Democrats plot Trump strategy to retake House

Story highlights

  • The unpredictable 2016 political landscape is bolstering Democrats' electoral prospects in key races
  • Top party leaders and Democratic candidates believe a Trump nomination would be a gift for Democrats

Washington (CNN)House Democrats are seeing the benefits of the "Trump effect."

More Latino immigrants are becoming citizens, there is an expanded battlefield of competitive races and polls are showing women and other key voting blocs tilting away from the GOP following a series of controversial remarks by Donald Trump.
The Republican front-runner's latest gaffe -- saying there should be "some form of punishment" for women who get abortions if the procedure is outlawed -- could be doing something that no one thought was possible: putting the House in play for a potential Democratic takeover.
    In interviews with top party leaders and Democratic candidates in battleground districts, the consensus is becoming increasingly clear: A Trump nomination, they believe, would be a gift for Democrats.
    "Donald Trump has been saying some of the most inflammatory, hateful, discriminatory, racist, filled-with-misogyny comments we've ever heard -- not just from a candidate for office, but especially a candidate seeking the nomination for president of the United States," House Democratic campaign chairman Ben Ray Lujan, the first Hispanic to hold the job, told CNN.
    For Democrats hoping to cut into the GOP's 58-seat majority in the House -- the largest since the World War II era -- the unpredictable 2016 political landscape is bolstering electoral prospects in key races from Texas to New Jersey. They see a Trump candidacy driving up turnout among women and minorities, while turning off moderate Republicans in swing areas and suburban districts, moving them closer to the 30 seats they need to recapture the House. Both sides acknowledge it's an uphill climb, but a lot can happen over the next seven months.
    Former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, a two-time chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, thinks the GOP is at risk of losing 20 seats, but says the way districts were drawn gives Republicans the upper hand in avoiding a wave that could sweep them out of the majority.
    But he added that Trump's candidacy could further roil the landscape.
    "It's something you have to worry about if the Trump campaign keeps deteriorating in some of these areas," Davis said.

    'Deeply personal'

    One of the most at-risk Republicans in the country is Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Miami-area Republican who represents a district with a huge Latino population. Curbelo is quick to stress he won't vote for Trump, and tells CNN that voters in his community recognize he doesn't share his views.
    "He's just been so offensive to so many people in our country. I think that maybe after two decades of division, so much partisanship in our country, to go to someone who is even more partisan and more divisive would do harm to the country," Curbelo said.
    But one of his Democratic challengers, Annette Taddeo, said her community feels "like a punching bag for some of the presidential candidates on the other side and that's been, I think, encouraging a lot of the people in my community to be more participatory in the process."
    Pointing to increasing Hispanic voter registration in her Miami-area district, the Colombian-born Taddeo cited Trump as the key factor.
    "Many of them that have become eligible to become citizens are becoming citizens so they can vote, so I'm seeing a lot of enthusiasm for our race, but it's also because it's just so deeply personal and not OK," she said.
    Lujan admits the rise of Trump has created an environment no one expected in 2016. While he won't predict he can flip enough GOP seats to retake the majority, he confidently told CNN his party would pick up seats this fall.
    "Speaker Paul Ryan and House Republicans cannot be separated from Donald Trump right now, and House Republicans know that," Lujan said in an interview in between meetings and fundraisers for a more than a dozen top-tier Democratic recruits visiting Washington recently.
    Ryan is aggressively working to insulate rank-and-file House GOP members from Trump by launching an effort to draft a positive policy agenda for them to run on. He dismissed any talk that he could lose his gavel, saying House Republicans are "in control of our own actions."
    "That means we are putting together an agenda to take to the country to show what we need to do to get this country back on the right track," Ryan told reporters. "We are doing exactly what people sent us here to do."

