Sabato’s Crystal Ball
November 30, 2017
In the aftermath of the 2014 midterm election, when the party that didn’t hold the White House (the Republicans) gained ground in the House for the 36th time in 39 midterms since the Civil War, I wrote the following in the Center for Politics’ postmortem on the election, The Surge:
Practically speaking, though, House Democrats might have to root for the other party in the 2016 presidential race. Why? Because given what we know about midterm elections almost always going against the president’s party in the House, perhaps the next best chance for the Democrats to win the House will be in 2018 — if a Republican is in the White House.
We didn’t see many House Democrats rooting for Donald Trump to win the general election in 2016, but the simple fact of his election made a Democratic House takeover much more likely in the 2018 midterm just because of the longstanding trend for the presidential party to lose ground in the House. The electorate often uses the midterm to put a check on the executive, particularly if that executive is unpopular. “The midterm election pattern,” writes Andrew Busch in his study of midterm elections, Horses in Midstream, “virtually guarantees that the president’s party will be hurt at regular intervals. The extent of that damage may vary considerably, but the fact of it rarely does.”
We know we’ve been a broken record on the point of the presidential party midterm penalty, but it is so well-established that it merits frequent mention. Obviously, the world changed considerably when President Trump won the White House, and the political burden of holding the presidency shifted from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party when that happened.
We’re a little bit past the halfway point between the last national election, in 2016, and the next national election, in 2018. In that time, the Democrats’ chances of winning the House have only seemed to rise, based on a number of indicators. Those are:
— The president’s approval rating is consistently at or under 40%, which is historically weak for a new president and typically is quite important in midterm outcomes, with a lower number meaning bigger trouble for the president’s party. Yes, there is time for Trump’s approval to improve. However, since a brief inauguration “honeymoon,” the president has shown little ability to push his approval much higher than the low 40s.
— Generic ballot polls asking voters which party they plan to support in their local House race (or which party they want to win control of the House next year) have consistently shown healthy Democratic leads, and polling averages place the Democratic advantage at around seven to 10 points. That’s around where Alan Abramowitz’s House projection model suggests Democrats need to be around Labor Day next year to feel good about a House takeover. Yes, there is time for the Republicans to improve on their deficit, but there are a couple of reasons to be skeptical that the GOP can cut into this Democratic lead significantly. The first is that, according to research by FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten, early generic ballot polling can be quite predictive, and the second is that, according to the Weekly Standard’s David Byler, the president’s low approval rating may impose something of a cap on the GOP standing in the House generic ballot.
— Special election results so far, along with the state elections in New Jersey and Virginia last month, generally (though not universally) point to the kind of Democratic overperformance one might expect in a world with an unpopular Republican president.
— While Democrats do not have quality challengers in every contestable seat, they do have an impressively large number of candidates covering many competitive districts (as well as some districts that are not competitive on paper but could become so in a wave environment).
— Although there has not yet been a mass exodus from Republican swing seats, several incumbents in vulnerable seats are calling it quits: Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R, FL-27), Dave Trott (R, MI-11), Frank LoBiondo (R, NJ-2), Charlie Dent (R, PA-15), and Dave Reichert (R, WA-8) are all retiring, and their retirements have made their seats much more vulnerable to Democratic takeover. Additionally, Rep. Martha McSally (R, AZ-2) appears very likely to run for Senate, removing another quality incumbent from a vulnerable swing seat. Democrats are already clear favorites to win FL-27, the most Democratic seat held by any Republican House member, and they just snagged a strong recruit in NJ-2 in state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D), someone Democrats have wanted to run for years. That race is still a Toss-up but immediately becomes one of the top Democratic pickup opportunities in the country.
Put it all together, and the battle for control of the House looks something like a coin flip, with Democrats having a very real chance to net the 24 seats they need to win a majority. In fact, the big-picture indicators might suggest the Democrats should be favored to win the House. But we’re not willing to go that far, at least at the moment, for a few reasons:
— The first is a usual but important caveat: The election is more than 11 months away and there’s time for things to change, even though one can just as easily imagine things getting worse for the GOP as opposed to better. Republicans hope that the tax plan working its way through Congress will inspire their base and improve their prospects for next year. The plan is unpopular at the moment, although when and if it passes, it could see a bump in favorability. Perhaps unsurprisingly, operatives on both sides of the House battle believe a tax bill could be litigated in the public sphere in their side’s favor. So this is still a question mark, although it may be that any tax bill with Trump’s signature is unpopular simply because he is unpopular.
