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Clinton, Obama aim to boost Democrats in tight congressional races

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, right, is welcomed to the podium by by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. at a rally at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Monday, Oct. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

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Obama & Clinton on Senate races

Hillary Clinton appeared in New Hampshire Monday alongside Democratic Senate candidate Gov. Maggie Hassan and popular Sen. Elizabeth Warren as the presidential nominee launches a concerted effort to help her party regain control of the Senate and possibly even the House of Representatives.

"What I love about Maggie is that she is independent, she knows how to find common ground and how to stand her ground and that is exactly the kind of leader we need in the United States Senate because we have got to break through the gridlock and the dysfunction that has unfortunately marred Washington,” Clinton said.

With two weeks until Election Day and Clinton holding an average lead of nearly six points over Republican Donald Trump in the latest polls, Democrats are trying to avoid projecting overconfidence while also capitalizing on his stumbles to give their candidates a boost in down-ballot races.

Statistical models show Trump’s chances of victory shrinking. According to FiveThirtyEight.com, Clinton now has an 86 percent chance of winning. The New York Times Upshot blog puts Clinton’s chances at 92 percent. Both models also give Democrats nearly a 70 percent chance of winning the Senate.

President Barack Obama has stepped up his campaign to shackle Republicans who still support Trump or waited until recently to disavow him to their unpopular nominee. At fundraisers and rallies in battleground states, he has called out candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in Florida and Dr. Joe Heck in Nevada for the shifting stances they have taken regarding Trump.

The White House announced Sunday that Obama will be endorsing 30 more House candidates in California, Illinois, Florida, and other states.

“It seems that several close races are breaking the Democrats’ way, but they’re not necessarily the races we would have thought at the beginning of the cycle,” said David Lublin, a professor of government at American University and author of a blog devoted to Maryland politics.

Some vulnerable Republicans like Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) are outperforming expectations, but Democrats have a shot at seats in Nevada, Illinois, North Carolina and elsewhere that may have in the past seemed out of reach.

“I’m never one to count a single chicken before it’s hatched, but Trump’s meltdown and the inability of Republican candidates throughout the country to come to terms with it are hurting Republicans everywhere,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga.

Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, said the most vulnerable Republicans are the moderate ones, meaning the GOP lawmakers left behind may be more difficult for Clinton to find common ground with if she wins.

“I think the way things are going the Dems will retake the Senate and gain lots of seats in the House,” he said. “However, the Senate and House will be more conservative – Tea Party and Freedom Caucus – because the Dems will knock off the more moderate GOP House members.”

Over the weekend, Obama urged voters to give Clinton a Democratic Senate rather than gridlocking with a Republican majority. Democrats need five more seats to take the majority and four to set up a 50-50 tie with the vice president as the tiebreaker.

According to CNN, Clinton has already begun reaching out to Republicans on Capitol Hill about working together if she wins.

Republicans have attempted different strategies to distinguish themselves from Trump, with some being openly critical and others just trying not to talk about him much. They want his supporters to turn out and vote for them, but they need to balance that with appealing to anti-Trump conservatives and moderates.

“He’s really tarnished the Republican brand and associated it heavily with him,” Lublin said.

Some are now presenting Republican candidates as a check on a potential Clinton presidency, but the danger in that is that it presumes Trump will lose, something his supporters will not want to hear.

“’We’re going to lose so vote for me,’ that’s problematic,” Lublin said.

A Democratic takeover of the House remains a longshot, but if Trump’s support keeps dropping, it is no longer an impossibility.

“The Republican Party's grip on the Senate is tenuous, at best,” said Republican strategist Brian Fraley. “With Trump surrogates berating vulnerable GOP senators who have not drank enough orange Kool-Aid, the Trump campaign's last two weeks is shaping up to be a burn-it-all-down tantrum that could put the balance of power in the House in jeopardy, too.”

Lublin noted that Democrats have a superior ground game in many states, and a growing perception that Trump will lose could demoralize his supporters and depress turnout.

