Democrats Expected to Keep House Control, Though Tight Races Abound

Democrats Expected to Keep House Control, Though Tight Races Abound

Suburban contests take center stage as Democrats seek to expand their majority and Republicans try to claw back seats.

House Democrats hoped to expand their majority Tuesday by winning districts that President Trump carried handily in 2016, while Republicans fought to hold on to seats in the suburbs.

Control of the House is expected to stay in Democratic hands, according to nonpartisan campaign watchers, but strategists from both parties expected that the final margin wouldn’t be known for days or weeks, with heavy mail-in voting expected to complicate the counts.

It could take a week to know the outcome of tight races in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Virginia, Utah and Pennsylvania, and even longer for close contests in New York, New Jersey, California and Alaska. In 2018, late wins in California expanded the initially narrow Democratic House majority.

Democrats now control 232 seats in the House, with 197 held by Republicans and one by a Libertarian. The Cook Political Report puts Democrats’ likely net gain at 10 to 15 seats, with a potential for more. Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales predicted Democrats would win a net gain of 14 to 20 seats.

Many of the House elections are expected to be tied to the result of the presidential race in the district. The national WSJ/NBC News poll published Sunday showed Democratic nominee Joe Biden leading President Trump 52% to 42% among registered voters. Respondents preferred a Congress controlled by Democrats over Republicans by 48% to 43%.

Mr. Trump has said polls undercount his true support, pointing to his upset win in 2016.

Considered most at-risk on Tuesday are Republicans who managed to survive the blue shift that swept Democrats to power in the House two years ago when Democrats picked up 31 seats in districts previously won by Mr. Trump. Many of the suburban seats are in traditionally right-leaning metro areas that have become more diverse in recent years and where some voters have cooled on the president.

Republican Rep. Ann Wagner is in a tight race against Jill Schupp, a state senator, to hold her seat in the St. Louis suburbs, where Mr. Trump won by 10 percentage points in 2016.

Some suburban voters—particularly women—turned away from Mr. Trump largely because of their concerns over his personality, rather than policy, said a Republican strategist who worked on races in the battleground areas. Some began changing their minds after Mr. Trump’s confrontational performance in the first presidential debate, the strategist said.

The president’s loyal base made it hard for Republican candidates to distance themselves too much from him in those areas, said Doug Heye, a House Republican strategist. “You get no benefit of the doubt when you are critical of Trump, and Trump supporters think you are a traitor,” when you criticize the president, he said.

Republicans see bright spots areas where Democrats had surprise wins in 2018 that they hope to bring back to the red column.

In Oklahoma, Democratic Rep. Kendra Horn is facing off with Republican state legislator Stephanie Bice in a district Mr. Trump won by more than 13 percentage points in 2016. In rural New Mexico, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small and GOP challenger Yvette Herrell are vying for control of a district that Mr. Trump won by about 10 percentage points.

Republicans also hope to topple Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, who has served in the House since 1991 and this year faces Michelle Fischbach, a former lieutenant governor for the state.

Democrats in tough races have benefited from having Mr. Biden at the top of the ticket, strategists said, as opposed to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), who were top picks among the party’s more liberal wing.

“Biden made the job easier in these Trump districts than some of the other nominees would have because he is much more in line with swing Democrats on issues like health care and climate,” said Meredith Kelly, a Democratic strategist who was part of the party’s efforts to win the House in 2018.

One exception came in the second presidential debate, when Mr. Biden talked about how he would “transition away from the oil industry.” Reps. Horn and Torres-Small quickly distanced themselves from the comments.

Another factor that contributed to expanding the potential for Democrats in 2020 was fundraising. Many Democratic candidates outpaced their opponents in early fundraising, allowing them to advertise early. Outside groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund—the House GOP super PAC—had to spend in tight races in Oklahoma, New York and Utah to introduce candidates who started their campaigns with little cash.

“Nobody, including me, going into this cycle thought our battlefield would be 90 districts deep,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, head of the Democrats’ campaign arm, in reference to the seats Democrats defended and looked at possible wins. She says the administration’s pandemic response tilted the field in favor of the Democrats.

That pandemic also shaped how candidates interacted on the campaign trail, where some Democratic candidates have barely campaigned in person in recent months, and been careful to hold socially distanced events. Republican candidates have gone door-to-door to rally voters and held in-person events, often with precautions.

The partisan divide over the pandemic will also play out in how voters address supporters on Tuesday. Some Democrats, such as Texas Rep. Colin Allred, are opting to address supporters via a remote live stream, while his opponent, Republican Genevieve Collins, is holding an in-person event in Richardson, Texas, to watch the results come in.

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