— Even in a bad environment, the party losing seats overall almost always wins at least a seat or two from the other side (Democrats in 2006 were an exception, though). So history suggests Democrats probably will have to win more than just 24 Republican-held seats to capture the House next year, although likely just a few more given the small number of true Republican targets. Still, three of the 12 Democratic-held seats won by President Trump last year — MN-1, NH-1, and NV-3 — are open, giving the Republicans some opportunities to play offense, and they may be able to make a credible run at a few Democratic incumbents (more on that below). In a House battle that could go right down to the wire, a GOP pickup or two could save the majority.
— The economy seems to be doing decently. Midterms are not always about the economy (2006 and 2014 weren’t, for instance), but a bad economy is a common wave-maker, historically, and the economy is not bad, at least at the moment. Republicans may not benefit from a good economy in a midterm — a presidential election is a different story, but that’s something for a 2020 discussion — but if there’s not a downturn, Republicans at least wouldn’t have to deal with that on top of their other problems.
— Beneath the surface of the Democrats’ very impressive showing in Virginia earlier this month was that their gains in the state House of Delegates were almost exclusively limited to Hillary Clinton-won seats held by Republicans. But winning the vast majority of Clinton-won, GOP-held House seats won’t be enough (there are just 23 of them). The Democrats will almost certainly have to win several Trump-won seats to win the House; they certainly could, but we wouldn’t take the Virginia results as an indicator that they will (some of the special elections since Trump’s win last November provide more positive signs for Democrats in Trump-won districts, but turnout in those races can be far below even a midterm level).
— Some Democrats have been arguing for years that the House map is so bad for them thanks to GOP gerrymanders in many key states that it will be hard for them to win it until the next congressional map is drawn after the 2020 census. Maybe they’re right.
— Despite the aforementioned retirements, Republicans have some of their best incumbents digging in to defend some of their most vulnerable districts: Reps. Mike Coffman (R, CO-6), Carlos Curbelo (R, FL-26), Barbara Comstock (R, VA-10), and others. If the wave is big enough, there may be nothing these members could do to survive, but they all should run strong, well-funded races and won’t be easy for Democrats to defeat.
So the trend is undeniably Democratic in nature, but its scope cannot be determined with any precision now. In the meantime, we have 25 ratings changes to announce this week. The lion’s share of them move races in a more Democratic direction.
There are a lot of changes, so let’s address them briefly by category:
Leans Republican to Toss-up (2): Reps. John Faso (R, NY-19) and Claudia Tenney (R, NY-22)
First-term members Faso and Tenney represent swing territory in upstate New York that moved in favor of President Trump in 2016, but both should have credible opposition: Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi (D) is Tenney’s very likely opponent, while a huge field is angling for the right to take on Faso. Here’s a good test for Democrats on terrain that, at least at the presidential level, was not favorable last year. Still, Democrats held versions of these districts prior to the 2010 GOP wave.
When we say Democrats need to win some Trump-won seats to capture the House, these are some of the ones we’re talking about. GOP holds in both seats would be a lousy sign for Democratic prospects in both 2018 and moving forward.
Likely Republican to Leans Republican (8): Reps. Ed Royce (R, CA-39), Mimi Walters (R, CA-45), Mike Bost (R, IL-12), Peter Roskam (R, IL-6), John Culberson (R, TX-7), Mia Love (R, UT-4), and Scott Taylor (R, VA-2), as well as KS-2, an open seat held by retiring Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R)
Royce, Walters, Roskam, and Culberson are all incumbents in districts Clinton won, and Democrats are lining up to run against them. The first three are taking their races quite seriously and are raising a lot of money; the fourth, Culberson, is not raising much money at all, although Republican sources indicate he is coming around to the fact that he is a target after holding down a very safe seat for a long time: No Republican wants to be the next John Mica, the long-serving Republican who lost FL-7 last year after mid-decade redistricting caught him off guard, and Republicans are using his example as a way to try to whip some members into shape.
These members did not face a surprise remap, but the ground underneath them shifted left last year and may continue to do so with Trump in the White House. All of these districts are in suburban areas that are similar to the places in Virginia that swung hard against Trump in 2016 and then swung even harder to Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) in the recent gubernatorial race, and the environment might make things difficult for them next year almost no matter what they do.
