Sabato’s Crystal Ball: The House Tilts Toward the Democrats

This week’s ratings changes
Ratings changes continue to push more seats into increasingly competitive categories for Republicans.

The headliners are the formerly Leans Republican districts that we’re moving to Toss-up, eight in total. We’ll discuss seven here, and the eighth (the OH-12 special) in a separate section below.

The sheer weight of the Democratic fundraising advantage is a factor in some of these moves. For instance, Reps. Steve Chabot (R, OH-1) and Mike Bishop (R, MI-8) hold districts that Trump won by about a half-dozen points apiece. They have had relatively easy elections over the past couple of cycles (Chabot has been in the House since 1995, with an interruption in service from 2009-2011, while Bishop was first elected in 2014), but they face two seemingly high-quality Democratic challengers, Hamilton County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval (D) and Elissa Slotkin (D), an Obama-era Defense Department official. Pureval raised more than double what Chabot raised last quarter and is approaching the long-time incumbent’s cash-on-hand total, while Slotkin has been crushing Bishop in fundraising so badly that she holds a $2.2 million to $1.7 million cash on hand advantage, an unusual edge for a challenger to hold on an incumbent. Both districts have above-average college graduation rates, often a predictor of Trump skepticism that could have down-ballot repercussions.

Two other districts also feature well-funded Democratic challengers, but this time in districts that flipped from backing Mitt Romney in 2012 to supporting Hillary Clinton in 2016: IL-6, held by Rep. Peter Roskam (R), and TX-7, held by Rep. John Culberson (R). Republicans have fretted that Culberson, who basically has never had a hard race in a Houston-area district that has long been deeply Republican (George H.W. Bush won a version of this district back when it was created in the 1960s), was not taking his race seriously enough, but party leaders believe he has gotten the message. That said, he still got more than doubled up by attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher (D) in fundraising in the second quarter of 2018, although Fletcher had to use resources to win a primary runoff. Roskam, meanwhile, is more battle-tested: He won his first House race in 2006 against now-Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) in what was a rare bright spot for Republicans that year (Roskam replaced prominent Republican Rep. Henry Hyde, who retired in 2006). Roskam faces clean-energy entrepreneur Sean Casten (D), who won the nomination in something of an upset. Roskam and Casten both had outstanding quarters: The incumbent outraised the challenger about $960,000 to $820,000 and retains a roughly 3.5 to 1 cash-on-hand edge.

Two other Toss-ups come in Appalachia. In the Lexington-based district held by Rep. Andy Barr (R, KY-6),[1] former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath (D) turned heads by upsetting Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (D) in a May primary. McGrath’s victory prompted us to hesitate moving this historically competitive district to Toss-up — Gray was more of a proven commodity — but Democrats argue McGrath is leading and Republicans concede this will be a hard race. Across the border in West Virginia, state Sen. Richard Ojeda (D) has become something of a folk hero in Coal Country and is locked in a close race with state Del. Carol Miller (R) in an open seat contest for WV-3.

Both of these districts (KY-6 and WV-3) are more Democratic than meets the eye. While Trump won KY-6 by 15 points and WV-3 by an eye-popping 49 points last cycle, at the same time Gray carried KY-6 in his unsuccessful challenge to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice (who is now the governor, and a Republican) carried WV-3 by 17 points. Certainly the trend in American politics has been toward less ticket-splitting and more partisanship, but there are still many places that make different partisan decisions up and down the ticket in a single election and many others that are willing to toggle between the parties from year to year. The Democrats’ House hopes are riding on this dynamic, because practically speaking they cannot win the House with just Clinton voters and Clinton-won districts alone.

An additional new Toss-up is IA-3, a Des Moines-based swing district, where private and public surveys from Democrats show Rep. David Young (R) either narrowly leading or narrowly trailing small business owner Cindy Axne (D), and Trump’s star seems weaker in Iowa than when he won the state by about nine points in 2016. So IA-3 also moves to Toss-up. Iowa is a place where Trump’s trade wars may have some political salience depending on what impact tariffs and tariff retaliation has on crops like soy beans, the price of which is down 20% as the president prepares to visit Iowa later this week. Farm economy disruptions have hurt the president’s party in this state and region in the past, like in the mid-to-late 1980s, when this dynamic ended up hurting Republicans. Iowa was never more Democratic than the nation than it was in the 1988 presidential election, when it strongly backed Michael Dukakis over George H.W. Bush.

As long as we’re on the topic of Iowa, let’s also note the new inclusion of Rep. Steve King (R, IA-4) in our ratings as Likely Republican. King’s district is very conservative, but he is constantly in the news for extreme comments on immigration.[2] He also has been lapped in fundraising by J.D. Scholten (D), a paralegal and former professional baseball player. Other additions to the Likely Republican list are Rep. John Carter (R, TX-31), where veteran M.J. Hegar (D) is raising a lot of money even though she faces a very uphill battle; Reps. Jackie Walorski (R, IN-2) and Trey Hollingsworth (R, IN-9), who face credible opponents in districts that are historically more competitive than Trump’s lopsided vote totals would indicate; and Rep. Mike Kelly (R, PA-16), who occupies a Western Pennsylvania district based in Erie that has some similarities to the one Rep. Conor Lamb (D, PA-18) captured in a March special election. To be clear, Likely does in fact mean Likely — Republicans ultimately should hold all of these districts, although in the event of a true wave one or more could flip. In what could be a turbulent year in the House after three relatively quiet elections (the total net change in the House from 2012-2016 was Democrats gaining a single seat), observers such as ourselves are straining to identify potential upsets, and one way of flagging those districts is to put them in the Likely Republican column, which is what we have been doing. Republican operatives believe we’re doing the Democrats a favor by listing so many GOP-held seats in competitive categories and helping the Democrats bolster their argument that the playing field is very large. They may have a point, but we also think in a year like this that many GOP incumbent vote shares will be significantly lower than what they are used to, both because of the national environment and because the Democrats are running a big roster of candidates who have at least some money and credibility. That could lead to a shocker or two or three come November if some members are caught napping.

More competitive than Likely Republican are three other districts, which move to Leans Republican in this update. Rep. Steve Pearce’s (R, NM-2) decision to once again seek statewide office (he’s running an uphill battle for governor and lost a Senate race in 2008) has opened his conservative but sometimes-competitive district, NM-2. Democrats won NM-2 when it was open in 2008, and attorney Xochitl Torres Small (D) is running a credible campaign and holds a nearly five-to-one cash-on-hand edge over her opponent, state Rep. Yvette Herrell (R). However, Herrell did have to expend funds in a competitive primary and one would still rather be the Republican in a district that is decidedly right of center. The same is true for Reps. French Hill (R, AR-2) and Vern Buchanan (R, FL-16), who have faced real races in the past and likely will again this cycle in competitive but GOP-leaning districts.

Finally, Rep. Charlie Crist (D, FL-13), the party-switching former governor who won his first term in a close race last cycle, probably could be pushed by the right Republican in the right year in his St. Petersburg-based district, but he is not a real Republican target this year and he moves to Safe Democratic. The only truly vulnerable Democratic House incumbent in November continues to be the aforementioned Lamb, who because of redistricting is running in a new district against another incumbent, Rep. Keith Rothfus (R, PA-17), although Republicans hope to push a few others by November.

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