By Lisa Hagen - 04-10-17 06:00 AM EDT
Republicans control both the House and Senate, but the unified GOP Congress might not last past the midterms. House Republicans are seeing signs that Democrats could take a significant number of House seats in the 2018 elections.
President Trump's approval ratings currently sit in the low 40s - a historic low for this point in a presidency. The GOP Congress, meanwhile, has achieved no major legislative goals in Trump's first 70 days in office.
Questions about Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election and the FBI's investigation into possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign continue to cast a shadow over the government and distract from the party's legislative efforts.
Enthusiasm on the left is high, giving Democrats hope that they will fill their coffers and increase voter turnout in special elections such as the nationally watched House special election in Georgia.
Still, there is plenty of time for things to change over the next 19 months. Winning back the House will be an uphill climb for Democrats even in the most favorable circumstances, since the way district lines are drawn means that only a few dozen seats are seen as competitive.
But there's no doubt that the early signs are positive for Democrats. The case for Democratic gains is bolstered by the historical trend that sees the president's party typically lose seats in the midterm.
"I think the House is in play," Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel told The Hill in a recent interview. "You always have to assume the House is in play just because of history.
"So you want to make sure you are running as if you are behind always. We're taking the House very seriously."
Republicans have held the House since 2010, when a wave election amid ObamaCare backlash propelled them to the majority. They largely defended that historic majority in 2016, losing only six seats. And, looking ahead to 2018, the House GOP campaign arm reported a record haul in the first quarter of 2017, with nearly $36 million in contributions.
In 2018, Democrats need to net 24 seats to regain the majority - although that number could change depending on the outcome of five special elections.
The party's success will depend on candidate recruitment, ample fundraising and factors like Trump's approval rating closer to Election Day. If it continues to hover in the low 40s, though, that will likely be detrimental to GOP incumbents.
"If President Trump's popularity remains where it is, that's going to be a really hard thing for Republicans to run on," said a former aide at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).
Even with Republicans in charge of both Congress and the White House, the party has seen little movement so far on their legislative issues, including a bill to repeal and replace ObamaCare.
Republicans campaigned on dismantling ObamaCare for seven years, and House GOP leadership proposed the American Health Care Act last month with Trump's full support. Yet the conservative and moderate wings of the party were unhappy with much of the bill, which proved deeply unpopular in polls and was ultimately pulled before the House vote.
"The health debacle is a huge problem for Republicans and compounded by the fact that we don't have anyone to blame anymore," a former National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) staffer said.
In the wake of the bill's defeat, Republicans are looking to again compromise with both GOP factions. But lawmakers home for the April recess must face conservative constituents frustrated by the party's failure to pass their bill - as well as ObamaCare supporters agitated by the threat of repeal.
Some GOP strategists are fretting over a potential deal with the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which strongly opposed the initial bill. The group's chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), said most members would support it if it scrapped three ObamaCare regulations, including one that insurers must cover people with pre-existing conditions.
"If we're going to let the Freedom Caucus get [rid] of coverage for preexisting conditions, we might as well give up the House right now," the former NRCC staffer said. "Those TV ads could be deadly."
Democrats feel emboldened by the botched healthcare vote, slamming GOP lawmakers who voted for it in committee. They also believe the bill could position them better with senior voters, who have gravitated to the GOP since 2006.
"For certain demographics, they're putting forward policies that have the potential to really turn off voters that Democrats need," the former DCCC aide said. "A number of things Republicans have proposed ... they're totally toxic to older Americans.
"The number of opportunities the Democrats have may be smaller [than in 2006], but there's still a pathway to win the majority."
Hot-button issues like healthcare currently dominate the electoral narrative, but NRCC spokesman Jesse Hunt points out that they could fade by 2018 as other issues come to the forefront.
"[Republicans] shut down the government [in 2013] and that never reared its head in 2014," Hunt said. "So I think it's really early to make any determination about what direction things might go in as far as what's going to decide the majority or whether or not it's going to flip."
Still, Democrats are bullish that they can reverse their fortunes in 2018. Rep. Ben Ray Luj n (D-N.M.), chairman of the DCCC, said in February that the party will flip seats, though he wouldn't say whether they'll win back the majority.
The DCCC has an early list of 59 targets, though many of them are only reachable if 2018 turns into a wave election. And the possibility of major Democratic gains will largely be out of the party's hands, noted Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball.
"Democrats have a path to winning a House majority next year, but that possibility is highly dependent on variables over which they have effectively no control," Kondik wrote last month.
"Democrats only begin with a short list of real targets next year. But Democrats have a much longer list of potential targets ... which they could put into play if the national mood breaks in their favor."
Since Trump's victory, Democrats have been fired up and are protesting at GOP town halls across the country.
Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said Republicans underestimated the intensity of the healthcare debate, saying recent district town halls were like nothing he's seen before in his political career.
"I think a part of it was a discounting from a Republican standpoint of the amount of energy that is behind the healthcare debate," Sanford told reporters last week.
"I saw more political energy than I have ever seen in my entire time in politics," Sanford said of the town halls.
And Democrats are looking to energize voters in Georgia's special election to fill the seat left vacant by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. The party has gone all-in for 30-year-old Jon Ossoff, hoping to make the race a referendum on Trump. A victory in a reliably conservative district could serve as an early indicator and a preview of the midterm electorate's mood - and further disrupt congressional Republicans.
"If we're competitive in seats like that, that's an ominous sign for Republicans," the former DCCC aide said.
Special elections in Montana and Kansas are also starting to trigger last-minute attention. Republicans have put in money fighting the Democratic nominee in Montana's special election, while the party has unexpectedly gotten involved in Kansas, with help from Vice President Pence and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
Still, strategists from both parties caution that these races are unique, primarily serving instead as a way to test messaging and learn lessons for future elections.
For Democrats, putting the House in play will require a party-wide message that mobilizes voters to head to the polls.
"They've got to really develop and hone in on a message that is aspirational, that really draws a clear contrast with the other side and motivates our base to turnout," the former DCCC aide said.
Cristina Marcos and Ben Kamisar contributed.