Republicans Scrambling

All of a sudden, the GOP is racing to save districts it once thought were safe.

Congressmen Will Hurd, Brian Mast, and Glenn Grothman.
Congressmen Will Hurd, Brian Mast, and Glenn Grothman.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by the United States Congress.

On Oct. 10, the national Republican apparatus decided to remove itself from the race in Texas’ 23rd Congressional District—and for good reason. Rep. Will Hurd, the GOP incumbent in this biennial swing district since his first win in 2014, had opened a comfortable lead over his Democratic challenger, Gina Ortiz Jones. When the National Republican Congressional Committee canceled its planned spending through Election Day, it was a signal that they believed they had the district in the bag.

Those happy days are now over. Over the weekend, the NRCC threw a fresh sum of $600,000 into the race to oppose Ortiz Jones. It’s the most notable in a series of recent moves suggesting the GOP, facing a wide battlefield, is having to shore up numerous districts that it thought would be safe.

Last week, the NRCC made its first ad buy in the Portland, Oregon market to prop up Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a four-time incumbent representing southern Washington, and will soon begin running ads for the first time in South Carolina’s 1st, the coastal district where Republican Katie Arrington defeated incumbent Rep. Mark Sanford in the primary but now faces a challenge from Democrat Joe Cunningham.

Florida continues to be a problem for Republicans, too. There is a full-on frenzy over the state’s 15th District, an inland Tampa area where Republican Ross Spano is trying to salvage the seat held by retiring Rep. Dennis Ross. The NRCC has also sent in hundreds of thousands of dollars to the 18th District to help Rep. Brian Mast, who’s defending his East Coast seat against Democrat Lauren Baer.

Meanwhile, the other major House Republican super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, has released an ad attacking Matt Longjohn, the Democratic challenger in Michigan to powerful senior Rep. Fred Upton, who isn’t looking so powerful right now. Utah Rep. Mia Love is in trouble. And remember the seemingly interminable 2017 special election in Georgia’s 6th District between Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff? It’s a race, again, except this time against Democrat Lucy McBath. Newly declared Democrat Michael Bloomberg has been spending there, as he has in the state’s newly competitive 7th District.

Just a week or two ago, Republicans were optimistic that even if they couldn’t hold the House, they could limit the losses to a narrow Democratic majority. There had been an uptick in Republican enthusiasm—either a result of the Kavanaugh confirmation fight or a sign that Republican voters were coming home near the end of the election—that would supposedly thwart the blue wave from advancing too far.

And yet here they are, a week-and-change before the election, spending real adult dollars on relatively cozy seats in Florida, Texas, South Carolina, Michigan, Georgia, and Utah. For starters.

The most pressing problem for Republican incumbents is that their Democratic challengers have constructed a mint this cycle that allows them to print unlimited money. As the New York Times reported over the weekend, Democrats are set to spend $143 million on TV ads through the election compared to Republicans’ $86 million. Democratic candidates aren’t just awash in the most obvious battlegrounds, like those districts with Republican incumbents that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016: They’ve got money up and down the ballot.

Democrats have been disciplined in using that money to bash Republicans over their top issue: that Republicans have tried, and will try again, to repeal protections for people with pre-existing conditions. It’s an issue that works in every district. It works in a coastal Florida district. It’s worked so well in a theoretically safe Wisconsin district that incumbent Rep. Glenn Grothman recently “pleaded with party leaders to invest in a nationwide TV ad that could run in competitive districts like his, defending the House GOP’s Obamacare repeal bill that passed the chamber last year,” according to Politico. (Party leaders said no. Nationwide ads are expensive.)

It turns out that, in close House races at least, “Republicans want to take health coverage from sick people” is a crisper closing message than “Nancy’s Pelosi’s immigrant caravan is coming for you, Minnesota.” As is “Republicans will pay for that corporate tax cut by cutting Social Security and Medicare,” a message recently given new life by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Democrats won’t win all of these seats seeing late-breaking expenditures, and some of the buys are likely the fulfillment of long-held Republicans plans to run closing ads towards the end of the cycle. But it’s important that Democrats have been able to keep such a range of seats within striking distance should the national environment shift a point or two in their favor in the next week. It could be the difference between a narrow loss, or a narrow ungovernable majority and comfortable control of the House of Representatives.