Democrats' Midterm Election Hopes Hit Some Speed Bumps
(Bloomberg View) -- Democrats, confident about their prospects for winning control of the House of Representatives in November, are warily eyeing a few speed bumps that could deliver some unexpected jolts.
In Connecticut, incumbent Democrat Elizabeth Esty said this week that she wouldn't run for reelection after acknowledging that she was too slow to fire a top aide who had assaulted a female staffer. Her retirement turns a safe Democratic House seat into a potentially competitive one.
In California, Democrats face the possibility that several seats could be lost due to a peculiar combination of their own enthusiasm and the state's unusual nonpartisan primary system. That's because the two top finishers in all of California's June 5 primaries will qualify for the general election, irrespective of party. Democrats worry that an abundance of candidates could split their voters and enable two Republicans to slip into the final round.
A lot depends on whether the election results ride on a modest national tide or a giant wave. If a flood of Democratic voters animated by hostility to President Donald Trump turns the midterm contest into a wave election comparable to those of 2006, when Democrats took both houses of Congress, or 2010, when Republicans did the same, Democrats are likely to pick up 40 House seats or more. That's well above the two dozen they need for control. But if it's a normal tide for an off-year election, the gains are likely to be more in the 15-to-25 range.
The wave appeared more likely to crash this week after a Democrat decisively won a Wisconsin State Supreme Court election in a race that attracted attention and resources from national politicians and interest groups. That result followed big Democratic victories in the past year in Virginia, New Jersey, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania and elsewhere in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, warned Wednesday that there's "a risk of a blue wave in Wisconsin." If he's right, a national wave of energized Democratic voters would probably swamp challenges to the party's prospects posed by local problems like Esty's retirement. But there's no guarantee that such a wave will materialize, which keeps party strategists awake at night.
Esty, a three-term lawmaker, initially insisted that she would not resign after reports surfaced about her mishandling of the abuse case. Under pressure from Democrats in Connecticut and Washington she relented this week. Her district has been represented by a Democrat for 12 years, but it's not a Democratic lock; Hillary Clinton carried it over Trump with just 52 percent of the vote and before 2006 much of it was held for decades by a Republican.
Democrats also suffered a possible setback this week in a southwestern Iowa district they have targeted, when the strongest contender didn't qualify for the June 5 primary ballot.
The biggest Democratic challenge involves California, where the party thinks it can win House races in as many as seven Republican-held districts, most of which Clinton carried in 2016.
But the state's nonpartisan primary system complicates those prospects. In the Southern California district held by retiring Republican Representative Darrell Issa, Democratic aspirants include the man who almost defeated him last time, another candidate who was an early front-runner and two wealthy hopefuls with little experience but lots of money to spend in an expensive media market.
There are more Republican candidates, but they include local elected officials with track records of attracting votes. It's not much of a reach to imagine two Republican finalists with only a combined third of the vote.
There's a similar worry in the Orange County district of incumbent Republican Dana Rohrabacher, who is so controversial that he's being challenged by a former chair of his own county party and a Republican state legislator. Democrats say they have a couple of candidates who could defeat Rohrabacher in a one-on-one contest, but are less confident about the mathematics of a multi-candidate race.
Democrats recently helped their cause in another potentially problematic Orange County district. There, a couple of Democratic candidates dropped out under party pressure and there now seems to be a clearer path for a top Democrat to make the runoff for a seat now held by retiring Republican Representative Ed Royce.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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