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POLITICO race ratings: The GOP House is crumbling

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the GOP still have a path to keep the House, but it would require either a near-sweep of the toss-up races or a significant change in the political environment. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

Elections

There are now 209 seats either firmly or leaning in the Democratic column — only 9 shy of the 218 needed to win control.

The Republican House majority continues to show signs of collapsing, with Democrats steadily gaining ground toward erasing the 23-seat margin and ending eight years of GOP control.

A total of 68 seats currently held by Republicans are firmly in play — rated as “Lean Republican” or worse for the GOP — presenting a stark contrast to the Democratic side, where only a half-dozen Democratic seats are in similar jeopardy.

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The political environment has been jolted temporarily by the searing fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. But prior to that recent battle — which ended with Kavanaugh’s confirmation last week — Democrats had improved their electoral position since Labor Day, according to more than a dozen operatives and strategists in both parties.

With a month to go until Election Day, there are now 209 seats either firmly or leaning in the Democratic column — only 9 shy of the 218 the party needs to wrest away control of the chamber — according to the latest update of POLITICO’s race ratings.

The ratings, which reflect extensive reporting on the state of the 23-seat GOP majority, evaluations of both parties’ strategies, historical trends and polling data, reveal Democratic candidates have grabbed the lead in a number of House seats — including some with long-time GOP incumbents. Republican outside groups have already started cutting off funding to some races where prospects had dimmed.

Elections

The GOP still has a path to keep the House, but it would require either a near-sweep of the toss-up races or a significant change in the political environment in the final four weeks of the campaign.

A temporary uptick in Republican enthusiasm over the final week of the Kavanaugh confirmation could give the party momentum headed into November that provides that change. But, strategists say, it could just as easily fade, and the dynamic could revert to where it was earlier in September: with Democrats poised to take the House and wage an uphill battle for the Senate, too.

Among the toss-up seats that have shifted to the “Lean Democratic” column over the past month are a handful of entrenched incumbents in suburban districts who have seen the political ground shift under their feet.

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) has been a political survivor throughout the decade, winning reelection in 2012 even as then-President Barack Obama carried his suburban Denver district and again in 2016 as Hillary Clinton won the district by a wider, 9-point margin.

But Coffman’s political career appears to be on life support. A New York Times/Siena College poll last month found him 11 points behind Democrat Jason Crow. Congressional Leadership Fund, the leading pro-GOP super PAC for House races, recently scrapped their advertising reservations in the district, viewing it as a poor use of resources.

Also moving to the “Lean Democratic” column is the seat held by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) based in Johnson County, a suburb of Kansas City. Mitt Romney carried Yoder’s district by nearly 10 points in 2012, but it went narrowly for Clinton just four years later. Yoder is trailing in the polls — Democrat Sharice Davids led by 8 points in a recent Times/Siena poll — and the National Republican Congressional Committee recently pulled back its plans to air ads backing him in the closing weeks.

It’s a similar story for Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.), whose district comprises much of the southern Twin Cities suburbs. Lewis’ district didn’t shift between 2012 and 2016 — it was closely contested both years — but the incumbent has additional baggage: a history of controversial comments dating back to Lewis’ career as a talk-radio host.

But also dogging Lewis is the GOP’s weakness at the top of the ticket in the state. Jeff Johnson, the Republican nominee for governor, is trailing Democrat Tim Walz, the retiring congressman, by a fairly wide margin. A Times/Siena poll showed Democrat Angie Craig 12 points ahead of Lewis.

Polls also show Democrats with significant leads in the statewide contests in neighboring Michigan, which is home to four competitive House races. Reps. Fred Upton and Tim Walberg are now in the “Lean Republican” category, downgraded from “Likely Republican.” In the open seat in the state’s 11th District, a recent Times/Siena poll found Democrat Haley Stevens leading Republican Lena Epstein, 45 percent to 38 percent; the district — currently held by a Republican incumbent who is retiring — moves to “Lean Democratic.”

While these districts and others have shifted toward Democrats, Republicans are still holding their own in another grouping of seats that keep the GOP’s hopes of maintaining the majority alive.

September was a difficult month for the GOP, but there are signals over the past two weeks that suggest the party has recovered slightly. President Donald Trump’s approval rating has ticked up recently — though it’s still low enough, short of 45 percent, to portend losses for his party next month. Republicans have also chipped away at what was a nearly 10-point lead for Democrats on the generic ballot; it now sits around 7 points.

Moreover, polls show an uptick in enthusiasm among GOP voters in recent weeks, as the Kavanaugh confirmation has awakened the base.

“Republicans have had a little lack of enthusiasm,” NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers (Ohio) said Monday on Fox News Channel. “We had nine special elections, and we spent a lot of time and money trying to turn out reluctant Republicans. And, now, Republicans are excited.”

At the district level, Republicans feel better about their chances in districts currently held by Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and Dave Brat (R-Va.) — two toss-up races where GOP incumbents are facing better-funded opponents than in past cycles. Their Democratic opponents — Aftab Pureval and Abigail Spanberger, respectively — have been savaged by Republican attack ads in recent weeks.

But despite some individual success stories, the overall House landscape remains grim for Republicans. Democratic candidates are better positioned over the final weeks of the campaign, thanks to record-breaking fundraising earlier this year. Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said last week that 60 House Democratic candidates will report raising more than $ 1 million between July and September — a staggering number — with 30 raising more than $ 2 million.

Republicans, meanwhile, are relying on deep-pocketed outside groups to bridge the gap.

The House remains Lean Democratic.

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