The battle for Congress is even harder to win this year

As the Republicans face defeat at the polls this Tuesday, they are turning a familiar crisis: the decennial blizzard of House districts, usually dominated by Republican and Democratic voters, against hard-right candidates making extreme statements and running a scorched-earth attack on opposing candidates.

Senate battles rage ahead as Democrats aim to win 23 seats Read more

In conservative areas, the lower chamber of Congress is rare. The number of districts Republicans can afford to lose is projected to exceed the 23 they picked up in the last election, which drew a historic wave of support for Democrats. The harder-right, Trump-loving Republicans are fighting from behind in a deeply divided GOP and are draining resources from races that should be basic wins.

A harbinger of this was a television interview earlier this week on Fox News with an unknown, 37-year-old candidate for the New York City school board. Henny Ray Abrams called the Democrats “anointed”, said they wanted to take away guns and were planning to abolish the second amendment. The segment drew 2.5m views.

“These things are amplified by the political environment in the country,” the Republican National Committee chairman, Ronna McDaniel, told reporters on Wednesday. “We’re going to win the House, I’m not going to give a probability.”

But the growing list of contested districts, not only in the heartland but urban areas like New York City and Pennsylvania, will test the resolve of the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, the motives of hardliners within the party and midterm norms of civility and pragmatism.

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“As this map grows clearer, Republican operatives are warning that several of their most vulnerable House candidates need to moderate their image if they want to try to hang on to what has become a kind of prize seat,” the New York Times’s Nate Cohn wrote this week. “The most important question is this: can a Republican soften his conservative image without repudiating his core supporters, and can that qualify as smart campaigning?”

Some Republicans want to keep the risk down for the sake of the nation. Others see a route to victory. “Republicans want to view themselves as the grown-ups in the room and turn a travesty into an unmitigated disaster,” Cohn wrote.

The polls show just how keen national Democrats are to change control of the House, and their unified action could exact a high price from the president.

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Maryland governor Larry Hogan has endorsed a Republican statewide candidate who has called immigrants from countries such as Syria “animals” and “monkeys”. John McGlennon, the chairman of the Maryland GOP, admitted it was a “Maddow moment” for the party.

Hogan denied that Maryland Republicans needed a Trump-style campaign to win a House majority. He endorsed state attorney general Brian Frosh, who has raised millions of dollars for his campaign and has none of the firebreathing, rightwing extremism in the House districts being fought in Maryland. He said the “responsible approach” was to engage with Trump voters.

But the race in Maryland’s only district with a competitive Democratic candidate, and the one in Virginia, are less predictable than most.

Hogan said Gillespie should attack Democratic candidates who had called for abolishing the estate tax and calling for stricter gun control.

“I don’t think it is what our country needs,” Hogan said. “I think, you know, the tone and the rhetoric has got to be dialed down and everyone have a chance to be heard. And just negative campaigning, I think, is wrong in these times and it doesn’t necessarily help people feel good about the candidates that they vote for.”

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