WASHINGTON — The Republican Party sits on more seats in the U.S. House than at any point since before the Great Depression. And while losing that 58-seat majority in the 2016 election had been unthinkable, Republicans worry that their control could be in jeopardy if the bombastic Donald Trump wins the GOP presidential nomination.
But Democrats and political analysts say that a similar change in political fortunes could also follow if U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, himself a polarizing figure, is the Republican presidential nominee next fall. It's a notion that even several Republicans are slow to dismiss.
While Cruz and Trump are enjoying success in running campaigns that appeal to the GOP base, some political experts and operatives say their messages could prove unpalatable to general election voters in dozens of GOP-held House districts in the Northeast and in some suburbs, where voters are often fiscally conservative but socially liberal.
“I think it has to play out, but there is nervousness with Cruz, who is clearly not part of the establishment, that you don’t find with [Marco] Rubio or [Jeb] Bush or [John] Kasich in some of those districts," said former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., an expert on House races. He added that although Cruz could be a drag in the Northeast, where there are vulnerable incumbents from Pennsylvania to New England, and in upper Midwest states like Michigan, the Texan could also boost candidates in the western U.S., where Republicans are in tough Nevada and Colorado districts.
Davis, however, cautioned that it is too early in the election to know which issues will drive voters to the polls next fall.
The concern among Republicans over Cruz does not appear to be on par with that related to Trump, whose rhetoric on Mexico and Muslims earned him critics across the political spectrum. But both Republicans and Democrats say that Cruz on the ballot could still have far-reaching effects on the House map in a presidential election year, which traditionally sees stronger turnout from Democratic voters than midterm elections.
Cruz is running a sharply conservative campaign based on the theory that he will energize evangelical voters to turn out and overwhelm the margins that President Obama racked up in 2008 and 2012.
Some House Republican campaign operatives worry that such a strategy would alienate voters in suburban Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit and in upstate New York.
“If you have someone like Sen. Cruz, the members who are most vulnerable are in states like New York and Pennsylvania and swing states, and if you have a nominee who is widely out of step with voters in those states, there’s no question that would be a recruiting tool for the Democrats," said GOP consultant Brian Walsh.
"The irony is that it is Republicans who are least aligned with Cruz who would pay the biggest price for the nomination," he said of more moderate incumbents in suburban districts.
Walsh, a former U.S. House and Senate staffer, would not subscribe to the House-is-in-play theory, arguing that even with substantial GOP losses, his party's majority is too large for Democrats to threaten.
"Given where the maps are, Cruz would make the House interestingly competitive and worth pulling the calculator out of the drawer to count seat by seat," said Stu Rothenberg, a political analyst with the Rothenberg/Gonzales Political Report.
Rothenberg added that a Cruz or Trump nomination puts a vulnerable Republican incumbent in a Catch-22. A vulnerable Republican incumbent might aim to differentiate oneself from such a nominee, but "doing that has a downside, too — you’re going to alienate some Republicans if you are distancing yourself from the nominee," he said.
Campaign operatives from both parties point to the 26 GOP-held seats that are in districts where Obama won a majority of the 2012 popular vote. The Republican fear — and Democratic hope — is that Cruz falls short of 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney's performance and throws those seats into contention.
A Cruz spokeswoman dismissed the entire notion, pointing to the party's successful 2014 midterm races.
"When Congressional leadership had the chance to actually stand on principle and fight for something — defunding Obamacare, stopping amnesty, reigning in spending — they instead ran for the hills," Catherine Frazier wrote in an email. "Meanwhile, Ted Cruz made the election a referendum on these issues, and it’s what every GOP candidate ran on when it came time to campaign."
"And because of that, Republicans won," she added. "The way Cruz wins the election is by energizing Republicans and then making the argument to independents and even Democrats for how his conservative principles are what will provide real opportunity and improve their lives."
But while the Cruz campaign rejects the idea, Democrats are actively making plans around a would-be Cruz or Trump nomination as they enter the final stretch of 2016 candidate recruitment.
Several House Democratic sources said the party pitch to recruits shifted this fall: If there is any time to run for Congress, it's the year when Republicans are postured to run a controversial nominee.
Their hope is to have candidates in place in the event Cruz or Trump is at the top of the ballot and the bottom falls out for downballot Republicans next November.
"We’ve have been actively recruiting in races across the country, but the farther the Republican presidential primary moves toward the fringes, the more clear the choice becomes for voters up and down the ballot," said Matt Thornton, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House’s Democratic campaign arm.
Thornton maintained that competing in 70 new districts has been the strategy since the beginning of the cycle.
Rothenberg called Democratic recruitment "mixed" but said a polarizing Republican nominee "could possibly make underwhelming Democratic recruits look more impressive and threatening."
U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., who is active with the House’s Democratic campaign arm, said that having any one of Cruz, Trump or retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson being the GOP nominee would be a boon to her party’s recruitment.
“I have talked to candidates who are waiting to file if [the nomination] goes that way,” Frankel said.
Katie Martin, the spokeswoman for the House GOP's campaign arm, said the Democrats' hopes are flawed.
“The significant holes in House Democrats' recruiting efforts not only proves that their confidence in riding Hillary's coattails is misplaced but also that they have no hope of recapturing the House majority in 2016," she said.
Adding to the skepticism: the way districts are drawn in several states across the nation, giving Republicans an edge in those states. As such, many Democrats lost hope years ago that they would have a shot at regaining control of the House.
Some Democratic members interviewed by The Texas Tribune even rolled their eyes at the idea that a fallible Republican nominee could put the party in control. The margin is just too large, and they expect the election to be about national security, a traditional struggle for the Democratic Party.
And Davis, the former congressman from Virginia, said the Democrats’ presidential frontrunner is polarizing in her own right.
“People have looked at Cruz’s record and say it isn’t mainstream in some areas. ... There’s always that fear in the swing districts that determine which party controls the House,” he said. “But Hillary Clinton is not that popular either.”
He said it is too early to speculate on what the “issue matrix will be a year from now.”
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. who ran the House GOP campaign arm in 2008, didn’t give voice to concerns about losing the House during an interview with the Tribune. But he said presidential nominees clearly matter down the ballot.
“The most important single factor next year if you’re a House member is going to be who’s running at the top of the ticket because the correlation between presidential and House votes today versus 20, 30 years ago is just astronomically different," he said. "Our fate is very much tied to whoever our nominee is."