Politics & Policy

The House GOP’s Outlook Is Better Than You Think

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Yes, a lot of incumbents are retiring — but many represent heavily Republican-leaning districts.

In the coming months, you’re going to hear a lot of analysts repeating that “(at least) 34 House Republicans have announced they’re retiring or running for a different office,” and that “Democrats need to pick up just 24 seats to win back control of the House of Representatives.” That’s accurate as far as it goes. In addition, for the past three cycles, the midterm elections have gone badly for the president’s party.

But there’s an angle that isn’t getting nearly as much discussion: A significant number of those retiring House Republicans represent districts where the GOP traditionally wins, and about half of them are districts where the GOP candidate usually wins by a wide margin. A seat-by-seat analysis suggests that Democrats have only about 14 to 15 really good opportunities to pick up open seats — and that Republicans might snag some open seats from the Democrats, too.

Begin with all the appropriate caveats: Democrats have won some surprising state legislative races in 2017, and we live in an era where Dave Brat can beat Eric Cantor, so anything can happen. It’s early in the cycle, polling is rare to nonexistent, and GOP primaries still have to be held. A national wave can carry usually uncompetitive districts.

Here are all 34 seats where an incumbent Republican is retiring, with the likelihood of a GOP win in November rated as a “yes,” “no,” or “maybe.” If you start to get concerned, remember that most of the districts that are most worrisome for the GOP come earlier in the alphabet.

1. Arizona second district

2016 presidential election: +5 Clinton

2016 House election: +13.92 McSally

Incumbent Martha McSally is running for the U.S. Senate seat of the retiring Jeff Flake. She won narrowly here in 2014 and then won comfortably in 2016. This is the southeastern corner of the state, including roughly two-thirds of Tucson, and is a classic swing district where Hillary Clinton won 50 percent to 45 percent and Romney won narrowly four years earlier.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Maybe.

2. Arizona eighth district

2016 presidential election: +21.1 Trump

2016 House election: +37.13 Franks

Incumbent Trent Franks was the congressman who made those odd requests about surrogate motherhood to his staffers, and he resigned December 8. A primary for a special election will be held February 27 and a special general election will be held April 24. This district includes the northern and western suburbs of Phoenix, and it used to be Gabby Giffords’s seat under different district lines. Under the new lines, it’s considered reliably Republican. Franks never won less than 63 percent.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

3. California 39th district

2016 presidential election: +8.6 Clinton

2016 House election: +14.46 Royce

Ed Royce’s retirement is the one that really shook Republicans. This district, which includes parts of both Los Angeles and Orange counties, scores as perfectly even in the Cook Partisan Voting Index and is roughly one-third white, one-third Latino, and almost 30 percent Asian-American. Considering the accelerating Democratic advantage in the state and the state’s open-primary system, Republicans will face a steep uphill climb.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? No.

4. California 49th district

2016 presidential election: +7.5 Clinton

2016 House election: +0.52 Issa

Darrell Issa’s was another retirement that unnerved Republicans. He won by a narrow margin in 2016 and represents the kind of California suburban district that is gradually drifting away from Republicans. It includes northern San Diego County and part of Orange County, and contains Camp Pendleton. This is one of those rare districts that preferred Romney in 2012 and flipped to Clinton in 2016.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? No.

5. Florida sixth district

2016 presidential election: +17 Trump

2016 House election: +17.2 DeSantis

Incumbent Ron DeSantis is running for governor, but Republicans can feel fairly confident about this district, which includes the southern Jacksonville suburbs and the city of Daytona Beach. DeSantis contemplated a Senate bid in 2016, but withdrew from the race when Marco Rubio decided to run for reelection. DeSantis won comfortably.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

6. Florida 27th district

2016 presidential election: +19.6 Clinton

2016 House election: +9.79 Ros-Lehtinen

By some measures this is the Democrats’ best pick-up opportunity in the country, a district that includes a large part of the city of Miami as well as Miami Beach and Coral Gables. Clinton’s margin here was her best in any district that reelected a Republican incumbent. A Republican candidate with deep roots in the district’s Cuban-American community might have better odds, but Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban-American and Latina elected to Congress, isn’t the kind of incumbent who is easy to replace.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? No.

