Last week, POLITICO’s Ally Mutnick and Holly Otterbein reported on how former President Donald Trump’s “early dominance” in the GOP presidential primary has “spooked some potential down-ballot candidates” and made the job of recruiting top-tier talent into key swing seat contests difficult. I’ve heard similar hand-wringing from GOP strategists, including the polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, which released the results of a swing-state survey they conducted showing a ticket led by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis produced a generic ballot advantage of one point for Republicans, while a Trump-led ticket produced a down-ballot advantage to Democrats of three points.
So, how worried should GOP candidates be about the “Trump drag” in 2024?
One way to look at the potential impact of a Trump-led GOP ticket is to compare GOP down-ballot performance in key swing districts to Trump’s showing in those same districts in the three election cycles where he’s either been on the ballot or in the White House.
Let’s start at the beginning. In 2016, 23 Republican House candidates won in districts that Trump lost. These Republicans didn’t just barely outrun Trump; most of them out-performed their 2016 nominee by double digits — by a 20 point margin, on average.
One theory at the time was that the traditionally Republican voters in these districts were turned off by the brash and unorthodox GOP presidential nominee, but couldn’t bring themselves to support a Democrat down-ballot. After all, more than half of the Clinton/Republican districts had voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.
Another theory was that these voters, convinced that Hillary Clinton would win the election, wanted to see a divided government in Washington.
Two years later, those voters didn’t draw that same distinction between Trump and GOP House candidates. In 2018, Democrats flipped all but two of those 23 Clinton/Republican districts.
By 2020, these “swing districts” once again voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Biden won 21 of the 23 districts Clinton had carried in 2016, and House Democrats carried 15 of the 23.
In 2020, Republicans found success with candidates who were female and/or people of color. These candidates didn’t look, sound or act like Donald Trump or the stereotype of the GOP. Even so, almost all of the gains Republicans made that year were in districts that Trump had also carried. Only five challengers — David Valadao (CA-21), Young Kim (CA-39), Michelle Steel (CA-48), Maria Elvira Salazar (FL-27) and Beth Van Duyne (TX-24) — won in CDs carried by Biden. Another four incumbents — Mike Garcia (CA-25), Don Bacon (NE-02), John Katko (NY-24), and Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) — won re-election in Biden-won districts.
In 2022, Republicans narrowly won control of the House thanks to the fact that 18 Republicans won in districts Biden had carried in 2020. However, Republicans’ failure to flip other high-profile seats that Biden narrowly carried two years earlier (like MI-08, MI-07, PA-07, CO-08, NM-02 and OH-13) cost them a more robust majority.
To hold the House in 2024, Republicans first have to limit their losses in Biden-held districts. The most vulnerable Republicans are the five freshmen who outperformed Trump’s 2020 showing in their districts by double digits: John Duarte (CA-13), George Santos (NY-03), Anthony D’Esposito (NY-04), Mike Lawler (NY-17) and Lori Chavez DeRemer (OR-05). For example, Biden won the Central Valley-based 13th District by 11 points. Freshman Rep. John Duarte carried it by just under one point.
The next tier of vulnerable incumbents are the four freshman Republicans who outperformed Trump by five to nine points: Tom Kean Jr. (NJ-07), Marc Molinaro (NY-19), Brandon Williams (NY-22) and Jen Kiggans (VA-02).
Why did I single out the freshmen members? They are the least established, and as such are likely going to have the hardest time overcoming the pull of the national environment.
Democrats have their own vulnerabilities. But of the five Democrats in Trump-won districts, only one, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez in WA-03, is a freshman. Another two — Reps. Mary Peltola (AK-AL) and Jared Golden (ME-02) — benefit from ranked-choice voting in their states. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who outperformed Biden’s showing in her Toledo-based district by 13 points, has a well-established brand.
Redistricting in North Carolina this summer is likely to increase the number of Democrats in red-leaning districts. Even so, there’s not a lot of low-hanging fruit for Republicans to pick off in 2024.
To hold the House, Republicans are going to need to beat Democrats in districts where Trump will likely lose.
In 2016, when Trump was a novelty, 23 Republican candidates won in districts Trump lost. Four years later, only nine Republicans were able to do the same thing. In 2022, Democrats effectively branded the GOP as the party of MAGA and Trump, helping them to pick up a Senate seat and hold down their losses in the House.
This is why many Republicans are correctly worried that Trump on the top of the ticket could risk their majority.
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