By Scott Wong and Mike Lillis - 08-17-16 06:00 AM EDT
LAS VEGAS - Democrats scrambling to tie House Republicans to Donald Trump's embattled campaign like what they see in freshman Rep. Cresent Hardy.
The plain-spoken, 59-year-old Nevadan is the rare House Republican who's given the divisive, controversial GOP nominee a full-throated endorsement - and now appears to be paying the price.
Nevada's sprawling 4th Congressional District, which incorporates parts of Sin City, the north Vegas suburbs and rural areas running up to Reno, and is heavily comprised of African American, Mexican American, Mormon and suburban voters - all groups which Trump has alienated or struggled to win over.
On top of that, President Obama crushed Mitt Romney in the district by a double-digit margin in 2012, and top election prognosticators have put Hardy's seat in the "Leans Democratic" column.
Democrats believe they have a strong candidate in state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, a 36-year-old Mexican American immigrant and former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
The problem for Democrats is that they need more candidates like Kihuen. And perhaps more Republicans willing to run side-by-side with Trump like Hardy.
Trump's combative campaign is hurting Republicans down the ballot -- but not enough to flip control of the House in November.
The House advantage has shifted steadily in favor of the Democrats since Trump won the GOP nomination, in the eyes of leading election handicappers.
Yet the Democrats still appear far short of flipping the 30 seats they'd need to win back the lower chamber. (The GOP's 247 seats represents the party's largest majority since before the Great Depression).
"In the House, I have yet to see evidence that Republicans are tanking as a result of Trump being on the ballot," said David Wasserman, an expert on House races at the Cook Political Report.
Election analysts emphasize that a wave election delivering power back to the Democrats remains possible. But Wasserman put the odds at only between 10 and 20 percent, and predicts Democrats will pick up between 10 and 20 House seats -- far shy of the 30 needed to win back control.
That figure is consistent with other analyst predictions. Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia is forecasting Democratic gains of 10 to 15 seats; the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, yet another online election handicapper, is expecting "at least 10" with larger gains "certainly possible."
For Democrats, it's not for a lack of trying. The party's campaign arm has repeatedly tried to portray Trump as emblematic of all Republicans, even those who've lashed out against their nominee.
They've sought to tie House Republicans "like an anchor" to Trump's most incendiary positions and comments in hopes of gaining an advantage down ballot.
Democrats are clobbering Hardy over the release last week of a secret audio recording of him heaping praise on Trump.
At the Nevada Republican Men's Club this month, Hardy declared that he was "100 percent" behind the Manhattan billionaire and that he would do "whatever [Trump] wants me to do to help him get elected."
"I've said from Day One I'm going to support the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Some of his speak just gives me great angst but I understand he's not a polished individual and I'm willing to bet that he's honest, and I think that's how I got there," Hardy, a former state lawmaker who chalks up his frank talk to his 40 years in the construction industry, told The Hill.
"The people in the 4th district deserve someone who is clear and concise and consistent, and that's what I've been."
Hardy's history with Trump and minority communities in his district is much more nuanced and complex than Democrats have portrayed. He recently hosted a get-out-the-vote phone banking event with Asian American supporters and was endorsed this week by the Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce. Hardy also backs a pathway to legal status for some immigrants, and voted against a bill by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) that would have blocked agencies from spending money on Spanish and other language services.
During Trump's meeting with House Republicans last month, Hardy stood up and questioned the candidate on how he planned to appeal to Hispanics given his past anti-immigrant rhetoric.
"I'm probably the only Republican in one of the most diverse districts anywhere in the nation," Hardy said in the interview. "I represent all people. ... I care about people. I've made this part of my practice my whole life. And it think people recognize that."
Analysts say a variety of other factors will likely be enough to keep Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) holding the gavel next year.
First, GOP gerrymandering after the 2010 Census means that, geographically, most of the districts where Hillary Clinton will likely "run up the score" are already represented by Democrats, Wasserman said.
Second, there's evidence that many voters alienated by Trump are also interested in keeping checks on a Hillary Clinton presidency -- checks that would be provided by extending the GOP's grip on the House.
And third, Democrats have had a recruiting problem.
The unpredictability of Trump winning the GOP nomination meant Democrats were caught flat-footed when it came to identifying strong candidates who might have expanded the battleground. By the time Trump wrapped up the nomination in early May, 81 percent of districts had passed their deadline for candidates filing to get into the race, Wasserman said.
But Democrats say that same unpredictability means anything's possible this cycle. Earlier this month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) launched a campaign targeting 15 of the most vulnerable GOP candidates, including Hardy and Reps. Will Hurd (Texas), Rod Bum (Iowa) and Bob Dold (Ill.).
"Our offensive battlefield is based on 50 to 60 seats. Those are all places that are or very well could be in play," said Meredith Kelly, a top DCCC spokeswoman. "It's just too early to predict how many seats we'll will win on that battlefield. So many of those down-ballot races are based on the top of ticket, but it's such a volatile top of the ticket."
A handful of vulnerable House Republicans are in survival mode.
Dold, Rep. Mike Coffman (Colo.) and Rep. Carlos Curbelo (Fla.) have all been critical of Trump and seem to have made the political calculation that running against their own nominee may be their only chance to hang on.
Curbelo, a Cuban American who represents a heavily Hispanic, Miami-based district, said Monday that he thinks Trump is intentionally trying to throw the election to help Clinton.
But freshman Rep. Lee Zeldin has taken the opposite tack. The Long Island Republican has not only endorsed Trump - he's been a frequent surrogate for him on cable TV and even attended a fundraiser with Trump when he visited his district last weekend in the Hamptons.
The overwhelming support for Trump in Zeldin's district was just one reason why the congressman ultimately decided to endorse his fellow New Yorker after he locked up the nomination.
"When I travel my district, I see Trump flags, bumper stickers, yard signs, T-shirts, hats. I have not seen a single Hillary promotion of any kind anywhere in my district," Zeldin said in a phone interview. "There are people who support both candidates, but if the election was today it wouldn't even be close."
Mike Lillis reported from Washington.