    Testing a variety of themes

    Democrats are testing a variety of themes to try to frame a nationally driven race with Trump as the standard-bearer for the Republican Party -- branding GOP candidates as extreme, anti-immigrant and unwilling to stand up to a bully.
    Former Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego is running to win back the Texas border-area district he lost to GOP Rep. Will Hurd in 2014. In an interview with CNN, he took a shot at Hurd for not strongly denouncing the billionaire mogul for remarks about immigrants and his plan to build a wall along the border that he said business owners and ranchers oppose.
    "I think he has kind of been cowering in the corner and staying away. For me, I think the issue isn't Mr. Trump. For me, the issue is if I'm your advocate, if I'm your representative, my job is to stand up for you and talk about you and defend you," Gallego said.
    Justin Hollis, a spokesman for Hurd's campaign, told CNN the congressman has said "100 times that building a wall from sea to shining sea is the least effective and most expensive way to do border security," and added, "the only reason Pete Gallego is talking about Donald Trump is that he has no policy positions of his own."
    In New Jersey, President Barack Obama lost the northern suburban district held by GOP Rep. Scott Garrett in 2012, but Josh Gottheimer, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, thinks he has a chance to defeat the seventh-term Republican, who is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservatives. Gottheimer repeatedly links Garrett to Trump, who he says voters in his area reject because he doesn't get the concerns of suburban voters, who are sick of partisanship and gridlock in Washington.
    "They don't want the extremism anymore, they don't want the tea party. And Garrett and Cruz and Trump, they are all bundled up in this extremism, out of touch. They want someone who is going to come and get things done," Gottheimer told CNN.
    But Garrett's campaign manager, Sarah Neibart, told CNN that Gottheimer is "lying about partisanship" saying the congressman has "supported over 90 percent of bills signed into law by this Congress, and 100 percent of the bills that passed the House from the subcommittee Garrett chairs had bipartisan support."
    Neibert argued Democrats have their own problem at the top of the ticket, saying "everyone who runs for Congress alongside Hillary Clinton while she is being investigated by the FBI will have the stink of corruption on them."

    Challenging in more districts

    Lujan initially planned to recruit candidates to run in 60-70 House districts, but Trump's candidacy is prompting him to find candidates in more places, and ramp up the effort to put them on the ballot through the filing deadlines, in some places into the fall.
    David Wasserman, a non-partisan analyst with the Cook Political Report, shifted race ratings on 10 House districts earlier this month, all indicating that the GOP's grip on those seats is now less firm because of Trump. In a report explaining the moves, Wasserman wrote, "so many assumptions have been wrong this cycle that it's difficult to be definitive about another: that the House majority won't be in play in 2016."
    Republican members and strategists publicly tout the math advantage they have: Democrats would need to pick up 30 seats to win back control. After redistricting efforts in 2010, the vast majority of House districts became more solidly red or blue, so the map for contested races is limited.
    The National Republican Congressional Committee brushes off the notion that the battle for control of the House is at all competitive.
    "House Democrats have been pushing their far-fetched fantasy about a wave election sweeping them to a majority every cycle since voters rejected Nancy Pelosi's speakership in 2010," Katie Martin, a spokeswoman for the NRCC, told CNN.
    And in areas with working-class white voters, Trump can potentially help House GOP candidates. His supporters argue he will boost turnout with new voters and unite the party to defeat the Democrat at the top of the ticket.
    "There's one person we know that's going to keep America safe and strong and put America first and that is Donald Trump," New York Rep. Chris Collins, one of just seven House Republicans to formally back Trump.
    Top GOP party officials and analysts also agree that despite Lujan's boasting of new recruits, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has failed to land top-tier candidates. They also point to weak approval ratings for Hillary Clinton, the Democrats' likely nominee, as a factor that could put their hope of taking over dozens of Republican seats out of reach.
    But privately, Republicans acknowledge those members in swing districts across the country -- which are largely in suburban areas -- are increasingly at risk to lose with Trump likely at the top of the ticket in November.
    Recently, Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Republican whose suburban district is right outside Washington, donated $3,000 in campaign money she received from Trump to veterans groups after taking offense to Trump's comments about prisoners of war.
    Davis, a Kasich supporter, said Republican incumbents in suburban or urban areas are in for a "tough ride" this fall if Trump is at the top of the ticket. He told CNN candidates in those areas should develop their own brand and avoid being on the same platform or being linked in any fashion to the controversial billionaire.
    Illinois GOP Rep. Bob Dold, who is running a rematch against former Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider, who he unseated in 2014, admits his district, which includes suburban counties north of Chicago, may be the most competitive one in the country. And he's quick to disavow Trump.
    "I've said before, I'll say again," Dold told CNN. "This is not someone that I support."