In the famous Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot, two men are waiting for a third man, Godot, to arrive, but he never does. In the 2016 race for the House, the Democrats (and the Republicans) are waiting for Hillary Clinton to generate a down-ticket, anti-Donald Trump wave. If she does, the field could tilt to the Democrats and give them a fighting chance to net the 30 seats they need to win back the House.
But Republicans argue that the Clinton wave will be like Godot — it won’t show up. The wave’s absence will allow Republicans to run their own races, limiting damage to the Republican caucus in the event of a Trump loss and maintaining a big GOP edge in the House.
As of now, Republican House incumbents have seemed largely insulated from Trump down the ballot. Yes, our current ratings do suggest that Democrats should net somewhere in the low double digits. If one assumes that all the Safe, Likely, and Leaning seats in fact vote that way, Republicans would have 227 seats, and Democrats would have 192, with 16 Toss-ups. Split the Toss-ups down the middle, and Republicans would have 235 House seats and Democrats would have 200, for a net gain of 12 for the Democrats. That’s actually a tiny downgrade for Democrats from our most recent ratings, which showed Democrats netting 13 seats if one allocated the Toss-ups evenly. But our basic projection of a Democratic gain of 10-15 seats remains unchanged.
However, most of these potential Democratic gains can be attributed to redistricting — new maps in Florida and Virginia should allow Democrats to net a handful of seats — or to open seats or the weakness of a handful of Republican incumbents who probably are only in Congress because of the great, pro-Republican environment of 2014. Yes, some Republican incumbents will likely lose beyond the 2014 miracle makers, but so far there’s not a lot of indication that there will be many.
If they only lose 10-15 seats, Republicans could spin the results as basically just a correction from 2014, a mere consequence of being overextended in a presidential year. Republicans also argue that while Trump is not very strong, their incumbents are generally running far ahead of him in their districts. Examples include incumbents like Reps. Kevin Yoder (R, KS-3) and Erik Paulsen (R, MN-3). Clinton appears to be leading their suburban districts and outperforming Barack Obama’s 2012 performance, even in Republican polling, but Yoder and Paulsen appear to be well ahead of their Democratic opponents. That Trump has improved a bit in recent polls is also helpful to Republican incumbents: Clinton still leads nationally and in most of the key states, but it hardly looks as though she’s headed for a blowout win at this point.
Democrats seem to be aware that there is not really a sign of a wave — yet. But they also believe, and hope, that their candidates will benefit from an expected Clinton victory, and that the House ballots and the presidential polling will converge. They argue that this convergence may not happen until very late in the cycle, but that ultimately Trump will prove toxic in the suburban districts with higher levels of education that Democrats are largely targeting. As we’ve noted previously, the Trump nomination dovetailed with a shift in Democratic House priorities. The Southern and Appalachian moderate-to-conservative districts that used to form a major bloc in the Democratic Party are now almost all gone. Those are districts where Trump could do really well — better than Mitt Romney in 2012, potentially — but Republicans already hold almost all of those districts anyway, so a Trump surge in those places doesn’t do much for down-ticket Republicans. Democrats look at seats like Paulsen’s and Yoder’s and suggest that the leads for the incumbents are very soft, and that they will erode with time and Democratic effort.
The House generic ballot averages, the polling that asks voters whether they plan to vote for a Republican or a Democrat in their local House race, show a modest four-point Democratic advantage, although there have been very few polls lately. That’s not enough for Democrats to win back the House. If one believes, as we do, that Democrats need to be at +10 or better in those polls to really argue they have a chance to win back the majority — Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz recently wrote Democrats need to be at +13 — then a modest four-point or so Democratic edge suggests a gain of somewhere around a third to a half of what they need, which squares with our projection of a Democratic gain in the low double digits.
We have 10 ratings changes to announce this week: six move races in a Democratic direction, and four move races in a Republican one. So it’s a mixed bag, and two of the ratings changes that have the most impact on the House bottom line are both favorable to Republicans.
Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes
After perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian (R) won the NV-3 primary, we moved the race toward the unseasoned Democratic candidate, Jacky Rosen, a former synagogue leader. Tarkanian has won several Republican primaries over the years only to flop in the general election. However, Tarkanian appears to be very competitive here, even though he has a lot of baggage as a candidate that Democrats will exploit. Additionally, and arguably more importantly, this is the home district of Rep. Joe Heck (R), who is running for Senate and very well could carry the district in his competitive Senate race. Democrats argue that Trump, who has held up quite well in Nevada in polling so far, will do poorly in this suburban Las Vegas district, which is fairly diverse and also has relatively high levels of income and education (so a place where Trump might be weaker than an average Republican presidential candidate). But there’s enough uncertainty here that we’re not comfortable leaning it to the Democrats any more — we’re moving it to Toss-up.
Trump will probably win WI-8, a northern Wisconsin seat that includes Appleton and Green Bay: The district already typically votes more Republican than the nation as a whole (Romney won it by three points), and Trump did better here than he did in very anti-Trump Greater Milwaukee in the April primary (though he still lost the district to Ted Cruz). Both parties really like their candidates here — Republicans have Marine veteran Mike Gallagher, while Democrats have Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson — but if Trump can carry the district we wonder whether there will be enough lift for a Democrat to win the House seat. We’re going to a tenuous Leans Republican here, from Toss-up.
In better news for Democrats, a couple of Likely Republican districts move to Leans Republican this week. Rep. John Mica (R, FL-7) saw his district become a lot more competitive in court-ordered redistricting, and Democrats are bullish on their candidate, businesswoman Stephanie Murphy. Out west, Rep. Jeff Denham (R, CA-10) is a frequent Democratic target who won by six points in 2012 and 12 in 2014. He faces a rematch with Michael Eggman (D), a beekeeper. If there is a down-ticket drag from Trump these are two places we might see it, but keep in mind that we still favor Republicans in both districts.
One district clearly moving away from Democrats is AZ-2, which Rep. Martha McSally (R) won by less than 200 votes over former Rep. Ron Barber (D) in 2014. Barber beat McSally by less than 2,500 in 2012, so this is one of the most competitive House districts in the country, at least on paper, though it leans slightly Republican (Romney won it by two points in 2012). But McSally has raised a ton of money — she has more than $2 million cash on hand as of the most recent reporting — and has had a largely spotless record in her first term, while Democrats ended up with Matt Heinz, a former state legislator who can’t come close to McSally’s funding, as their nominee. National Democrats have moved on, and McSally’s race is now Likely Republican. Another race that moves toward the Republicans is VA-2, an open seat that state Del. Scott Taylor (R) is on track to win after defeating Rep. Randy Forbes (R, VA-4) in a primary. Forbes’ current seat became very Democratic so he tried and failed to move over to this Hampton Roads-based district. Taylor should be fine, and this race moves to Safe Republican. One could argue that Democrats should be more competitive in both AZ-2 and VA-2, although McSally’s strength and redistricting (which made VA-2 more Republican) have a lot to do with the GOP edges in those districts, too.
Finally, we’re moving four races off the board altogether: Reps. Scott Peters (D, CA-52), Raul Ruiz (D, CA-36), John Delaney (D, MD-6), and Sean Patrick Maloney (D, NY-18) all have faced tough races in the past, and all but Ruiz only won narrowly in 2014, but this is a presidential year with presidential turnout and there’s just not any indication these four Democrats are in any trouble. All move from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic.
Check back in a couple of weeks for a more complete cruise around the national House map: We just addressed the districts where we made a ratings change in this update, but we’ll provide a broader look at the competitive House races in our next piece.
In the meantime, we’ll just keep waiting — for a wave, or, more likely, for Godot.