Trump carried a fifth district listed here, Taylor’s Hampton Roads-based VA-2, but Northam flipped it earlier this month and it is perpetual swing territory. Democrats have struggled with recruiting in this district the past couple of cycles, but they hope Elaine Luria (D), a retired naval commander, can run a good race in this military-heavy district (Taylor, a retired Navy SEAL, has military bona fides as well and defeated incumbent Randy Forbes in a redistricting-driven GOP primary last year). Our ratings change here is more about the environment and trends in Virginia than about Luria’s likely candidacy specifically; as with all recent entrants into these races, we’ll have to wait and see how she performs.
The other three seats listed here are on redder turf, but they move because of potentially promising Democratic candidacies.
Bost holds a traditionally Democratic southern Illinois district that swung hard to Trump in 2016: The president carried the district by about 15 points after Barack Obama narrowly won it in 2012. Democrats are hopeful that St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly (D), who like the aforementioned Brindisi (NY-22) and Van Drew (NJ-2) had resisted national Democratic entreaties to run for Congress in previous cycles, might put this seat back in play after Bost beat a one-term Democratic incumbent by a bigger-than-expected margin in 2014. Paul Davis (D) ran a strong gubernatorial campaign but lost to unpopular Gov. Sam Brownback (R-KS) in 2014, so now he’s trying to win a House seat in KS-2, a Republican district he carried in his gubernatorial bid (but that Trump easily won by nearly 20 points in 2016). Democrats briefly held a prior version of this seat from 2007-2009 after former Rep. Nancy Boyda (D) won it in a 2006 fluke, but the now-retiring Rep. Jenkins beat Boyda in a rare Republican bright spot in 2008.
Finally, Love lost and then won close races in 2012 and 2014, respectively, and she improved her showing in 2016 despite the GOP district’s antipathy for Trump. Democrats are hopeful that Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams (D), a relatively recent entrant, can push Love in a place where a GOP electorate might be open to the argument that Trump could use a check in Congress. Former longtime Rep. Jim Matheson (D) represented this district before retiring in advance of the 2014 election.
Safe Republican to Likely Republican (7): Reps. Ted Budd (R, NC-13), George Holding (R, NC-2), Robert Pittenger (R, NC-9), Dan Donovan (R, NY-11), Dave Brat (R, VA-7), and Glenn Grothman (R, WI-6), as well as the open TX-21, held by retiring Rep. Lamar Smith (R)
Even after a court-ordered remap that hypothetically could have eaten into the 10-3 Republican margin in North Carolina’s congressional delegation, Democrats made up no ground in 2016 as the Republican state legislature employed another skillful gerrymander. But Democrats argue that they may have a shot at several Tar Heel State seats this cycle, and there is some potential for them to compete there.
Of the three seats we’re now listing, Pittenger is probably most vulnerable, because he faces both a credible primary challenger — former pastor Mark Harris, who lost to Pittenger by just 134 votes last year — and because Marine veteran Dan McCready (D) is raising a lot of money for a general election (he more than doubled Pittenger’s total in the third quarter). But keep an eye on Holding and Budd as well. Trump won all three of these districts by around 10 points last year, although Gov. Roy Cooper (D) did almost carry Budd’s district in his narrow statewide victory in 2016.
On Staten Island, Donovan faces the annoyance of having to face ex-con, ex-Rep. Michael Grimm (R) in a primary as well as a Democratic opponent; the national forces like Max Rose (D), who like so many other Democratic recruits this cycle is a veteran.
Grothman is worried about how vulnerable he might be, and he is being outraised by a member of Wisconsin’s wealthy Kohl family, though Grothman’s district is very Republican and he might be just trying to get his donors interested. But we’ll take him at his word for now and add him to our list. Brat could face a credible opponent and his district is relatively affluent and possesses high levels of educational attainment, two telling indicators of Trump antipathy. Finally, among several open seats in Texas, one is somewhat intriguing: TX-21, which links suburbs of Austin and San Antonio and where Smith is retiring. Joseph Kopser (D), another Democratic veteran, was raising decent money there even before Smith retired, and like several other Texas districts, Trump’s 2016 margin (10 points) in TX-21 was considerably worse than Mitt Romney’s in 2012 (22 points). Open seats held by the presidential party always merit a little extra attention, although the other open Texas Republican seats are even redder than this one and don’t merit a move from Safe Republican.
