You don’t need to squint to see signs of a Blue Wave on the horizon. There’s the generic ballot, on which the Democrats are currently up by an average of more than 7 points, right about where they were this time last year. There’s the fundraising department, where a bunch of Democratic challengers have been out-raising GOP incumbents this cycle. And there’s history, which has long suggested that it wasn’t a question of if Democrats would pick up House seats, but rather how many.
But some of the best evidence that Democrats are on pace for big gains in the House is noticeable at the more granular level, specifically in the races where Republicans seem to be throwing in the towel.
In the past several weeks, House Republicans—either via the National Republican Congressional Committee, which serves as their official campaign arm, or the Congressional Leadership Fund, a big-dollar super PAC aligned closely with Paul Ryan—have nixed plans to spend big in defense of at least four incumbents in races that had been widely considered competitive: Reps. Mike Coffman in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, Mike Bishop in Michigan’s 8th, Keith Rothfus in Pennsylvania’s new 17th, and Kevin Yoder in Kansas’ 3rd.
While a party could conceivably pull funding if they think they have a race wrapped up, it’s clear that’s not what’s happening in these districts, all of which have been trending in the direction of Democrats recently. “That’s Washington, D.C.,” Coffman’s campaign manager told the Associated Press after the CLF canceled a seven-figure ad buy in his boss’s district. “One day you’re up. The next day you’re down.” Each decision suggests that, at best, the GOP believes its money is better spent elsewhere or, at worst, that these congressmen are already as good as gone. Even the former would be a stunning admission given that the nonpartisan handicappers at the Cook Political Report currently rate all four races as competitive, with Bishop and Yoder in a toss-up column that includes 20 of their fellow Republican colleagues and another seven open GOP seats.
The GOP’s triage is likely only getting started. Other incumbents reportedly at risk of being cut adrift by national Republicans include Reps. Barbara Comstock in Virginia’s 10th, Rod Blum in Iowa’s 1st, Jason Lewis in Minnesota’s 2nd, and Erik Paulsen in Minnesota’s 3rd. (Cook rates all four of those races, like Rothfus’ and Coffman’s, as “Lean Democrat.”) Add it all up, and those eight incumbents represent more than one-third of the 23 seats Democrats need to retake the House. And that may tell only part of the story: Politico reported last week that GOP strategists believe that “as many as a dozen of the party’s seats are no longer winnable.”
GOP moneymen have long been warning incumbents that there would be only so much money to go around, and the number of Republicans who need help continues to grow. In Cook’s first rating of 2018, for instance, just 39 GOP seats were seen as competitive; now, that number stands at 68. Every dollar the GOP spends protecting someone like Rep. Ted Budd, up for re-election in an unconstitutionally gerrymandered R+6 district in North Carolina that Trump won by 9 points, is one they won’t be able to spend defending someone like Coffman, whose suburban Denver district (D+2) went for Hillary Clinton by that same margin in 2016. (Coffman won’t be completely on his own, however. Shortly after the CLF announced last week that it was canceling its $1 million ad buy to back him, the NRCC suggested it would invest another $600,000 in the district.* These things can be fluid.)
These cuts appear more dramatic the closer you look. Coffman has a long history of winning big despite his district’s preference for Democrats in the White House. Rothfus represented his party’s chance for revenge against Democratic special-election hero Conor Lamb. Yoder had already gotten considerable help from the White House in the form of a visit from Mike Pence. And Bishop won his first two terms by double digits in a district that went for Trump by 7 points just two years ago.
Parties always have to make difficult choices coming down the home stretch, but these are a clear sign that, for all Donald Trump’s bluster of a “red wave,” in reality, House Republicans are just trying to avoid an electoral bloodbath.
Correction, Oct. 1, 2018: This post originally misstated the size of the ad buy the Congressional Leadership Fund canceled in Rep. Coffman’s district. It was $1 million, not $2.1 million.