Elections

How Close Is the Battle for the House? This Close.

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Both parties have reason to sweat every competitive race.

The nationwide generic ballot tells us almost nothing about which party is likely to win control of the House. If you really want to get a handle on how tomorrow’s elections will turn out, you need to go through all the competitive districts, one by one.

If you do that, you find the balance of power in the House of Representatives is really close — probably within a handful of seats.

Let’s begin with Ballotpedia’s big list of competitive districts. Better to begin by looking at too many districts than too few — and they selected 80 seats.

That’s 71 Republican-held seats and 9 Democratic ones. Why do the Republicans have so few districts where they could win a Democrat-held seat? Because with a few exceptions, they already picked all the low-hanging fruit in 2010 and 2014, and held on to it through 2016. There just aren’t that many competitive districts represented by Democrats left.

Now let’s cross off seats that look like wishful thinking. No, Devin Nunes is not losing in California’s deeply conservative 22nd district, no matter how much Democrats wish they could make it happen. No, Mario Díaz-Balart isn’t losing in Florida’s 25th district after he won nearly two-to-one last time. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers is not losing her seat in Washington’s fifth district. In Wisconsin’s first district, the home district of retiring House speaker Paul Ryan, the only polls showing Democrat Randy Bryce ahead are by Democratic firms; the lone independent survey showed Republican Bryan Stiel ahead by six points.

Yes, one poll had Alaska’s Don Young down by one percentage point, and he’s been around 50 percent in recent cycles, but he’s the longest-serving House member, so he and his campaign probably know what it takes to win in a tough cycle. Despite the scandals and accusations, polling shows Duncan Hunter Jr. and Chris Collins hanging on pretty comfortably, and Dana Rohrabacher is in stronger shape than many expected.

As for the remaining races, I’ll be placing a fair amount of weight on polls when available. There’s been a lot more polling done of House races this cycle than was previously the norm, and while the polls can collectively be wrong in favor of one party — see Friday’s Morning Jolt for more discussion about that — they’re still the best measuring stick we have. (If fundraising numbers equaled votes, Beto O’Rourke would have his race wrapped up by now.) The partisan lean of the district in recent cycles, at both the congressional and presidential levels, counts for a lot as well. Has the incumbent demonstrated an ability to win while the other party was winning his district in the presidential race? Did the advantages of incumbency keep a congressman winning as the district’s demographics changed, cycle by cycle?

Think of what follows as a “reasonably pessimistic” analysis. For example, Republican Barbara Comstock could win in Virginia’s tenth district, and she’s shown strength in past cycles — winning 53 percent to 47 percent, for example, while Hillary Clinton was carrying her district 52 percent to 42 percent in 2016. But this is the classic suburban-moms-repelled-by-Trump district, and Democrat Ralph Northam won this district by 13 points in last year’s governor’s race. This district has been polled nine times since August, and Democrat Jennifer Wexton won seven times, often outside the margin of error. Pencil in a Wexton win.

I also count on the Democratic base to be motivated and give the Democrat the edge in most races where it is close. Eleven-term incumbent Pete Sessions could well hang on in Texas’s 32nd district, but the most recent (and probably last) survey in this district had Democrat Colin Allred narrowly ahead. Mimi Walters is fighting to the end in California’s 45th district, but she’s narrowly trailing in all of the independent polls. For a while it looked like Democrats had blown their chances in the leaning-blue Florida 27th district, but Donna Shalala appears to have gained ground as October wore on. In Maine’s second district, incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin is keeping it really close, but challenger Jared Golden has enjoyed a very small lead in the last two polls.

There are a handful of districts where we can give the Republican an edge. Young Kim has kept it really close in the independent polls in California’s 39th district; if there were going to be a Democratic wave here, Gil Cisneros probably would have enjoyed some sizable leads in this classic swing district. In Florida, incumbent Carlos Curbela will probably hang on in Florida’s 26th district. For all the talk of Kentucky’s sixth district being the perfect bellwether race of this cycle, Republican incumbent Andy Barr hasn’t trailed in a single independent survey this autumn.

Mark down only one Republican as extremely likely to pick up a Democratic seat, though: Pete Stauber in Minnesota’s eighth district, which is currently held by retiring Democrat Rick Nolan. But there’s an outside chance of the GOP flipping a few more as well. In Arizona’s first district, Democrats are a little worried about incumbent Tom O’Halleran. So far, just over 40 percent of the returned ballots in this district are from registered Republicans, versus just over 36 percent from registered Democrats. Demographically, Minnesota’s first district is a classic opportunity for a GOP pickup; Republican Jim Hagedorn is a controversy-prone candidate, but maybe that won’t hold him back in a nationalized election. Danny Tarkanian’s keeping it close in Nevada’s third district. As you’ll see below, any GOP upset could have big ramifications.

Pennsylvania is the state that’s going to really complicate things for Republicans, because the state supreme court redrew the district lines a few months ago, giving Democrats their dream map. Of course, it’s hard to predict what will happen in newly drawn districts. For example, Keith Rothfus won his old district with 61 percent of the vote, but now he’s up against another incumbent, Democrat Conor Lamb, in a far more Democratic area.

Outside of Pennsylvania, it looks like Democrats will pick up 22 seats, just short of the 23 they need. But Stauber’s win in Minnesota flips one seat back to the GOP, giving Democrats a net gain of 21. If Pennsylvania kept the status quo, the Republicans would enjoy a 220–215 majority.

With Pennsylvania’s new lines, the consensus is that the state’s congressional balance will shift from 13–5 Republican (at the beginning of this Congress) to 9–9. This gives Democrats four additional seats, adding up to a net change of 25 seats — just past the 23 seats they need for a majority.

Under this scenario, the good news for Democrats is that they win the House, gain the chairmanships of the House committees, and can investigate the Trump administration to their hearts’ content. The bad news is that getting much of anything passed with just 220 Democrats will be extremely difficult. Republicans would no doubt attempt to entice conservative Democrats to switch parties, and vice versa. President Trump would probably go through the entire Democratic House caucus to see if any of member wanted any appointed position; this would take a vote away from Nancy Pelosi and give the Republicans a shot at winning the seat in a special election.

The above analysis will probably get something wrong, and if the Republicans exceed it by just a little bit, there could be a one-seat majority. (The Republicans will have it if they exceed this projection by three, the Democrats if Republicans exceed it by two.) The post-election wrangling could end up even more dramatic than the campaign.

In sum:

Seats where Democrats beat a Republican, in a previously Republican-held seat: AZ-2, CA-10, CA-45, CA-49, CO-6, FL-27, IL-14, IA-1, IA-3, KS-2, KS-3, ME-2, MI-11, MN-2, MN-3, NJ-2, NJ-7, NJ-11, NY-19, four seats in Pennsylvania, TX-32, UT-4, VA-10.

Seats where a Republican beats a Democrat in a previously Democrat-held seat: MN-8.

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