“You get the sense of a campaign circling the drain, not one rallying for a last stand,” he said of Trump.

Even if a widespread repudiation of Trump and the Republican Party does hand the House and Senate to Democrats in November, it is unlikely to signal a permanent sea change in Washington.

As both parties have learned in the past when they controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress at the same time, holding onto those majorities while pushing forward their agenda can be a challenge.

“I’ve talked to several high-ranking Dems who are acutely aware that the first two years need to be conciliatory and they need to recruit fabulous candidates for the Senate, build up a huge war chest, do deep opposition research, and not overreach,” Schmidt said.

When Democrats controlled the House and Senate early in Obama’s first term, the policies they pushed through contributed to a massive midterm swing toward Republicans in the House. President Bill Clinton had a similar experience in the 1994 midterms, with Democrats losing both the House and Senate.

Republican President George W. Bush had both chambers on his side for four years after the first two post-9/11 elections, but Democrats took the House and Senate in 2006. Democrats controlled Congress for President Jimmy Carter’s four years in office, but he lost his reelection bid and they lost the Senate in 1980.

Although the party out of power usually gains seats in midterm elections, Republicans could be saddled with baggage that leaves them unable to fully reap the benefits of any Democratic overreach.

“Trump may damage the brand, relationships, donor stream and infrastructure of the Republican Party so much, that a rebound in 2018 will be a lot tougher,” Fraley said.

The Democratic demographic advantages that have aided Clinton in the 2016 race will only grow unless Republicans find a way to appeal to Latinos, African Americans, and women.

Still, Varoga warned against presuming anything about the 2018 election at this point.

“Great chess players may think several moves ahead, but nobody – and I mean nobody – has any idea about what the next cycle will look like,” he said. “Considering that everybody got 2016 wrong, it might be time for the experts to take an aspirin and go to bed early, rather than getting more drunk on crazy predictions that too often never come even close to being true.”

GOP civil war aside, small majorities in both chambers would not give a President Clinton a blank check in 2017.

“That’s not going to leave the Republicans irrelevant at all, because if they take the House, it’ll only be by a couple of seats,” Lublin said.

Some of the Democrats who win in the House would be from conservative districts, so they would be vulnerable if they swing too far left. Clinton would likely need to negotiate for at least some Republican support for much of her agenda.

In the Senate, Democrats will be far short of enough votes to override a Republican filibuster, unless they move to limit or eliminate use of the filibuster entirely.

A Democratic Congress could move forward on issues that motivated their base in the election like immigration, reducing college costs and loans, and improving health care under the Affordable Care Act.

With a Democratic Senate, Clinton would have significantly more power to appoint liberal Supreme Court justices than President Obama has, something aging left-leaning justices may consider when deciding their retirement dates.

The impact of those new justices would depend on who they are replacing. If Clinton wins, the current opening on following the death of Antonin Scalia will be filled by either Obama’s nominee, the relatively moderate Merrick Garland, or someone more progressive chosen by Clinton, giving the court a liberal majority.

“I think she’s going to appoint as many Supreme Court justices as quickly as she can,” Lublin said.

Schmidt said the retirement of liberal justices would not change the composition of the court, but if another tragedy strikes one of the conservative justices, Clinton’s appointments could radically shift the court to the left.

It is still entirely possible that Trump could win the election and find himself working with a Republican House and Senate in January. Given that he has broken with the party’s traditional positions on trade and other issues, it is unclear how that would shake out.

Some Republicans have responded to criticism of Trump’s extreme rhetoric by insisting Congress could rein him in. Nothing in the party’s handling of Trump so far suggests they would stand firm against him.

If Trump sticks to the list of potential Supreme Court justices he has released, his administration would cement the court’s conservative majority for the near future.

All of this, at this point, is purely speculative, considering much could still happen before Election Day.

“The next 15 days are going to be weird enough, so anybody who says they know what’s going to happen in two years is out of their mind,” Varoga said.

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