WASHINGTON – Republicans are brandishing the latest weapon in their uphill fight for House control this November: votes by moderate Democrats to pass a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill promising benefits for immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally.
They're also celebrating their recent capture of a Democratic-held House seat north of Los Angeles. They say it shows they can win suburban districts whose centrist voters fled the GOP two years ago, costing it the chamber's majority.
Moderate districts ringing American cities are still the key House battleground. Yet five months from Election Day, Republican prospects for winning control seem slim.
GOP candidates are burdened by President Donald Trump’s lingering unpopularity with suburban voters, his slow and erratic handling of the pandemic and an economy with only the faintest heartbeat. They face a potentially crippling fundraising disadvantage against pivotal Democratic incumbents.
Coping with those disadvantages is all the more difficult for GOP congressional candidates in the era of Trump, who overshadows messaging by down-ballot contenders.
“For many voters, the 2020 election will be a referendum on the president. That’s the bad news,” said former Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa.
GOP operatives see an opening with the massive coronavirus bill crafted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. It passed the House with support by just one Republican.
Citing its direct payments for immigrant workers in the U.S. illegally and other “asinine provisions,” the House Republican campaign arm all but promised attack ads.
The House bill is dead in the GOP-led Senate and opposed by Trump. Underscoring the discomfort it produced, 10 of the 30 Democrats from districts Trump carried in the 2016 election voted against the legislation.
“For the Trump 30, anything Trump-related is in the danger zone,” said Scott Reed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s senior political strategist.
Yet Pelosi stuffed the bill with priorities Democrats could embrace, including nearly $1 trillion to help financially struggling local governments.
“My ‘yes’ vote shows I’m trying to get $612 million back to my district,” said freshman Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., citing the share he said his communities would receive. Kim represents a central New Jersey district Trump won in 2016.
Also buoying Democrats is moderate voters' unremitting dislike for Trump's abrasive behavior and harsh policies. The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll this month found 61% of suburban voters disapprove of Trump, little changed over three years.
To counter that, Republicans have sought House candidates like Mike Garcia, who won this month's Los Angeles-area special election. He's a businessman, retired Navy fighter pilot and son of a Mexican immigrant.
Garcia represents a nod toward diversity for the overwhelmingly white House GOP. Republicans have sought more female candidates, too, hoping to improve an embarrassing look: Just 13 of the 198 House Republicans are women, and two are retiring.
Garcia has no prior political record for Democrats to attack, flipping the script on dozens of freshman Democrats seeking reelection who now must defend two years of congressional votes.
Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., who leads his chamber’s GOP campaign arm, wrote colleagues that Republicans can regain the House by “exploiting the legislative records of our opponents with our diverse field of candidates.”
But money shortfalls are a problem.
All 53 remaining House Democrats in seats the GOP targeted last year, mostly from Trump-won districts and freshmen, have outraised their Republican challengers. In all but 10 of those races, the Democrat had at least a 2-1 advantage.
“For Republican challengers who don't have high name ID, that kind of financial disadvantage is almost insurmountable,” said former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., who like Dent clashed with Trump.
Only about four dozen of the House’s 435 districts seem seriously competitive. Republicans must gain 17 seats to win control.
Since Republicans have more challengers than Democrats, they’ve been hurt more by the coronavirus shutdown. The lack of face-to-face events has complicated attracting public attention and badly impaired fundraising, especially for little-known upstarts.
Despite virtual fundraisers and digital solicitations, both parties’ operatives say the ailing economy and lack of physical gatherings have significantly cut contributions. Democratic consultant Sarah Elizabeth Pole estimates a potential 50% drop in giving to congressional candidates this quarter, varying by campaign.
“Some people may not be writing as big a check as they would have three months ago,” said Ashley Hinson, a Republican Iowa state legislator challenging Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer.
Still, Hinson raised a healthy $1.6 million through March. And she said she’s “having the conversation” about possibly holding physical campaign events in late summer.
Wide-ranging Republican attacks on Democrats have included accusations that they're socialists and blasts for backing Pelosi to become speaker, impeaching Trump and not blaming China for the pandemic.
With Trump and the economy setting the background tone, Democrats have focused on health care, which carried them to victory in 2018. They're emphasizing Republican efforts to end former President Barack Obama’s health care law, which guarantees coverage for millions of Americans.
“House Democrats are the firewall against Republican efforts to take away health care during this worldwide pandemic,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., who leads her party's House political team.
Democrats must defend more seats, including from upstate New York and New York City's Staten Island; Oklahoma City; Salt Lake City; Charleston, South Carolina; Iowa; and Virginia.
Houston-area Democratic freshman Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, who is white, faces a well-funded GOP challenger in Wesley Hunt, a black Army veteran. In California's Orange County, freshman Rep. Gil Cisneros, who's Latino, has a rematch against Young Kim, a Korean American former state assemblywoman.
Republicans seem certain to lose two North Carolina seats with redrawn district lines and could lose another in west Texas. They're defending vulnerable seats in Pennsylvania; central Illinois; Syracuse, New York; and suburban Atlanta, Dallas and Houston. Higher November turnout may help Democrats oust Garcia in California.
Whatever campaigning looks like, Democrats have been drawn to the formulation Republican Ronald Reagan used to help win the 1980 presidential election.
“I ask people, ‘Do you like being sicker, poorer and weaker than you were four years ago?'” said Sri Kulkarni, a Democrat seeking a suburban Houston seat vacated by a Republican. “Because that's the situation we're in right now."