What if the Dems take the House?

by Michael Sean Winters

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Donald Trump is tanking in the polls. To be precise, the 40 percent of the electorate that really loves the guy is sticking with him, but he has shed a couple of percentage points in the polls, and he is making no headway with undecided voters, especially women, whose votes he needs to win the presidency. At FiveThirtyEight.com, as of 6 a.m. this morning, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has an 83.1 percent chance of winning the election to Trump's 16.9 percent in the polls-plus forecast, and she enjoys an 86. 6 percent chance in the polls-only forecast. National polls vary, but she is leading by anywhere from 4 to 11 points nationally.

This raises a new specter that seemed highly unlikely even weeks ago: If Clinton wins nationally by something like 7 or 8 percent, would the House of Representatives flip? There are currently 247 Republicans House members to only 188 Democrats, one of the largest margins the GOP has enjoyed since before the Great Recession of 1929. Is that majority seriously in play?

Flipping control of the House could be especially likely as Trump attacks Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and, by extension, other members of the House GOP caucus who have had to distance themselves from Trump given the demographic make-up of their district. If you are a Republican member of Congress and your district includes a large number of college-educated, moderate Republican women, my hunch is you are not mentioning Trump in your stump speech or your campaign ads. You may have even had to rescind a previous endorsement of him.

But what effect would such a rescission have on that part of a GOP congressman's base who still really adores Trump? In a typically conservative district, that part if the GOP base could easily constitute 20 or 30 or even 40 percent of the normal GOP share of the vote. How many congressmen survive when they alienate 40 percent of their vote? On the other hand, in more moderate districts, failure to distance oneself from Trump could cost a GOP incumbent the support of those moderate Republican women needed for victory. It is the classic rock-and-a-hard-place situation.

The Cook Political Report still lists 201 seats as solidly Republican and another 26 as likely or leaning to the Republicans. Only 20 of the 30 seats they would need to lose for the chamber to flip are listed as "toss-ups" by Cook. Another much-watched set of ratings comes from the Rothenberg & Gonzalez Report. They list 215 GOP seats as "safe" and another 31 GOP-held seats are listed as "in play." Eight of the latter contests are ranked as "pure toss-up" and eight are favoring the GOP candidate. The rest are leaning one way or the other, with very little polling since the release of the videotape of Trump bragging about assaulting women.

Whether or not the Democrats can take the House is one question. A different question is whether or not it would be a good thing for the country. I have my doubts. As Heather Caygle writes in Politico this morning:

If Democrats do take the House, Republicans would immediately be heavy favorites to win it back two years later; lower-turnout midterm elections typically lean conservative. That might make it all the more tempting for Democrats to go for broke while they have the chance.

While Clinton might be tempted to ram through a set of ideologically driven proposals with a Democratic majority, that prospect of losing control of the House in 2018, and the effect of such a midterm loss on the subsequent 2020 election, must give her pause. Remember, 2020 is a census year and if the Democrats blow a census year again, losing the battle for redistricting for 10 years, they will have no one to blame but themselves.

If, on the other hand, Clinton was forced to work with congressional Republicans, some achievements still seem likely. Clinton might not get as much infrastructure spending from a Republican Congress as from a Democratic one, but Republicans have never been as allergic to spending as they pretend to be. I imagine that once the GOP looks at Trump's numbers among Latinos, they will recognize the need to lance the immigration reform boil as quickly as possible and get that legislation in the rear view mirror. Tax reform would not be as progressive as it would be under a Democratic Congress, but the issue has salience on all sides and, given the nature of the thing, differences are more easily adjudicated because interests are involved, not principles.

Most importantly, divided government would be a check on Democratic elites who might push for proposals like ending the Hyde Amendment, the annual rider that prohibits federal funding of elective abortions. You might see congressional pressure to maintain the extent of religious exemptions of the kind routinely given in the past from Republicans that Democrats would cave on. In general, the rush to federalization of government would be on a slower track if Clinton had to negotiate with Republicans. These are all good things. It is a big question if Republicans would be more interested in working with Clinton than they were with Obama: The day after the election, the one thing that will still unite them is their distaste for Hillary Clinton and her husband. 

Be careful what you wish for is advice so sage it has been attributed to everyone from Groucho Marx to St. Thomas Aquinas. I am sure that Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi would love to have the speaker's gavel back in her hand, and I am sure Hillary Clinton would welcome such a prospect at first glance. It is the second glance that makes one aware of the many, serious doubts about such a prospect.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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