There are now 25 seats in the Likely Republican column. Most of these seats won’t turn into truly competitive general election contests unless there’s a Democratic tsunami next year. But to just win the House with a narrow majority, Democrats probably don’t need to win more than a few of these seats. Let’s watch and see how many of these races eventually end up in more competitive categories, and how many never really activate for the general election.
Arguably, the long Likely Republican column could still get longer. There are about a dozen additional Republican-held seats we considered adding to this list in addition to the ones we’ve listed already. That includes a few senior members whose names readers would recognize. But we need to see more before truly entertaining the idea that those districts even belong on our competitive board.
Likely Republican to Safe Republican (2): Reps. Don Young (R, AK-AL) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R, FL-25)
As we cycle more races onto the competitive board from Safe to Likely Republican, it makes some sense to cycle out a couple of Republican-held seats with long-time incumbents where there’s not much going on at the moment. Both of these seats qualify.
Leans Democratic to Toss-up (1): Rep. Rick Nolan (D, MN-8)
Nolan, who won two very narrow victories over Stewart Mills (R) in 2014 and 2016, is a cagey incumbent, but Minnesota’s Iron Range is trending Republican, and the GOP believes it has a strong challenger in St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber, who may be a better fit for the district than the wealthy Mills even though he will have less money to spend. Nolan, who himself is not a dynamic fundraiser, is probably the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the country although knocking him out will still be no easy task.
Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic (1): AZ-9 Open, held by Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Senate candidate
Democrats should not have that much trouble holding AZ-9, which is now an open seat after Sinema decided to run statewide for the open Arizona Senate seat held by retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R). A swing seat when drawn after the 2010 census, the district is trending blue (Clinton won it by 16 after Obama carried it by only four in 2012), but Republicans are holding out hope that their preferred candidate, retired Navy doctor Steve Ferrara (R), can put it in play. Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton (D) is the likely Democratic nominee; he should be able to hold the seat in what is very likely to be a Democratic-leaning midterm, but the fact that the seat is open adds a little bit of uncertainty.
Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic (2): Reps. Jim Costa (D, CA-16) and Brad Schneider (D, IL-10)
Costa holds a very Democratic district where turnout sometimes is weak enough to put him in danger (he almost lost in what would have been a shocking 2014 upset), but his seat isn’t on either party’s radar and with Trump as president, he should be fine. The same goes for Schneider, who won his rubber match with former Rep. Robert Dold (R) last year (Schneider beat Dold in 2012 and 2016, and Dold beat Schneider in 2014). We just don’t think a district Clinton won by nearly 30 points last year is gettable for Republicans with Trump in the White House.
Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic (2): Reps. Charlie Crist (D, FL-13) and Josh Gottheimer (D, NJ-5)
Both Crist and Gottheimer represent swingy districts, but these freshmen members are also raising boatloads of cash and benefit from the environment. Crist does not have a viable challenger at the moment; frequent candidate Steve Lonegan (R), a former U.S. Senate nominee, could push Gottheimer but his timing might be off in a GOP-leaning district that nonetheless seems to be inching left in the Trump era. Primarily, though, we’re moving these seats because of Trump; they’d be more like Toss-ups if Clinton were president.
There’s still a long way to go, and some future members of Congress may not even be announced candidates yet. Additionally, there are going to be more retirements, potentially many more, which can drastically change race ratings in a flash. It’s clear that we are in the midst of an important cultural moment with the growing flood of credible sexual misconduct charges against powerful men. A safe bet is that there will be more shoes to drop in Congress, and fresh allegations could damage incumbents or force their retirements or resignations. Finally, there’s also the possibility that the actual congressional maps could change in some states: for instance, Pennsylvania’s Republican gerrymander is being challenged in both state and federal court.
Overall, our ratings list 224 seats safe, likely, or leaning to the Republicans, 191 seats safe, likely, or leaning to the Democrats, and 20 Toss-ups. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Democrats can win about two-thirds of the Toss-ups (13 of 20), and otherwise let’s assume all the other seats go to the party they currently at least lean to. That would net the Democrats 10 seats, close to halfway to the 24 seats they need to get the majority. So Democrats need to push more seats into the more competitive categories, but as our ratings changes indicate, the playing field is growing.