WASHINGTON ― If Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) cannot preface his name with “Senate Majority Leader” come January, he may have FBI Director James Comey to thank.
That’s according to election analysts and political operatives, who think that Comey’s bombshell announcement about Hillary Clinton’s emails 11 days before the election may not have done much to hurt her chance at the presidency, but could cost Democrats a number of House and Senate seats.
In down-ballot races, where voters make up their minds much later, the effect could be far more disastrous for Democrats. While many voters are unlikely to change their mind about voting for Donald Trump or Clinton, many voters are only now making up their minds on House and Senate races.
Perhaps the biggest impact is likely to be in the Senate. With a Clinton win, Democrats need a net gain of four seats to take control from the GOP. They felt things were going their way in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Nevada (a Democratic seat they are defending), with growing chances of upset wins in North Carolina and Missouri.
But then Comey announced with no elaboration that the FBI was looking into new emails related to the investigation into Clinton’s private email server.
Even though he concluded on Sunday that his original determination, finding no evidence of crimes, was still accurate, Democrats’ down-ballot progress took a beating.
Princeton University election prognosticator Sam Wang estimates Schumer will have one to three fewer wins in his column as a result.
“After the first Comey letter, the presidential race moved several percentage points toward Donald Trump. Because Presidential polls and Senate polls tend to move up and down together, this suggests that Senate Democratic candidates would be hurt,” Wang told The Huffington Post in an email. “Currently, polls put four Senate races as being between a tie and the Republican ahead by 1 percentage point: New Hampshire, Missouri, Indiana, and North Carolina. If these seats go or stay Republican, a likely driver is the Comey letter.”
Wang added that if races in Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin go the Democrats’ way, which he admitted was still a big if, it would give Democrats control of 49 Senate seats. The math means that Democrats have to win one of the four races in New Hampshire, Missouri, Indiana or North Carolina.
“If Republicans win all four, it would probably be thanks to the Comey intervention,” Wang said.
Democrats have a much smaller chance of taking control over the House, but they had been expanding their target list before Comey roiled the contest.
“The Comey intervention blunted momentum that a number of Democratic challengers were experiencing in the home stretch,” one Democratic strategist told HuffPost. “There are at least 5 to 7 districts that were shaping up to be very competitive, but have moved out of reach since the Comey letter. And there just isn’t enough time for Democrats to make up that ground again.”
Although Democratic strategists were hesitant to provide HuffPost with actual districts where they thought Comey’s announcement might have had an impact ― one strategist told us they didn’t want to cut individual candidates off at the knees ― the argument was that Comey had either motivated Republicans who were on the fence to go vote, or had introduced enough doubt about Clinton into voters’ minds that they wanted a check against a Democratic president.
And in general, this might come into play in the suburban, affluent, well-educated districts where Democrats thought they could be competitive ― districts like Kansas’ 3rd, where Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder was plagued by an unpopular governor and an unpopular GOP nominee. And Virginia’s 10th, where Rep. Barbara Comstock had tip-toed around Trump all year. And Minnesota’s 3rd District, where Rep. Erik Paulsen was already counting on a high number of split-ticket voters.
All of those races, at one time or another, looked quite winnable for Democrats, but have started to move away in the final days.
Perhaps the greatest tell of the Comey effect is the generic ballot between Republicans and Democrats. After months of Democrats consistently holding a four- or five-point lead on the question of who voters would prefer to represent them in Congress, Republicans have taken a small lead in the last three polls.
One caveat in pegging the Democrats’ downturn on Comey is that some surveys have found only minor swings related to his revelations. But it’s clear it didn’t help ― and that races changed quite a bit in the last week before the election. Where Democrats had some momentum, Republicans were able to turn it back and make a clear case that they would be better at providing a check against Clinton. And in states and districts where the winner is expected to be determined by small margins, that might make all the difference.
The HuffPost Pollster’s predictive model still gives Senate Republicans just a 9 percent chance of holding on to the majority.