategist, argued that worries about an election-year blowback over the health care vote are overblown. The 2010 law has never been broadly popular, he said, and is especially despised among Republicans.
“Those who think Republicans will be defeated in November of 2018 because of this vote to repeal and replace Obamacare in May of 2017 are either in a parallel universe, or have been asleep for the past seven years,” Anderson said. “The notion that Obamacare is suddenly popular and will be missed is a mirage that seems real during the fog of war, but will disappear as you get closer to it.”