KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Democrats remain favored to hold the House, but it’s not hard to imagine what the GOP’s path to the majority would be.
— Trump is crucial to that path: A highly-nationalized presidential election that devastates the roster of Democrats in Trump-won and marginal Clinton-won House seats would represent the best possible Republican outcome.
— We have 16 ratings changes this week; 11 benefit the Republicans, although there is good news for Democrats as well.
Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes
The GOP’s Trump-centric House path
Republican weakness in 2019 fourth-quarter congressional fundraising reports released late last week has spurred much gloomy commentary about the GOP’s prospects to retake the House this year. Politico’s Jake Sherman started a story last week on the Republican money troubles thusly: “House Republican leaders privately conceded in a closed meeting Tuesday morning that they are in the midst of a full-blown fundraising crisis, which would imperil any chance they have at regaining their majority in 2020.” Sherman quoted both House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R, CA-23) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer (R, MN-6) as expressing major concern at fundraising, and imploring their members to do better.
If winning the House was just about fundraising, Republicans would have no chance to win the majority.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee outraised the NRCC by $40 million last year, and another major Democratic outside group, House Majority PAC, ended the year with a $38 million to $28 million cash-on-hand edge over its Republican counterpart, Congressional Leadership Fund (because of the nation’s crazy quilt campaign finance laws, each party has multiple outside House campaign arms). Individual Democratic members have continued their incredible fundraising pace from last cycle, as Roll Call’s Bridget Bowman and National Journal’s Kirk Bado documented in detail following the full posting of campaign finance reports on Friday.
That said, House elections are about more than money. Republicans are not favored to win the House — but it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how they could.
Long-term national trends point to increases in straight-ticket voting and a waning power of incumbency. Despite losing the national popular vote in 2016, Donald Trump carried 226 of 435 of the congressional districts that will be in place for this year’s election (this includes the newly-redrawn maps in North Carolina). Democrats hold 30 districts that Trump carried, while Republicans hold only five that Hillary Clinton carried.
Our current ratings favor Democrats to win at least three of the five current Clinton-won GOP districts, while Republicans scored a pickup themselves when Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R, NJ-2) switched parties. Put it all together, and the Republicans likely will need to win at least 20 or so currently Democratic seats to get to the magic number of 218 seats for a majority. The Trump-won districts held by Democrats provide a path to reaching that number, and Republicans also have some targets in marginal Clinton-won districts as well.
So for as bleak as things may look for Republicans in the House, the targets are there for them to win the majority, particularly if Trump wins again.
This reality helps explain why despite Trump’s weak overall approval ratings — though his approval has been up a little lately — House Republicans have rallied around him. Their best chance to win the majority back is if Trump maximizes his electoral potential in November and if there is very little electoral daylight between House Republicans and the president. If impeachment is a major issue in the fall — and that is an if — one can see the danger it poses to House Democrats in Trump-won districts who will be trying to localize their races against opponents who in all likelihood will be urging voters to back Republicans up and down the ballot.
We can see this in party messaging: Republican outside groups have been hitting Trump-district Democrats on impeachment — spending that has spurred some vulnerable members like Reps. Anthony Brindisi (D, NY-22) and Joe Cunningham (D, SC-1) to defend themselves on the airwaves too — while Democrats are talking about prescription drug prices, a non-nationalizing issue.
The danger for Republicans is that Trump craters in the fall and drags the GOP down with him. But at that point, House Republicans would be in the minority — just like they are now — and they’d also have the opportunity to benefit from possible backlash against a Democratic president in the 2022 midterm. As previously noted in this space, party control of the House has been much likelier to change in midterms than in presidential elections in the last century anyway. Trump also could win, and even win comfortably, but fail to elect a Republican House along with him: Five of the six reelected presidents in the post-World War II era saw voters elect a House controlled by the other party in the same election (this would be five of eight if we included Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson in this tally, but they only won single terms on their own). Just because the recent trend has been toward less crossover voting and more nationalized results doesn’t mean that the House results have to be highly nationalized this fall.
But House Republicans almost certainly will want the results to be nationalized. And if they get their wish, the House majority could end up being legitimately in play.
House ratings changes
We have 16 House ratings changes this week. Of those, 11 benefit Republicans, although the majority of those changes are the equivalent of an early bit of spring cleaning (and it’s well-timed, too, because Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring, and it has sure felt that way this week in Washington D.C. and Virginia).
We’re shifting eight Likely Republican districts to Safe Republican. These are all districts that either have strong GOP incumbents, will vote for Trump by double-digits this year, or both.
Included in this group is WI-7, the northwest Wisconsin district from which Sean Duffy (R) resigned last year. There’s been little indication that Democrats can make a strong play for the district in a May 12 special election, and, in general, Democrats have not been performing as well relative to the 2016 presidential results in special elections at the federal and state levels this cycle as they did in advance of the 2018 midterm. Just last week, Texas Republicans held a closely-watched state House district in an expensive special election 58%-42%, outperforming Trump’s 53%-43% showing in the district.
Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R, FL-25), Brian Mast (R, FL-18), and Dave Joyce (R, OH-14) occupy districts that are GOP-leaning but competitive, although none of them had particularly hard races in the bad Republican year of 2018. Reps. Mike Bost (R, IL-12), Tim Walberg (R, MI-7), Pete Stauber (R, MN-8), and Mike Kelly (R, PA-16) hold seats that in some instances contain ancestral Democratic turf but are trending Republican. There’s not much reason to think any of these members are particularly vulnerable this year, so we’re moving them all off the board. We’re also moving Rep. Troy Balderson (R, OH-12) from Leans Republican to Likely Republican. His suburban/exurban/rural district hosted a very competitive special election last year, but he survived it and improved his showing in the general election. If Democrats have a target in Ohio this year, it’s OH-1 in the Cincinnati area, represented by long-serving Rep. Steve Chabot (R).
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R, PA-1) occupies a perennial swing seat covering Bucks County in Greater Philadelphia, but he survived 2018 and has not drawn an obviously strong opponent this time. Nationalization could be his undoing if Trump’s two-point deficit in the current version of his district expands, but he should be favored at this juncture. PA-1 moves from Toss-up to Leans Republican.
Despite our focus on nationalization, we have some changes this week that break from that mold. Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R, MN-1) was one of only three Republicans to flip a Democratic House seat last cycle, narrowly carrying the southern Minnesota district over Dan Feehan (D). Feehan is running again and lapped Hagedorn in recent fundraising; one would obviously still rather be the GOP nominee in this double-digit Trump district, but it merits a more competitive place in our ratings, moving from Likely Republican to Leans Republican.
On the other side of the partisan ledger, Republicans are hoping that strong recruits allow them to flip double-digit Clinton seats like CA-21 and FL-26. The former, where ex-Rep. David Valadao (R) is trying to reclaim his Central Valley seat against Rep. T.J. Cox (D, CA-21), is an unusual district and arguably could be a Toss-up, but we’re holding it as Leans Democratic.
We are moving Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher (D, TX-7) from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic on account of a spirited challenge from veteran Wesley Hunt (R), who Republicans are championing as a high-quality recruit. He still has to navigate a primary, which might help explain why he seems to be echoing the president on border issues in campaign advertising. Democrats argue such messaging might come back to bite him in a Romney-to-Clinton suburban seat in the Houston area. That said, it’s also not totally guaranteed that Trump will again lose this district, which backed Clinton by about 1.5 points. There is always the possibility that the eventual Democratic nominee will not be as good a fit for Democratic-trending suburban areas as Hillary Clinton proved to be. Fletcher is now one of several suburban Democrats in presidentially-marginal districts in our Leans Democratic column. The eventual fate of her, along with Reps. Harley Rouda (D, CA-48), Lucy McBath (D, GA-6), Cindy Axne (D, IA-3), Lauren Underwood (D, IL-14), Elissa Slotkin (D, MI-8), Tom Malinowski (D, NJ-7), Elaine Luria (D, VA-2), and Abigail Spanberger (D, VA-7), may ultimately be the deciding factor in the race for the House. The Republicans will need to knock off several of them in order to win the House, so we’ll have to see how many of these races eventually fall into the Toss-up column over time.
Joining them in the Leans Democratic column are two Trump-district Democrats who we now see as narrow favorites, first-term Reps. Antonio Delgado (D, NY-19) and Ben McAdams (D, UT-4), on account of Republican recruiting failures in their districts (at least so far). The latter, McAdams, occupies a very Republican district that former Rep. Jim Matheson (D) nonetheless held in various iterations for seven terms. Utah is a distinct state, very conservative but also sometimes open to congressional Democrats and somewhat suspicious of Trump. Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-UT) vote to convict Trump in the impeachment trial also gives McAdams, who backed impeachment, some bipartisan cover back home. This dynamic could make it harder for Republicans to hyper-nationalize his race.
Republicans also do not appear to have landed top-tier candidates against two other first-term members in marginal, Clinton-won districts, Reps. Josh Harder (D, CA-10) and Kim Schrier (D, WA-8); both move from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic.
Our ratings now have just 15 Toss-ups: 10 controlled by Democrats, four by Republicans, and one by an independent, Rep. Justin Amash (I, MI-3). Otherwise, 193 seats at least lean to the Republicans and 227 at least lean to the Democrats. Splitting the Toss-ups 8-7 in favor of the Republicans would create a 234-201 House, or a net gain of one for the Republicans from the number of seats they won in 2018. In other words, our ratings still clearly favor the Democrats in the House.
There’s not a single Democratic seat where we think Democrats are clearly underdogs to win again. So none of the House Democrats are as endangered as we think Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) is in the Senate. Certainly, many of the Democrats in the Toss-up category are seriously threatened, though. And we also will be watching the now-lengthy category of Leans Democratic seats, 20 in all; as noted above, they represent many of the seats the GOP ultimately will need to win in order to grab the majority.
Table 2: Crystal Ball House ratings
Note: *Represents members who have changed parties. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R, NJ-2) switched from Democratic to Republican, and Rep. Justin Amash (I, MI-3) switched from Republican to independent. Red districts listed in the Democratic column indicate the Democrats are favored to win those districts; blue districts listed in the Republican column indicate the Republicans are favored to win those districts.