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Commentary: Believe it or not, the GOP could keep the House

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., talks to reporters while announcing the House Democrats' new infrastructure plan during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol February 8, 2018 in Washington, D.C.

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Bluto: Over? Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?
Otter: [whispering] Germans?
Boon: Forget it, he's rolling.

And it's not over now!

They may not be as articulate as Bluto from "Animal House," but America's Republican loyalists — particularly the #MAGA hat crowd — want the rest of the country to know that they don't accept the predictions of certain electoral doom this November.  And it turns out they have some data to keep their hopes alive.

You just have to look really hard to find it.

At first glance, the topline numbers look terrible for President Trump and his party: The president's approval is an underwhelming 43 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, and the GOP is trailing on the generic ballot by about 5 percent. 

At second glance, the view isn't much better. Of the 62 seats rated competitive by the Cook Political Report, Democrats only need to win 25 of them (40 percent), while the GOP needs to win 38 (61 percent). One reason for those lousy numbers is the surge in GOP retirements: 26 — the highest number of GOP departures since 2006. That's the year the GOP lost control of the House.

Meanwhile, just 8 Democrats are retiring, the fewest since — you guessed it — 2006.

So where is the good news? Well, it depends on your definition of the word "good."

In the Wall Street Journal this week, longtime GOP strategist Karl Rove breaks out with this burst of optimism: "Republicans still will lose House seats, governorships, statewide offices and state legislative seats. The question is how many."

And that is the hope GOP House members cling to: Not that they won't lose seats, but that they can keep the losses just small enough to hold their majority. Rove says they have "a fighting chance."

"Republicans must re-elect almost all of their 36 incumbents whose districts are R+7 or less, put special effort into the eight open seats rated toss-ups or lean Republican…and go hard after the handful of open Democratic seats that lean Republican."

"If they do this they might — just might — hold the House," Rove believes. And he's not alone.

"No, this election is not 'baked,'" says Stanford University political scientist Doug Rivers. In a podcast interview this week, Rivers and fellow Stanford academic David Brady argue that while the GOP numbers are bad, they might not be quite bad enough for Democrats to win the majority.

"On the generic ballot question, we think +6 for Democrats makes control of the House a toss-up," Rivers said, "while a Democrats +4 means the GOP could probably keep control the House."

Brady says the trend will be for the generic ballot polling to tighten as the election approaches and Republican leaners come home to the GOP. "Yes, Democrats are +6, but there's still a third of races where we don't yet know candidates," Brady said. Once there's a candidate, there will be a target — and that will likely tighten up the polls.

Still, Rivers says, "it's not going to be a good Republican year."

Except in the U.S. Senate. The odds of the Democrats taking the upper chamber were always long. Having a Supreme Court debate on the eve of the election made them even longer. Just ask Sen. Claire McCaskill, who recently said it did not matter politically how she would vote because, either way, "there's going to be a lot of people who are not going to be happy with it." 

Of the seven senate races listed as toss-ups by RealClearPolitics, six of them are in states President Trump carried in 2016. Assuming Democrats hold onto West Virginia and win Nevada and Arizona — none of which is guaranteed — the GOP would still pick up three seats. That's a lot more breathing room for Mitch McConnell.

There's another trend that's keeping Republicans from surrendering to despair: They keep winning. As President Trump tweeted after the GOP's possible razor-thin victory in a heavily-Republican Ohio district on Tuesday:

No major media outlet has yet called the Ohio race for either candidate. But President Trump speaks for many Republicans when he points out that winning ugly is still winning. Sure, talk-radio conservatives understand that the margins of victory in these races were far too close for comfort — Democratic candidates have outperformed their party's average performance by about 5 points in the competitive special elections since Trump's election — but their mantra is "Trump finds a way to win."

And given what they saw on a Tuesday night in 2016, can you blame them?

Another data point that's been largely overlooked is the GOP's gerrymandering advantage. One of the legacies of Obama's disastrous impact on the Democratic party is the GOP's 33 governorships and outright control of 24 legislatures. And like the Democrats before them, Republican statehouses drew maps favorable to their party.

The result? According to data from the National Democratic Redistricting Committee — a partisan organization headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder--in 2012, Republicans won a 33-seat majority in the House despite winning fewer than half of all votes. GOP gerrymandering won't stop a wave, but it could rescue some Republicans in close races.

And finally, there's the GOP's not-so-secret weapon: Nancy Pelosi. Analysts believe that it was Republicans' ability to tie Democrat Danny O'Connor to the former speaker in this week's special election in Ohio that may have pushed their candidate over the top. Pelosi is so polarizing that many Democratic candidates won't commit to backing her for Speaker if they take back the House. And Republican-leaning independents like her even less.

Die-hard Republicans say the pre-season is over, and they went 8-9. Democrats may have won some moral victories by keeping the races close, but as the RNC said in a blast email after their apparent win in Ohio on Tuesday, "Moral victories don't get a vote in Congress."

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.