WASHINGTON—Democrats are on track to expand their majority in the House, nonpartisan election watchers say, running competitively in areas that President Trump won easily in 2016, as women and seniors move toward Democratic nominee Joe Biden at the top of the ticket.
The Democrats currently control 232 seats in the House, with 197 held by Republicans and one by an independent. The Cook Political Report puts Democrats’ likely net gain at five to 10 seats, while University of Virginia’s Crystal Ball also sees Democrats picking up seats.
“It’s the Trump effect,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report. “We’re seeing blue-collar women and seniors move away from Trump, and that’s compounded his problems.”
Mr. Trump trailed Mr. Biden by 11 points among registered voters in The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Thursday. Asked which party they planned to support in the House contest, 47% of respondents said the Democratic candidate, while 39% said the Republican.
In the 2018 election, votes for House Democratic candidates outpaced House Republican candidates by slightly more than 8 percentage points nationwide as Democrats took back the chamber, with voters citing health-care policy as a major issue.
Several common themes are playing out in competitive races nationwide. Many Republicans are framing their opponents as too liberal for the districts, tying them to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) or more liberal members of the party. Democrats in these races are largely distancing themselves from those same people, casting themselves as centrists who don’t support ideas such as Medicare for All or defunding the police.
In Michigan’s third district, U.S. Army Veteran Peter Meijer, a Republican, is running against Democrat Hillary Scholten, and both are highlighting issues that aren’t traditionally aligned with their party. The seat is currently held by retiring independent Rep. Justin Amash, who left the GOP over his opposition to President Trump.
For Ms. Scholten, her Christian faith and Republican endorsements play prominently in ads. Mr. Meijer, who is part of the family that started the grocery chain, is running as a traditional Republican and has emphasized stopping chemical contamination.
“I hope to build a strong and working relationship with the president, but at the end of the day I’m running for a separate branch of government,” he said in an interview the same day he introduced Vice President Mike Pence at a rally.
In rural Virginia near Charlottesville, Democrat Cameron Webb, a doctor who works directly with Covid-19 patients, is facing Republican Bob Good. Mr. Good won the nomination by ousting Rep. Denver Riggleman at the party convention amid criticism of the incumbent’s role in officiating a same-sex wedding.
“This district really leans toward individuals who aren’t polarizing,” Mr. Webb said. He has raised more than $4 million, while Mr. Good has pulled in less than a million. But the GOP candidate and former athletics director for Liberty University said Trump voters will be on his side.
“Our sense on the ground is that he’s more popular than he was four years ago,” Mr. Good said of the president.
Republicans are looking at picking up seats in districts they lost in 2018, hoping the president’s presence on this ballot will boost GOP turnout. Races in Oklahoma, New Mexico and Utah could be potential bright spots.
“Republicans lost this seat in 2018 by the slimmest of margins,” said Stephanie Bice, a Republican challenging Democratic Rep. Kendra Horn in the Oklahoma City district. Ms. Horn’s upset win by 1.4 percentage points two years ago shocked her own party.
Instead of being in a position to win back the majority, the GOP has been forced again to play defense. Privately, some Republicans say that breaking even on the night, or even losing a low-single-digit number of seats, would be a good result for the party.
“If the national political environment continues to deteriorate, we could lose even more than that,” a House Republican strategist said.
Some Republicans might need to win over voters who have soured on the president but who are wary of handing Democrats too much power.
“What Republicans need to do is to hold people that have been traditional Republicans, but are not happy with Trump, and keep them on the Republican side for the House and Senate. That’s really the secret sauce,” said Tom Davis, former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Outside Democratic groups are buying ads to target districts in Georgia, Arkansas and Alaska, in districts long considered safe for Republicans, while GOP-aligned groups are acknowledging the risk and spending money to defend candidates in many of the same areas. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC tied to House Republicans, has spent about $120 million on advertisements this election cycle.
In one example, Rep. French Hill (R., Ark.) is facing a tougher-than-expected race in a district that Mr. Trump won by 11 points in 2016. The Congressional Leadership Fund reserved $500,000 in advertisements to help keep Mr. Hill’s district, which includes the state’s largest city, Little Rock.
Republicans have cast his challenger, Democratic state senator and former public school teacher Joyce Elliott, as a radical liberal candidate who will raise taxes and defund the police. Ms. Elliott has said she doesn’t support defunding the police and she has focused her campaign on health care, calling for an expansion of the Affordable Care Act. She ran for the seat in 2010 and lost by 20 points.
Republicans have also made investments in New York Rep. Lee Zeldin’s district, which Mr. Trump won by 12 points in 2016. The Congressional Leadership Fund reserved $1 million in advertisements to help Mr. Zeldin.
His challenger, Nancy Goroff, has touted her experience as a scientist to pitch herself as the best candidate to handle the coronavirus pandemic. Mr. Zeldin, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, has highlighted his support for small-business relief and endorsements from law-enforcement agencies.
In advertisements, Republicans have tried to tie Ms. Goroff to Mrs. Pelosi, arguing that the candidate supports the speaker’s “radical liberal wish list.”
Democrats held the seat, which represents eastern Long Island, for 12 years before Mr. Zeldin ousted incumbent Tim Bishop in 2014.
“Now in 2020, these suburban moderates just can’t wait to vote against the president and if they go down-ballot, it spells trouble for Lee Zeldin,” said former New York Rep. Steve Israel, who also has been chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
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