7. Idaho first district

2016 presidential election: +38.3 Trump

2016 House election: +9.7 Labrador

Incumbent Raul Labrador is running for governor of Idaho. Encompassing the eastern half of the state, this is deep-red territory; Republicans have held the seat for every year except two since the wave election of 1994. Democrat Walt Minnick won the district in 2008 and attempted to define himself as a conservative Democrat, but was swept out by Labrador.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

8. Indiana fourth district

2016 presidential election: +34.1 Trump

2016 House election: +34 Rokita

Incumbent Todd Rokita is running for Senate, hoping to face off against one of the cycle’s more vulnerable Democratic incumbents, Joe Donnelly. The district encompasses the northwestern chunk of the state and includes Crawfordsville, Lafayette, and some of the western Indianapolis suburbs. Republicans have held the seat since the 1994 elections.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

9. Indiana sixth district

2016 presidential election: +40.3 Trump

2016 House election: +42.4 Messer

Luke Messer is also running for Senate and hoping to face off against Donnelly. This is Mike Pence’s old district and includes large portion of eastern and southeastern Indiana, including Columbus, Muncie, and Richmond. This is about as heavily Republican as a district gets.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

10. Kansas second district

2016 presidential election: +18.4 Trump

2016 House election: +28.38 Jenkins

Incumbent Lynn Jenkins announced in January 2017 that she intended to return to the private sector. This is the eastern chunk of the state, including Topeka and Lawrence, and is another solidly Republican district. Democrat Nancy Boyda caught a wave in the 2006 midterms, but Democrats haven’t cracked 40 percent in the past four cycles.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

11. Michigan eleventh district

2016 presidential election: +4.4 Trump

2016 House election: +12.76 Trott

Incumbent Dave Trott announced late last year that he would not seek reelection in this district, which consists of suburban counties west of Detroit, including Livonia. Republicans have held this seat since 1967, with one brief interruption when David Curson won a special election for the two months remaining in Thaddeus McCotter’s term in 2012.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Maybe.

12. Mississippi third district

2016 presidential election: +24.5 Trump

2016 House election: +35.83 Harper

Gregg Harper, chair of the House Administration Committee, announced he would not run for reelection earlier this month. It is unlikely that he was worried about reelection in this heavily Republican district, which stretches across the state’s southeast and includes parts of Jackson’s suburbs. Republicans have held the seat since 1996.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

13. New Jersey second district

2016 presidential election: +4.6 Trump

2016 House election: +21.99 LoBiondo

Notice that incumbent Frank LoBiondo, who arrived in Congress in the GOP wave in 1994, ran so much better in this district than Trump did. Lobiondo’s district is the largest in New Jersey, encompassing the geographical bottom third of the state. This is one of the more Republican-leaning parts of a heavily Democratic state, but Obama beat Romney in this district by about eight points. With LoBiondo, Democrats struggled to crack 40 percent, but they will like their odds in a good environment and an only nominally Republican district.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Maybe.

14. New Mexico second district:

2016 presidential election: +10.2 Trump

2016 House election: +25.5 Pearce

Incumbent Steve Pearce is running for governor of New Mexico, leaving an open-seat race in this district, which covers the southern half of the state and includes Las Cruces, Roswell, and parts of Albuquerque. This is a pretty Republican-leaning district, comfortably carried by Bush, McCain, Romney, and Trump. Other than Democrat Harry Teague’s narrow win in the 2008 Obama wave before losing in the 2010 midterms, this has been a Republican-held seat since 1980.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

15: Oklahoma first district

2016 presidential election: +28.7 Trump

2016 House election: Unopposed

Incumbent Jim Bridenstine is expected to retire, as President Trump nominated him to be the next administrator of NASA in September. But Senate Democrats deem him unqualified, and a few Republicans aren’t such big fans of his either, suggesting that his nomination could be in trouble. If Bridenstine does get approved, he will resign and the state will likely schedule a special election.

