PoliZette

Republicans Face Huge Challenge to Keep Capitol Hill Majorities in 2018

President Donald Trump's approval ratings will likely make or break GOP's congressional control next year

Despite a booming economy and a general peace, Republicans could lose both chambers of Congress in 2018 elections, say GOP political observers.

With recent statewide losses in Alabama, New Jersey and Virginia, Republicans face a big challenge in retaining control of Congress. It’s a bleak picture with less than a year to go for crucial midterm elections, but Republicans can escape minority status, according to GOP political experts.

[lz_ndn video=33355341]

The main question appears to be: How much of a drag will President Donald Trump be on Republican candidates through 2018?

“The Republican Party has a fundraising advantage, safe seats — and Democrats have to defend many Senate seats,” Sam Nunberg, a former adviser to Trump, told LifeZette. “However, the party in power usually loses the midterms. The president does not seem to have legs for other candidates, a similar problem former President Barack Obama faced. Further, we have an ongoing civil war between conservatives and the GOP Establishment.”

That bitter war helped elect Democrat Doug Jones to fill the Alabama Senate seat, formerly occupied by Republican Jeff Sessions, until 2020. But to their advantage, the Republicans have fewer Senate seats to defend than do the Democrats.

Democrats have 26 seats to defend, including two in Minnesota alone, thanks to the pending resignation of Al Franken. Republicans have to defend only eight. And the House districts in each state, crucial to keeping at least a 218-seat majority, have largely benefited the Republicans. The GOP now has 239 of 435 House seats.

Yet GOP consultants are still worried about the Republicans losing both chambers of Congress in 2018, even the House, with Democrats seizing upon Trump’s unpopularity.

“Democrats need just 24 seats to win back the House,” GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak told LifeZette. “As of now, they are probably narrowly favored to do so, but it will be close, and primaries will determine the competitiveness of Democrat challengers.”

Republicans are safer in the Senate. Oddly, the Republican majority there is only two seats in the 100-seat chamber. After a disastrous showing in Alabama last Tuesday, the GOP majority shrunk, from 52-46-2 to 51-47-2.

But Mackowiak said the Democrats have a problem: a propensity of Senate seats to defend in 2018.

“The Senate structurally favors the GOP,” said Mackowiak. “In order for the Democrats to win back the Senate, they need a net pickup of two seats, but they must do this by defending 25 incumbents, 10 of whom are from states that Trump won and five of whom are from states Trump won with over 54 percent. Democrats have to defend all 10, then flip at least two of Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee. That’s a tall order.”

Republicans already have challenges, even in Republican-leaning Arizona and Tennessee.

In Tennessee, a solid GOP state, incumbent Republican Sen. Bob Corker is retiring. The front-runner for his seat appears to be Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican who represents a key swing region in Middle Tennessee.

But popular former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat who left office in 2010 after two terms, is also running for the seat. His candidacy could vex Blackburn’s run.

In Arizona, Sen. Jeff Flake, a one-term Republican, is retiring after his running battle with Trump on immigration damaged his poll standing. Former state Sen. Kelli Ward, a Republican doctor, is running for the seat, which will likely draw a strong Democratic challenger.

“The Senate requires an inside straight,” said Mackowiak. “The House only requires a decent tailwind.”

Still, a lot has to go wrong for the GOP to lose the Senate, said Mackowiak. Republicans hope to defeat Democrat incumbents in Indiana, Florida, North Dakota, and Missouri, while Democrats would have to hold all 26 seats and then pick up Arizona and Nevada, for example.

“The Senate requires an inside straight,” said Mackowiak. “The House only requires a decent tailwind.”

Trump’s low approval ratings are weighing down GOP candidates. Despite a time of peace and a roaring economy, Trump has an approval rating of only 32 percent, according to an Associated Press poll released Saturday. And 67 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump.

Numbers like those helped the Democrats win last week’s special election in deep-red Republican Alabama. And it carried them to victory earlier in 2017’s gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia.

But Democrats are still hurt by debt within the Democratic National Committee and unpopularity in many of the 30 states Trump won in 2016.

“If Democrats can nominate candidates where they will not be the issue but rather keep it a referendum on an unpopular president and Congress, then the wind is at their backs,” said Nunberg. “However, it is a long time until the election, and events can turn to the Republicans’ favor. [It’s] trending Democrat — but there is still time.”

PoliZette White House writer Jim Stinson can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter here. 

(photo credit, homepage images: Marsha Blackburn, CC BY-SA 2.0, by Gage Skidmore / U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Gabrielle Spalding; photo credit, article images: Marsha Blackburn, CC BY-SA 2.0, by Gage Skidmore / U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Daylena S. Ricks)

meet the author

Political reporter, LifeZette. Indiana University journalism grad. Boston U. business grad. Former Indiana, Alabama statehouse reporter, Daytona Beach editorial writer.