Washington Wednesday: The race for the House

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 17th of October, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

First up on The World and Everything in It: Washington Wednesday.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He’s also a political correspondent for WORLD, and he joins us now to discuss the battle for control of the U.S. House.

Henry, good morning.

HENRY OLSEN: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

EICHER: Let’s begin with a couple questions about issues.

Last weekend a reporter for The New York Times got hold of a memo circulating among Democrats, and wrote about it. The memo warned Democratic candidates to shy away from immigration topics on the campaign trail.

Now that seems odd. Immigration is one of the biggest policy differences between the two parties.

What do you suppose the strategy is there?

OLSEN: Polls generally show that the people who care about immigration as a high priority are Republican voters. Democratic voters do not generally have that listed as a high priority. They are more interested in things like healthcare, and the same is true of independents who are leaning toward the Democrats. So, the point of staying away from immigration on the campaign trail is the same thing that you usually tell a candidate, which is focus on the messages that will advance your story and don’t play into the messages that will advance their story.

EICHER: Well, I’m old enough to remember the longtime speaker of the house Tip O’Neill, and he was famous for the phrase “All politics is local.” Meaning, every congressional race is different. Still, we will often see an issue or two coming to define every election season. Do you have the sense that that’s happened this year, and, if so, what might those issues be?

OLSEN: I think the primary issue that’s defining this season is the character and personality of the president of the United States. The issues are otherwise used primarily to rally the base that Democrats are talking about healthcare, largely because that is something that ratifies what the Democrats want and identifies the Democratic candidate with something that Democratic voters are interested in. Republicans often talk about building that wall for the same reason is that it identifies that candidate with a high priority issue of Republicans. They’re turnout-driving ads, but they’re really not necessarily creating the context for the race. The context for the race, largely, is: Do you support or oppose the president of the United States? And these other issues are generally extraneous to that.

EICHER: Let’s have a look at the polls real quick. RealClearPolitics shows it this way: Democrats, 205. Republicans, 200. That would be seats considered likely or leaning one way or the other. 205-200, Democrats over Republicans, which, if my math is right, leaves 30 other seats rated as tossups, and here’s what I think has to have Republicans very concerned: of the 30 tossups, 29 of them are Republican incumbents. It seems that the Republicans almost have to run the table to hang on to the House, if the polls are right.

Henry, how likely do you think it is at this point that we’ll see the House change hands?

OLSEN: I think it’s very likely we’ll see the House change hands absent the sort of defining news event that almost never happens during a cycle. I think that the prognosticators who do this in a hard mathematical way tend to give the Democrats between 70 and 80 percent chance of winning the House, and I would tend to err on the high side of that. I don’t particularly think that they will have the sort of win that has defined the 2010 wave or the 1994 Republican takeover, but the odds that they’ll get 23 seats over their current total, I think, is pretty large.  

EICHER: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, she says she plans to remain in power—win or lose control of the House. She’s led House Democrats since January of 2003—that would be almost 16 years.

But at least a couple dozen Democratic candidates have either declined to support her or said they have said they would oppose her.

How likely is it, you think, that she’ll remain in power? Or maybe the answer depends on how the midterm turns out?

OLSEN: Well, certainly if the Democrats do not obtain power, given the large expectation that they will, I think that would be the end of Nancy Pelosi. People are banking on her to deliver the money that will then fuel the rise of the Democratic-controlled House. If, however, Democrats do control, I think the questions are two: One, what’s the size of their majority? It’s much different if they have 219 seats than if they have 229 seats. And then how serious are these people who say they’re not going to support Nancy Pelosi? Does it mean they would not support Nancy Pelosi within the Democratic caucus, but they won’t oppose her on the floor? Does it mean they really will oppose her on the floor, not vote for a Republican, but deny her the majority of the House votes she would need to become speaker? We don’t know that yet. Until we know that, we can’t really know whether or not she’s going to remain speaker.

EICHER: Well, now regardless of the result of the election, Paul Ryan will not be speaker of the House. He’s retiring. What do you know about what’s happening on the House Republican side? Who do you suppose will be leading them in January?

OLSEN: Well, the easy favorite is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. He is the person who is next in line. He’s a very affable fellow who can raise money like there’s no tomorrow, and that’s always a priority for incumbents in the modern speakership. Now, if there’s something amiss, that Republicans have a much worse year than they think they’re going to have, he’s part of a leadership team that can be blamed for that, and people like Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan are waiting in the wings. Jordan, because he’s the head of the House Freedom Caucus, is highly unlikely to become speaker. There just aren’t enough hardcore conservatives to impose their will on the entire conference. He’s probably, if he’s serious with himself, running to define the terms of the incoming speaker rather than to become speaker himself.

EICHER: Calendar says we are less than three weeks away from election day and both parties are doing the final work to kind of make their closing arguments. Put on your political adviser hat. What does each party need to do in the final days to be successful, do you think?

OLSEN: Well, in the House, the House Republicans are in a world of hurt. There are 25 seats that they hold that Hillary Clinton carried. At least half of them are seats that Mitt Romney carried. They have not succeeded in attracting the vast majority of Romney/Clinton voters back to the party. They can’t change that in three weeks. What they would need to do is cut their losses on candidates who are in districts that, I would say, Clinton lost — won by 5 percent or more and focus on the very few close Clinton seats, because they’re swinging a small number of voters who could actually swing the outcome. They should focus more of their attention on the other seats.

They have a lot of people in what I call Obama/Trump seats, seats that voted for Obama and voted for Trump. There’s a number of Democratic opportunities there. They’ve tended to underinvest in those seats. I would figure I’m going to lose a lot of members of my conference because they can’t fight the demographics of their district. I think what we should do is make it tough for the other side, and I would devote a lot of resources in the last three weeks to going after some Democrats in shaky seats who may not think they’ll be challenged.

EICHER: Alright, Henry Olsen, senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. Henry, thanks for your time. Good to talk to you.

OLSEN: Good to talk to you. Thanks for having me back.

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File) In a Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018 file photo, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., speaks during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, in Washington.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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