Either way, the Tulsa-based district will be tough ground for Democrats. This district elected Jim Inhofe and Steve Largent, and Republicans traditionally win by safe margins.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

16: Ohio twelfth district

2016 presidential election: +11.3 Trump

2016 House election: +36.73 Tiberi

Pat Tiberi resigned from Congress on January 15 take a job heading the Ohio Business Roundtable. Ohio is complicating things: The primaries for both the special election and the full two-year term will be held May 8; the special election to serve the remainder of Tiberi’s term this year will be held August 7; and the general election for the full term starting in January will be held in November. This is generally Republican district that includes communities north and east of Columbus. This was John Kasich’s old seat.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

17. Ohio 16th district

2016 presidential election: +16.6 Trump

2016 House election: +30.6 Renacci

Incumbent Jim Renacci is running for U.S. Senate, but Ohio Republicans probably won’t lose too much sleep over this district, which includes some communities east of Akron and some of the western suburbs of Cleveland. Republicans have held this district since 1973, except for the single two-year term of Democrat John Boccieri. Under the current district lines, Renacci usually won by a two-to-one margin.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

A note regarding the following four seats: On Monday, the Pennsylvania state supreme court ruled that the state’s existing district lines are unconstitutional and mandated a new map, which is likely to end up redrawn by the court itself. Thus, every House race in Pennsylvania is in a state of flux until the new lines are established. But with that in mind, under the current lines, the outlook is like this:

18. Pennsylvania ninth district

2016 presidential election: +42.5 Trump

2016 House election: +26.68 Shuster

Incumbent Bill Shuster, who was first elected in 2001, more or less inherited the seat from his father, Bud Shuster, who was first elected in 1972! This district, covering the south and central parts of the state, is about as safe as it gets for Republicans; the last time a Democrat represented it, Franklin Roosevelt was president. McCain, Romney, and Trump all carried this district comfortably.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

19. Pennsylvania eleventh district

2016 presidential election: +14 Trump

2016 House election: +27.4 Barletta

Incumbent Lou Barletta is running for the U.S. Senate, and he was the first Republican to represent the district in 30 years. Redistricting made his district more rural and Republican-leaning, and it is now a jagged puzzle piece between Harrisburg and the outskirts of Scranton. The right kind of blue-collar-friendly Democrat could win here — picture an anti-Pelosi, Rust Belt Tim Ryan type — but the Democrats will probably find lower-hanging-fruit elsewhere.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

20. Pennsylvania 15th district

2016 presidential election: +7.6 Trump

2016 House election: +19.63 Dent

Charlie Dent, one of the most outspoken moderates in the House GOP, is retiring. This district, which includes some of the suburbs outside Harrisburg, Lebanon, and the Lehigh Valley, was Senator Patrick Toomey’s old district and is usually closely contested, but ranks as R+4 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Maybe.

21. Pennsylvania 18th district

2016 presidential election: +19.6 Trump

2016 House election: uncontested

This seat will have an incumbent by November; Tim Murphy resigned the seat he had held for 15 years in October after it was revealed that he asked a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair to get an abortion. A special election to fill his seat will be held on March 13. Covering the southwest corner of the state and encompassing Pittsburgh’s southern suburbs, this district has the second-oldest electorate in Pennsylvania and scores R+11 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index. Back in the early 1990s, this was Rick Santorum’s House district.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

22. South Dakota at-large

2016 presidential election: +30 Trump

2016 House election: +28.2 Noem

Incumbent Kristi Noem is running for governor. There was a time when South Dakota was pretty friendly to Democrats, with two Democratic senators in Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin holding the state’s lone U.S. House seat for three terms. But the pre-2010 landscape feels like a lifetime ago: South Dakota Democrats send no one to Washington, and they hold just 8 of 35 state-senate seats and just 12 out of 70 state-house seats. Republican governor Dennis Daugaard has an approval rating of 74 percent. Stranger things have happened, but this is pretty friendly territory for Republicans.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

23. Tennessee second district

2016 presidential election: +35.4 Trump

2016 House election: +51.29 Duncan Jr.

Seventy-year-old John Duncan Jr. announced his intention to retire last year, and he was first elected to this seat in 1988. His father, John Duncan Sr., was first elected to represent the region in 1964. In fact, the last time a Democrat represented Tennessee’s second district was 1855. That is not a misprint. This district largely encompasses Knoxville and its suburbs and represents a deeply red part of the state.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

