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Which Party Will Hold the Senate and House?

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Which party is going to control the House and hold a majority in the Senate in January 2017? Even if you regard the presidential contest as over -- a proposition for which there is powerful evidence, including Donald Trump's current campaign message choices -- the answers to those questions are, respectively, mildly and very unclear.   

The Trump campaign has a legitimate gripe against mainstream media for their nonstop coverage of the groping charges against him and their downplaying -- or complete blackout -- of the WikiLeaks and other revelations about Hillary Clinton and her supporters inside and outside the Obama administration. Does she really, as she swore under oath, have no recollection of key facts about her email servers?   

Her advisers' contempt for the Roman Catholic faith and willingness to use politics and government to transform it should put a chill up the spine of anyone who thinks the Framers got it right with the First Amendment in banning the federal government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion.   

Mainstream (and other) media were happy to give Trump lots of airtime in the primaries, while the Clinton folks, we learn, tried to manipulate the nomination process in his favor. But the First Amendment guarantees a free press, not a fair one. Any Republican candidate has to expect unfair treatment, and one vulnerable to damaging last-minute stories maybe shouldn't run.  

So far, the evidence suggests that the effect of all this on down-ballot races is less than you might think. Americans have been voting mostly straight party tickets for 20 years, as the major parties' presidential and congressional candidates have been closely aligned. The Republicans are obviously not so aligned this year. The fact that Trump hasn't been endorsed by the men who won six of the past seven Republican nominations underlines the point.   

Polling conducted between Sept. 26 (when the first debate was) and Oct. 12, according to FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten, shows Trump losing ground in all the 26 states with Senate races being polled. But it also shows Republican candidates gaining ground -- some a little, some a lot -- in 24 of the 26 states. The exceptions are Illinois, where Republican incumbent Mark Kirk has always been the underdog, and Colorado.   

Senate races are relatively high-visibility contests. Enten's numbers show that even as Trump's chances have fallen, Republican Senate candidates have gained ground in key races in Wisconsin (where many had given up on incumbent Ron Johnson), Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Nevada (the one possible Republican gain). His website rates the chances of Republicans limiting their net loss to three, which would guarantee their majority, as slightly under 50 percent.   

There's not much publicly available polling in House races -- aside from the two parties' committees' releases, which understandably are limited to those showing their side winning or doing better than expected. But information about district demographics provided by The Cook Political Report's David Wasserman helps identify districts where a Trump downdraft could cost Republicans seats.  

Of the 26 Republican seats Cook labels toss-ups or only leaning Republican, only eight have large pluralities of anti-Trump demographic groups -- e.g., Latinos and white college grads -- over non-college-educated whites, who lean toward him. And five have many more non-college-educated whites than college grads and Latinos combined.   

Republicans also stand to lose a net one or two seats because of mid-decade redistricting. And they have fewer targets -- only seven Democratic seats are rated toss-ups or leaning by Cook -- for offsetting gains. Wasserman forecasts the net Republican loss at 10 to 15, with Democrats needing 30 to make Nancy Pelosi speaker again.   

Paul Ryan's widely reported conference call Oct. 10, the morning after the second presidential debate, gave approval to what had already been going on -- disavowal, to varying degrees, by Republican House members in anti-Trump-leaning districts. Some leading authorities, including Karl Rove and National Review Editor Rich Lowry, think it unwise to have gone public on this. Better to keep mum and let members do their thing.   

The problem with this is the one factor pollsters have trouble projecting -- turnout. If voters believe that Hillary Clinton is sure to be elected, they might elect Republican senators and representatives as a check and balance. But some Republican-leaning voters might be so dismayed or disgusted as to not bother voting at all. Ryan's message to them is that it still matters.   

Turnout has been declining, not increasing, during the Obama years, and the Clinton campaign is clearly worried about low turnout, especially among millennials. The Senate and House contests may turn on which side's turnout sags most.   

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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