The Real Comey Effect

Back on October 12th while Donald Trump was staggering from the fallout surrounding the Access Hollywood tape, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Ben Ray Luján circulated a memo he had solicited from a man named Evan Coren. According to the memo, Evan Coren “served 7.5 years on the National Security Council staff” and “has 20 years of experience working in Democratic politics and non-partisan municipal politics.” He also has experience as a campaign manager.

Coren had taken a look at all 435 House races with an eye for finding gems in the rough. The DCCC was already committed to 43 Red-to-Blue candidates and seven more “emerging” candidates. Coren’s job was to identify additional seats that could fall in an especially bad wave election, as then seemed much more possible than the polls indicate is likely today.

His approach wasn’t anything special. He looked at Republican representatives who were either low on money or simply not spending any money on media and ads, or both, and then did a quick survey of how the districts had voted in the 2008 and 2012 elections. This was a potentially flawed analysis because the districts were redrawn between the 2008 and 2012 elections, and it’s not clear to me if he adjusted his numbers to reflect that. Either way, though, it provided a framework for a strategy he recommended to the DCCC.

Essentially, he wanted to replicate “what the Republicans did to us in 2010” and catch a lot of them napping by dumping one million dollars (each) into a couple dozen races that no one thought were competitive. The money was to be spent on “media buys, web ads, social media ads, Spotify/streaming services ads, and (energizing) GOTV volunteers.”

One example he gave was in the Houston suburbs where Rep. John Culberson is taking a challenge from James Cargas. Here was his justification for selecting this district (emphasis in original).

Notes: This suburban Houston district is the type of district where Trump’s collapse with suburban women will have the biggest impact. The district is 31.5% Latino, 12.2% African American, 9.6% Asian and 1.7% Two or more races. Trump should be toxic in this district and with outside support James Cargas can win. Add to this Culberson’s extremely low Cash on Hand and this should be a top target for outside spending.

In other words, it’s both a minority-majority district and a district filled with white suburban women who are appalled by Donald Trump’s behavior and attitude towards women. In addition, he realized that despite sitting on the normally lucrative House Appropriations Committee, for some reason Culberson had “only $132,574 Cash on Hand at end of July 2016.” He appeared to be a model of complacency, which could be understood considering that Texas’s Seventh District voted 40% Obama, 59% McCain in 2008 and 39% Obama, 60% Romney in 2012. Although Mr. Coren didn’t mention it, Culberson also pulled a relatively modest 57% in a three-way primary in March, indicating that nearly half of his own Republican base isn’t all that enthused about his performance in office.

Now, I don’t know what the DCCC did with this memo and this advice. Looking at this morning’s Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, I see that Early voting numbers in Texas continue to smash records.

So far, more than 2.6 million voters in the state’s 15 largest counties — 27 percent of registered Texans — cast their ballots in the first seven days of early voting, creating such a rush that many poll workers quickly ran out of the coveted “I voted” stickers.

And there are still several days left to vote early, not to mention Election Day itself.

“This year especially, early voting is a marriage of convenience and exasperation,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “Voters are ready for the long election season to be over and for many the prospect of having it done early allows them to put the 2016 election in their rear view mirror.”

Four years ago, 1.87 million Texans, 21.6 percent, had voted at this point. Eight years ago, 1.77 million voters, 20.9 percent, had weighed in, state records show.

Rottinghaus said there’s no surprise that turn out is up, since the state had a record 15.1 million Texans register to vote this year…

…In the first seven days of early voting, turnout was high statewide in major metropolitan areas, with Harris (Houston), Dallas and Tarrant counties topping the list, according to the most recent records of in-person and mail-in ballot turnout from the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

In the Houston area, “residents cast more ballots in the first four days of early voting than five states did in the entire 2012 presidential election. Locally, the number of ballots cast over those days was 45 percent higher than the same period four years ago.” The Seventh District “includes several upscale areas of western Houston, wealthy enclaves of Houston, one incorporated suburb, large areas of unincorporated suburbs, and the heavily Democratic Neartown area.” It, of course, matters which parts of Harris County are voting in record numbers, but it’s clear that previous turnout models are unlikely to reflect the actual turnout this time around.

Trump has skewed the map, alienating and mobilizing Latinos, turning off suburban women, and actuating previously apathetic supporters. There’s no telling whether Culberson was vulnerable back on October 12th when this memo was circulated, or if he’s still vulnerable today. But there are many districts in this same rough category where a Trump collapse coupled with a late surprise investment might have netted the Democrats some seats.

If James Comey’s decision to inject himself into this race is going to change anything, it’s less likely to hurt Hillary Clinton than it is to save a guy like Culberson.

And that, maybe, was the point.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.