24.Tennessee sixth district

2016 presidential election: +48.9 Trump

2016 House election: +49.7 Black

Incumbent Diane Black is running for governor of Tennessee. Democrats were once competitive in this largely rural district covering the north-central part of the state; Al Gore represented the district in the mid 1980s. But the last time the district supported a Democrat for president was 1992, and Black usually won with about 70 percent of the vote.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

25. Tennessee seventh district

2016 presidential election: +39.3 Trump

2016 House election: +48.7 Blackburn

Incumbent Marsha Blackburn is running for U.S. Senate, seeking to replace the retiring Bob Corker. This southwestern district, which runs from the southern suburbs of Nashville to Hardeman County, is heavily Republican; the GOP has held the district since the early 1980s. Like Diane Black, Blackburn usually won with about 70 percent of the vote.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

26. Texas second district

2016 presidential election: +9.3 Trump

2016 House election: +24.26 Poe

In November, incumbent Ted Poe announced his retirement and said that he wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren. Under the new lines in effect since 2013, the second district covers most of the conservative northern suburbs of Houston, and Poe usually won at least 60 percent of the vote.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

27. Texas third district

2016 presidential election: +14.2 Trump

2016 House election: +26.63 Johnson

Incumbent Sam Johnson, now 87 years old, has represented this district since 1991. It includes the northern suburbs of Dallas and consistently votes Republican in presidential contests; the best performance in the past five cycles was Obama winning 42 percent in 2008.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

28. Texas fifth district

2016 presidential election: +28.4 Trump

2016 House election: +61.21 Hensarling

Jeb Hensarling, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, surprised some people when he announced his intention to retire last year, but it’s unlikely he had much anxiety about reelection in 2018. This district begins in the southeastern suburbs of Dallas and stretches out to Palestine and almost Nagodoches. This is yet another safe, heavily Republican district of suburbs and rural stretches, scoring R+16 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

29. Texas sixth district

2016 presidential election: +12.3 Trump

2016 House election: +19.31 Barton

Incumbent Joe Barton was first elected to represent this district in 1984; he found himself in an embarrassing circumstance last year (when a woman leaked a sexual video of him online) and announced his intention to retire shortly afterwards. His district includes Arlington and some of Dallas southern suburbs, and scores R+9 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index — not quite as heavily Republican as some of the other districts around Dallas, but far from any definition of a “swing district.”

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

30. Texas 21st district

2016 presidential election: +10 Trump

2016 House election: +20.56 Smith

Lamar Smith was another Republican committee head who faced a term limit on his time as chairman; Smith led the Science, Space and Technology Committee and decided to hang it up at the end of this session. His district includes the northern portions of San Antonio, parts of Travis County, and a part of Austin. This is another Texas district where Democrats would have to wildly overperform their recent vote totals just to make the race competitive.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

31. Texas 27th district

2016 presidential election: +23.6 Trump

2016 House election: +23.39 Farenthold

Blake Farenthold is the congressman who took that infamous photo in his pajamas and then used taxpayer funds to settle a complaint about sexual harassment and other improper conduct. He pledged to reimburse taxpayers for the $84,000 settlement and then a few weeks later said that, on the advice of his lawyers, he was waiting to see what changes the House would make to the Congressional Accountability Act before repaying the Treasury. For Republicans, Fahrenthold’s retirement is a blessing; a standard-issue, scandal-free GOP candidate should win in this district, which stretches along the Texas coast from Corpus Christi to Bay City and then goes inland to Lockhart. The district scores R+13 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

32. Virginia sixth district

2016 presidential election: +24.8 Trump

2016 House election: +33.56 Goodlatte

Virginia may be trending Democratic overall, but that’s driven by the Washington suburbs, not districts such as this one, which covers the west-central portion of the state and includes Roanoke, Lynchburg, and most of the Shenandoah Valley. This district has not supported a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson, and the retiring incumbent, Bob Goodlatte, didn’t even face a Democratic candidate in six of the past nine cycles. The best performance by any Democratic candidate in that time was Sam Rasoul’s 37 percent in 2008.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

33. Washington eighth district

2016 presidential election: +3.00 Clinton

2016 House election: +20.2 Reichert

In just about every cycle since 2004, Washington Democrats put a bull’s-eye on retiring incumbent Dave Reichert, and in every cycle, they fell short — sometimes by just a few thousand votes, sometimes by considerably wider margins. Democratic presidential candidates have carried the eighth district every cycle since 1992, but down-ticket Democrats just couldn’t get over the hump in this large central district that includes parts of King and Pierce counties and Chelan and Kittitas counties. This district will undoubtedly be one of the Democrats’ biggest targets in 2018.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? No.

