For the first time in months, senior Republicans trying to defend their majority in the House feel like they have a fighting chance, according to interviews with a dozen officials late last week and through the weekend.
For sure, they’re in political-triage mode, cutting off on-the-verge incumbents from the national party’s dollars. They are ready to phone television stations to cancel ad buys and to tell their digital vendors to scale back their efforts in at least a dozen races. The efforts to persuade voters is coming to a close — or has closed in some places altogether, especially where early voting is in full force.
But, despite the shrinking battlefield, these Republicans tell TIME, they’re actually fortifying their positions. Rather than scattering sparsely, they are now clustered tightly around their remaining races, which are mostly in suburban districts where Hillary Clinton posted solid numbers if not won. The resulting map, described to TIME, is a firewall approach that could weather a potential Blue Wave of Democratic votes.
One senior GOP strategist who was pessimistic at Labor Day now place their odds of holding the House at about one-in-five. Another put it at one-in-four. “No one is flipping a coin,” the second strategist said. “A lot of things are going to have to go our way if we stand a chance. But the same was true for Donald Trump, and he’s sitting in the White House.”
The goal, discussed widely inside Republican circles, is to hold the House at any cost or with any margin. Democrats need to net just 23 seats to claim the majority, and privately members of both parties say eight to 12 are already in Democrats’ back pockets. It’s the fight for the last dozen or so that can get dicey.
“The gavels don’t get any smaller with a one-vote majority,” one senior Republican on Capitol Hill said, referencing the committee chairmanships that will run the day-to-day business of Congress for the last two years of President Donald Trump’s first term. “A Blue Wave means we have to give up the chairmanships, we lose staff and we don’t get to set any part of the agenda. We cannot afford to risk that.”
That’s why, in the last 10 days, senior Republicans have quietly been retreating from races that they see as iffy investments. A super PAC with close ties to outgoing Speaker Paul Ryan, the Congressional Leadership Fund, canceled ads in Colorado for endangered Rep. Mike Coffman, and the House Republicans’ official campaign arm, the NRCC, followed suit. It’s been similar bad news for incumbent Republicans like Mike Bishop of Michigan, Kevin Yoder of Kansas and Keith Rothfus of Pennsylvania. Senior Republicans expect as many as six more incumbent lawmakers could find themselves abandoned early this week. And those are on top of districts where the incumbent Republican is retiring or seeking another office, such as Martha McSally’s Arizona district. McSally is running for Senate, and House Republicans have largely abandoned attempts to keep her current seat in GOP hands.
That’s not to say these deep-pocketed outside groups are ready to pack it in. The super PAC instead is sending cash to help defend Rep. David Young of Iowa and spending $1 million to keep Ryan’s seat in GOP hands. The group is also adding $5 million in California ads. On the official side, the NRCC added almost $2 million in ads in Miami to keep Democrats from picking up a long-held GOP seat that voted for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign by almost 20 percentage points.
So far, the NRCC has shelled out almost $48 million on 33 races, while the Congressional Leadership Fund has spent $87 million on 51 races.
In the races where national Republicans are still playing, they are working not off a national script about the economy — bewildering Republicans close to the White House — but off one designed to discredit Democratic candidates. In that Miami district, for instance, that means ads in Spanish against Bill Clinton’s Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, who does not speak Spanish.
Although no part of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court took place in the House, GOP lawmakers still enjoyed the halo-effect, according to a Republican pollster. While national polls show Democrats saw a larger spike in their interest in the race than Republicans, Republicans also note that it was rocket-fuel for some of their grassroots activists. That, they argue, could pack GOP campaign offices in the final two weeks and their work on behalf of Senate candidates in Ohio and Indiana could help defend vulnerable House members. In other races, like Andy Barr’s re-election bid in Kentucky, the numbers shifted dramatically during the Kavanaugh hearings.
Republicans recognize they face long odds. Democrats are playing in at least 60 districts currently held by Republicans. (Just last week, they started running ads in Little Rock, Ark., and Salt Lake City.) The party in the White House typically suffers major defeats in that President’s first midterms. (Barack Obama, for instance, watched Republicans net 63 seats in the 2010 elections.) Republicans this cycle watched as 50 colleagues in the House, though resignations, primary losses or joining other races realized they weren’t on House ballots this year. Democratic enthusiasm has remained a strong factor in the country, while Republicans have had mixed views of how Trump is handling himself. A strong economy could render GOP voters complacent, as could expectations that the Democrats’ victories are inevitable.
Even so, these Republicans see potential. Maybe it’s the typical end-of-campaign-cycle exhaustion talking, but these Republicans think they could still pull off one of the biggest political blocks in history. It may not be elegant or by a big margin at all, but it could happen.
“It’s no secret we are the underdogs,” said one GOP strategist, who like others agreed to speak candidly on the condition of anonymity. “But we continue to evaluate where we can make a difference, have an impact. This isn’t the time to be emotional. Too much is at risk.” Still, he said, that doesn’t make the phone call to a campaign, telling staffers that the view from Washington is that the cause is lost, any easier. Retreat, though, may be the only route to overall victory.