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Here's how Republicans could hang on to Congress in November

Democrats may be favored to win the House but being that doesn't guarantee victory.
Image: Florida Voters Cast Their Ballots In State's Primary
Voters arrive to cast ballots at a polling place on Aug. 28, 2018 in Boca Raton, Florida.Joe Skipper / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — With less than two months before Election Day, Democrats are the favorites to win control of the U.S. House of Representatives. And, as we wrote on Friday, they have a clear path to take back the U.S. Senate, though they have to run the table (or close to it).

But as we found out in 2016 — or even in a few of the primaries this election cycle — being the favorite doesn’t guarantee victory. So here’s how Republicans could still hang on to Congress in November.

  1. They disqualify Democratic candidates race by race: On Friday, the Congressional Leadership Fund, the main Republican Super PAC focused on House races, released a polling memo showing that TV ads aimed at Democratic challenger Amy McGrath in KY-6 (like here and here) have lowered McGrath’s fav/unfav numbers from 55 percent/16 percent in June (+39) to 45 percent/34 percent now (+11). (The counterargument: The same CLF memo shows a tight race in this district that Trump won by 16 points in 2016, as did a recent New York Times Upshot/Siena poll.)
  2. The playing field is (mostly) on GOP turf: While there are more than 20 GOP-held congressional districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 — about the same number of net seats Democrats need to pick up to retake the House — the rest of the playing field is on GOP turf. “Republicans have so many safe seats that the Democrats would be expected to gain only 22 seats if they flipped Republican-held districts at a rate equivalent to the waves of 2006 or 2010 (without factoring in the large number of open seats),” the New York Times’ Nate Cohn wrote over the summer. And in the battle for the Senate, only one of the Cook Political Report’s eight toss-up states — Nevada — is a state Clinton won in 2016. (The counterargument: Polling, including our recent NBC/Marist polls of Indiana, Missouri and Tennessee show Democrats are ahead or are running even in these red states.)
  3. The economy could trump all: Positive attitudes about the economy — the unemployment rate is 3.9 percent, and 201,000 jobs were added in August — could potentially blunt Democratic gains. (The counterargument: The unemployment rate in October 2006, before Dems took back the House and Senate, was 4.4 percent. So the economy isn’t everything in a midterm cycle.)
  4. The electorate dislikes Nancy Pelosi more than Trump: Pelosi’s fav/unfav in the August NBC/WSJ poll was 20 percent/48 percent (-28), versus 40 percent/50 percent (-10). And asked what would bother them more — a GOP candidate supporting Trump’s policies and a Dem candidate supporting Pelosi’s — 47 percent said the Pelosi-backing candidate versus 45 percent for the Trump-backing candidate. (The counterargument: If Pelosi is the defining figure this midterm season, then how did Conor Lamb win that special election in Pennsylvania earlier this year after all of the anti-Pelosi messaging against him?)

But here are the eight Dem advantages this midterm season

So those are four explanations how the GOP can still come out on top in November. But we can also point to eight advantages that Democrats have this election season – which is why they’re the odds-on favorites:

  1. History: Midterm elections are typically rough on the party controlling the White House, and the last three midterm cycles (2006, 2010, 2014) have been change elections.
  2. Trump’s unpopularity: The six times since WWII when a first-term president had a job-approval rating below 50 percent, per Gallup, that president’s party has lost an average of 43.5 House seats. Trump’s current job rating in Gallup? 41 percent.
  3. The enthusiasm factor: 63 percent of Democratic voters in the August NBC/WSJ poll had a high level of interest in the upcoming midterms, versus 52 percent of GOP voters.
  4. Geography: Democrats could get close to 20 House pickups from five blue/purple states alone — California, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
  5. The expanded playing field: And it’s just not these five states. The Cook Political Report identifies 66 takeover or competitive GOP-held House seats (three likely Dem, eight lean Dem, 28 toss-up and 27 lean Republican).
  6. The open GOP House seats: Republicans are defending 42 open or vacant seas — a record since 1930, per David Wasserman. And open seats are historically harder for that party to defend.
  7. Independents: Most polls show these voters breaking for the Democrats.
  8. The pox-on-both-their-houses voters: These voters, who were a key swing group in 2016, also have been breaking for the Democrats, per the NBC/WSJ poll.

So eight advantages for the Democrats; four for the Republicans.

NBC News: North Korea is still making nuclear weapons

“As President Donald Trump issues a steady stream of praise for Kim Jong Un in interviews and on Twitter, a steady stream of evidence that North Korea is still making nuclear weapons has pushed his administration to take a much more aggressive stance toward Pyongyang,” NBC’s Courtney Kube and Carol Lee write.

“The newest intelligence shows Kim's regime has escalated efforts to conceal its nuclear activity, according to three senior U.S. officials. During the three months since the historic Singapore summit and Trump's proclamation that North Korea intends to denuclearize, North Korea has built structures to obscure the entrance to at least one warhead storage facility, according to the officials.”

GOP senator: The Trump White House is 'a reality show, soap-opera presidency'

Speaking to NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said: “You know, I don't have any desire to beat the president up, but it's pretty clear that this White House is a reality show, soap-opera presidency. I mean, the drama is, the drama of Omarosa and the drama of Cohen and the drama of Manafort and the drama of the Woodward quotes and the drama of these op-eds. What you'd like is the president to not worry so much about the short-term of staffing, but the long-term of vision casting for America, pull us together as a people.”

Sasse added: “Right now, it feels like there's just way too much drama every day and that distracts us from the longer-term stuff we should be focused on together.”

The issue of race once again surfaces in the Florida governor race

The Washington Post: “Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), a gubernatorial nominee who recently was accused of using racially tinged language, spoke four times at conferences organized by a conservative activist who has said that African Americans owe their freedom to white people and that the country’s ‘only serious race war’ is against whites.”

“DeSantis, elected to represent north-central Florida in 2012, appeared at the David Horowitz Freedom Center conferences in Palm Beach, Fla., and Charleston, S.C., in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, said Michael Finch, president of the organization. At the group’s annual Restoration Weekend conferences, hundreds of people gather to hear right-wing provocateurs such as Stephen K. Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos and Sebastian Gorka sound off on multiculturalism, radical Islam, free speech on college campuses and other issues.”

More: “Requests to the campaign and the congressional office to interview DeSantis were declined. A spokeswoman for the congressman, Elizabeth Fusick, provided a statement that described DeSantis as ‘a leader in standing up for truth and American strength.’ ‘He appreciates those who support his efforts and is happy to be judged on his record, Fusick said. ‘He does not, though, buy into this ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ notion that he is responsible for the views and speeches of others.’”

New York primary: Cuomo leads Nixon by 41 points, per poll

Finally, with New York’s primaries set for this week (on Thursday), a Siena poll shows Gov. Andrew Cuomo leading challenger Cynthia Nixon by 41 points, 63 percent to 22 percent, while the Democrats' field for attorney general is wide open.