34. West Virginia third district

2016 presidential election: +49.2 Trump

2016 House election: +23.9 Jenkins

Incumbent Evan Jenkins is running for U.S. Senate. This district is the southern third of the state and includes Huntington. This represented a top target for the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2014, and Jenkins knocked off the Democratic incumbent Nick Rahall by eleven points that year. This district is prime Trump country, and one rally with the president with the GOP nominee should lock it up. The district scores an R+23 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index.

Are Republicans likely to keep the seat? Yes.

Add it all up, and you’ve got four seats the GOP is likely to lose (CA-39, CA-49, FL-27, and WA-8) and another four that look like real toss-ups (AZ-2, MI-11, NJ-2, and PA-15). The remaining are all pretty heavily Republican-leaning territory. Again, nothing is guaranteed in politics or life, and there’s a lot of road ahead. But if you’re the National Republican Congressional Committee and you’re trying to ensure that a lot of open seats will stay Republican, you’re pretty happy to fight in the Texas suburbs and the more heavily Republican parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

The other half of the story is that 15 House Democrats are retiring, and a handful are in districts where the GOP has a decent shot. Each time a Republican can win in a currently Democrat-held U.S. House seat, they increase the odds that the GOP will still control the chamber in January 2019.

1. Minnesota first district

2016 presidential election: +49.2 Trump

2016 House election: +.8 Walz

Incumbent Democrat Tim Walz won the seat in 2006 and is now running for governor. This district runs across the bottom of the state and is mostly rural counties and small towns, and it scores an R+5 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index. Trump won here by 15 points, 53 percent to 38 percent, and Walz hung on by his fingernails, 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent.

2. Nevada third district

2016 presidential election: +1 Trump

2016 House election: +1 Rosen

Incumbent Democrat Jacky Rosen just won the seat in 2016 but announced she’s running for U.S. Senate against GOP incumbent Dean Heller, who is widely perceived as vulnerable. The district covers the state’s southern tip, including part of Las Vegas, and scores as R+2 on the Cook Partisan Voting Index.

3. Nevada fourth district

2016 presidential election: +5 Clinton

2016 House election: +4 Kihuen

This is another swing district in Nevada, covering a huge central portion of the state, although the vast majority of the district’s voters are concentrated in Las Vegas. It was created in the aftermath of the 2010 census, and Republican Crescent Hardy won the first race under the new district lines by three percentage points. Then Rubén Kihuen beat Hardy by four points in 2016. But Kihuen’s congressional career hit an early snag with allegations of sexual misconduct from a former staffer, and the congressman announced he would not seek reelection. This isn’t an easy pickup opportunity for Republicans, but they would be fools to ignore it.

4. New Hampshire first district

2016 presidential election: +1 Trump

2016 House election: +.3 Shea-Porter

Carol Shea-Porter surprised everyone in October by announcing her retirement, leaving an open seat race in one of the nation’s “swingiest” districts; covering Manchester and the southern part of the state, it keeps switching hands. Shea-Porter won the seat in 2006, lost it to Republican Frank Guinta in 2010, won it back in 2012, lost it to Guinta again in 2014, and then won it back a second time in 2016. The district scores a R+2 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index.

Add it all up, and Republicans look like they have a decent shot to keep control of the House in November. Of course, some incumbent Republicans could go down, and Democrats have racked up impressive wins in recent special state legislative elections in Wisconsin, Georgia, Oklahoma, and New Hampshire, suggesting that Democratic grassroots are motivated in the Trump era. But they’ll need an epic turnout to turn some of these traditionally deep-red districts blue.

READ MORE:

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