By Mike Lillis, Scott Wong and Lisa Hagen - 10-13-16 06:00 AM EDT
House Democrats are thinking the once unthinkable: That they have a real shot at winning the lower chamber next month.
Such a shift would require a robust wave, as the Democrats would need to steal at least 30 seats from the largest Republican majority in decades.
But the implosion of Donald Trump's presidential bid -- and the Republican civil war sparked by his incendiary campaign -- has left the Democrats with fresh new hopes that the GOP nominee will doom the Republicans down-ballot and return the Speaker's gavel to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after six years in the minority wilderness.
On Wednesday, the Democrats blasted out their first bit of evidence in the form of an internal poll finding that Stephanie Murphy, a Florida Democrat, has taken a two-point lead over Rep. John Mica (Fla.), a 12-term Republican who has endorsed Trump.
Even a month ago, Mica was considered the favorite. But the race has tightened since then, stoking the notion that Trump will be a considerable drag on the Republican brand.
Commissioned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the poll is the first district-specific survey to be aired following Friday's release of a 2005 video in which Trump boasts lewdly about grabbing a woman by her genitals.
The video has torn the Republicans apart, causing Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to distance himself from Trump's campaign and prompting dozens of GOP lawmakers - many facing tough reelection contests - to condemn their nominee and revoke their earlier endorsements.
The Democrats view the turmoil as an enormous boon to their congressional odds.
"There is a sense that what happened Friday is a game-changer," said Jeb Fain, spokesman for the House Majority PAC, which aims to help Democrats retake the House. "The districts that are close are going to start moving our way."
Republican strategists are quick to dismiss the Democrats' optimism, arguing that individual candidates will be able to connect to their districts and, where necessary, separate themselves from Trump.
"We hear Democrats predict cycle after cycle that they can win the majority, but it's clear their talking points are the definition of insanity," Katie Martin, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Wednesday in an email. "Our members' hard work is recognized by their constituents and will be rewarded this fall."
House Democratic leaders, who have an incentive to talk up their chances of winning the House to unlock wallets and generate enthusiasm, are doing their best to use Trump's controversy for momentum.
On a conference call with House Democrats Tuesday, DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Lujan (N.M.) said with Trump's meltdown the Democrats "are expanding our universe of opportunities," according to a source on the call. And Pelosi predicted the Democrats would retake control of the House if the election were held this week.
While not taking any contest for granted, Lujan said Trump's influence has made every close race a little more winnable, and he urged his Democratic colleagues to pitch in financially so the DCCC can expand its battleground.
"Put simply, with such a positive environment for Democrats, our budgets will ultimately be our biggest limitation," Lujan said, according to a second source on the call.
Both parties are now anxiously awaiting the results of new race-specific polls in battleground districts. The Democrats have commissioned several dozen such surveys designed to gauge the effect of the latest Trump scandal on vulnerable Republicans, many of whom have been successful distancing themselves from their combative presidential nominee. Those results should be trickling in by week's end. Both parties can be expected to release only good news.
"We'll see how these head-to-heads come out, and whether there's any trickle down," a House Democratic official said Wednesday, tamping down expectations of a House takeover.
In the meantime, the Democrats' campaign arm is targeting every House Republican by tying them directly to Trump, regardless of whether the lawmakers are sticking by their divisive nominee.
Those candidates who are still supporting Trump, like Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), are being attacked for being "blindly partisan" in backing a candidate who "not only assaults women, but is unfit to be president."
Those who have dropped their support for Trump, like Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman (R), the DCCC is accusing of acting out of "craven ... self-preservation."
Democratic contenders in tight contests, like Jacky Rosen in Nevada, are fundraising on Trump's new comments. And outside groups like the House Majority PAC have piled on, spending millions on new ads targeting vulnerable Republicans like Reps. Coffman, Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and David Valadeo (R-Calif.).
Then there are the second-tier Republicans, once thought of as safe, who Democrats now see as targets. They include Reps. Mica, Scott Garrett (R-N.J.), Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.). They're even eying a potential pickup in Montana, where freshman GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke won with 55 percent of the vote in 2014.
"If there's a real wave I think that one opens up," said a Democratic strategist.
The Democrats have their own liabilities at the top of the ticket. Clinton has long been under fire for using a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State; she's confronting a steady drip of Wikileaks dumps revealing embarrassing campaign emails; and her approval ratings have been consistently below 50 percent, according to national polls.
Still, the Republican divisions are unprecedented in modern times, and the Democrats have been only emboldened by an NBC poll, released Monday, showing that voters favor a Democratically controlled Congress by a spread of seven points - a jump above their three-point advantage just a month ago. Increasingly, they think Trump's name atop the ballot might be radioactive enough to deliver both the Senate and House back to their control.
"In the context of a wave election, there's historic precedent, and a significant number of seats currently held by House Republican were won by Barack Obama," Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told CNN this week. "If Hillary Clinton can improve on Barack Obama's performance slightly, as she looks like she'll do right now, we'll be in the House majority."