×

If the GOP wants to hold the House and Senate, it should focus on two things

U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan
Jim Bourg | Reuters
U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan

If the GOP wants to hold on to control of the House and the Senate, it comes down to two things: Obamacare and Hillary Clinton.

In presidential election years, members of Congress seeking re-election typically just ride the coattails of their party's presidential candidate. But, when your party's candidate is Donald Trump, that's not an option. Trump just isn't popular enough with voters – even among those who plan to vote for him – for others to jump on the Trump bandwagon.

That's where Obamacare and Hillary Clinton come in. These are pretty much the only topics in this crazy political season that are safe for any Republican congressional candidate to highlight in the last few days of the campaign in order to rally their troops.

On Obamacare, the news cycle has just turned very much in Paul Ryan and the rest of the Republicans' favor. Massive Affordable Care Act premium hikes for 2017 were just announced and the uproar over it even made the front pages in the middle of this brutal presidential election. Obamacare has never enjoyed even 50 percent voter approval in any national poll, and now it's likely to retest its lowest popularity levels. And it just so happens that premiums are skyrocketing the most in some of the states where we also see extremely close House and Senate races.

One of those Senate races is in North Carolina, where incumbent Republican Richard Burr is locked in a too-close-to-call re-election battle against Democrat Deborah Ross. But now we know that the mid-grade Obamacare "silver plan" in that state will see average premium increases of a whopping 40 percent for next year. This should clearly be Burr's rallying cry for the next 12 days. When you remember that people often don't really start paying attention to statewide elections until very close to Election Day, this Obamacare news should get Burr over the hump.

"The simple answer for Republicans caught in that quandary, Speaker Ryan chief among them, is to start presenting themselves as a safety valve against Hillary Clinton."

Then there's the big state of Pennsylvania, where those silver plans are going up 53 percent on average. Expect incumbent Pat Toomey to hit Democrat challenger Kate McGinty with that number all day and night. Even the Senate race in Illinois, where incumbent Republican Mark Kirk is trailing slightly behind Democrat Tammy Duckworth in most polls, could very easily stay in the GOP column now that the average silver Obamacare plan in that state is going up 43 percent for next year.

What's even more interesting about Burr, Kirk, and Toomey is that all three have been caught in a seemingly inescapable vise of being lukewarm about Trump but unable to garner a lot of moderate support either. Until now, that's left them earning the anger of Trump supporters while not having another base to lean on. Now they just happen to be representing three of the states with the biggest boosts in Obamacare consumer costs. Talk about luck.

There are similar opportunities for House Republican hopefuls in tight races. Six of the 23 most competitive House contests take place in states where 2017 silver Obamacare plans are rising by 10 percent or more. That includes Arizona, where an open seat in that state's Republican-held 1st Congressional district is up for grabs but the silver level Obamacare plan is rising a national record 116 percent for 2017.

The GOP could pick up a seat in Nebraska where Democrat incumbent Brad Ashford is in a toss-up race with Republican Don Bacon in a state where silver Obamacare premiums are about to go up 51 percent. Arizona and Nebraska are two more states where Trump hasn't polled as well as Republican presidential candidates in the past. The Obamacare issue is manna from Heaven for GOP Congressional hopefuls in areas like that.

But Obamacare alone probably won't be enough for the Republicans to hold Congress. One reason is that the GOP swept into control of the House in 2010 and both the House and Senate in 2014 mostly based on the Republican promises to repeal or at least diminish the ACA's reach. For the most part, that effort has fallen flat and a lot of GOP voters and potential voters have noticed. And many of the people most angry about that are Trump's core supporters who are eager to punish Republicans who have not shown strong support for the GOP presidential nominee.

The simple answer for Republicans caught in that quandary, Speaker Ryan chief among them, is to start presenting themselves as a safety valve against Hillary Clinton.

A lot of Trump voters do not believe their candidate is going to lose to Clinton on Nov. 8, but standing up to Democratic congressional candidates who support her is another matter. Republican congressional candidates need to bank on Clinton's unfavorable standing with the conservative base and among a good deal of moderates and hit that hard with numerous reminders that they oppose Clinton on personal and political grounds. Here too, the news cycle is helping the cause. With every new Wikileaks email showing evidence of corruption and collusion by or on behalf of the Clinton team, this is an easy sell.

Of course, the biggest advantage the Republicans have is incumbency. Seven of the nine most contentious Senate races involve incumbent Republicans. Eleven of the 17 Republican-held House seats deemed most up for grabs are also held by incumbent GOP representatives. History shows that even under the most unfavorable political circumstances, incumbents almost never lose congressional elections. It's one of the reasons why so many people of all political persuasions favor congressional term limits. But until those term limits come around, don't expect power on Capitol Hill to change hands very often.

Throw in the fortuitous and timely Obamacare news and a still very unpopular Democratic Party presidential nominee, and the Republicans have a great advantage to remain the majority party in Congress. The split in the party that resulted from the Trump-based civil war will most likely have its most dramatic effects after Election Day, not before.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.