KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Democrats start the cycle favored to hold the House majority, but a GOP presidential victory would open the door to Republicans restoring total control of Washington.
— Overall, roughly equal numbers of Democratic (47) and Republican (46) districts begin the cycle listed in our ratings in the Toss-up, Leans, and Likely categories. That means that more than three of every four House districts (79%) begin the cycle as rated Safe for the incumbent party.
— Presidential trends in these districts — both where they’ve been and where they may be going — were a major factor in the ratings. Consequently, some of the closest races in 2018 are not necessarily rated in very competitive categories to start this cycle.
Table 1: Initial 2020 Crystal Ball House ratings
Our first look at the House
The battle for the House in 2020 is at such an early point that, as of this writing, we don’t even really know how many seats the Republicans will actually need to flip the House next year. That’s because there’s a vacant seat, NC-9, that Republican Mark Harris appeared to narrowly win on Election Night, but credible allegations of fraud seem likely to eventually lead to a new election. So the House right now features a 235-199 Democratic majority, meaning that even if Republicans eventually do win NC-9, they will need to net at least 18 seats to re-take the majority next year.
That said, we are already starting to see activity in the race for the House. For instance, narrow 2018 loser Yvette Herrell (R) is already indicating she will seek a rematch with Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D, NM-2) in a GOP-leaning swing district in southern New Mexico. Rep. Steve King (R, IA-4), whose rhetorical aid and comfort to white nationalists endangered him in his 2018 race despite his dark red district, already faces a couple of primary challengers and was just removed from his committee assignments by GOP House leadership. Two Republicans, Reps. Walter Jones (R, NC-3) and Rob Bishop (R, UT-1), have already suggested they won’t be running again in 2020; two others, Reps. Duncan Hunter (R, CA-50) and Chris Collins (R, NY-27), won under the cloud of indictments last November and may very well not make it through this Congress. All of these members represent Safe Republican seats on paper, although Hunter and especially Collins faced very difficult races last year.
The point is that the churn in the House never really ends, nor does the campaigning.
As we assess the House playing field for the first time, we think Democrats start as favorites to hold the House majority. There are a lot of little reasons that go into this assessment, but there’s one major one that really undergirds that analysis. Here’s goes:
Even if President Donald Trump is renominated and reelected to a second term in the White House, it is not at all clear from history that his reelection would provide sufficient coattails to net the minimum needed gain of 18 Republican House seats. Indeed, the last five reelected presidents saw their parties fall short of that net total in their election years, and the House hasn’t switched from one party to the other and then back again in consecutive elections since 1952-1954 (please refer back to our piece from November for more of this history). If Trump (or another Republican) does not win the presidency, it’s almost impossible to imagine the Republicans simultaneously losing the White House but gaining the House majority.
Right now, we don’t see either side as clearly favored to win the White House, meaning that we’re looking at the race for the presidency as something of a Toss-up to start. And if winning the White House is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for Republicans to win the House — which we basically think it is — then the GOP’s odds of winning the House are, by definition, less than 50%, because holding the presidency alone probably is not enough for them to win the House.
Table 1 above shows our initial House ratings.
Unsurprisingly, the most vulnerable seats on both sides are ones that generally were very close in 2018, will likely vote for the other party’s presidential nominee in 2020, or both. The 10 Democratic Toss-ups are all districts where first-term Democrats will presumably be seeking second terms in districts Trump won in 2016 by at least 3.5 points (and, in some cases, by double digits). The GOP Toss-up column includes the vacant NC-9, two of three remaining Hillary Clinton-won districts held by Republicans (PA-1 and TX-23, both of which were decided by close margins in 2018), and two Trump-won suburban districts (GA-7 and NE-2) that were also very close in 2018 and that could break against the president in 2020.
We are starting with more Democratic seats (27) than Republican ones (20) in the very competitive Toss-up and Leans categories, meaning that Democrats start the cycle with clearly but not decisively more vulnerable seats than the Republicans. That’s in large part because Democrats now control 31 Trump-won seats while Republicans only control three Clinton-won seats. From a Republican perspective, one can easily see how to win the House back: pick up 18 seats from those 27 most vulnerable Democratic-held seats, 21 of which voted for Trump in 2016 and very well could again. From a Democratic perspective, one can see avenues for supplementing their new majority, particularly if they are also winning the White House. Of the 15 GOP-held seats in the Leans Republican category, every single one was decided by a half-dozen points or less in 2018.
Still, just because a race was very close in 2018 does not mean it will be very close in 2020. For instance, we don’t list any of the Democrats’ newly-won California seats among the Toss-ups, even though several were decided only by a few points. The reason is that Clinton carried all of the new Democratic seats in 2016, and it’s reasonable to expect the Democratic presidential nominee to once again carry them in 2020, which probably would deprive GOP challengers of the oxygen they need to beat Democratic incumbents. Remember, Republicans had battle-tested incumbents in many of these seats in 2018, like former Reps. Jeff Denham (R, CA-10), Steve Knight (R, CA-25), and David Valadao (R, CA-21). Now Democrats will have the power of incumbency in those districts and, in all likelihood, the presidential wind at their backs. The opposite is true in two Minnesota seats Republicans won from Democrats in 2018, MN-1 and MN-8. Both voted for Trump by double digits, and if that repeats itself, it’s hard to see how Democrats can win those districts back, especially now that those districts have GOP incumbents (both were open seats in 2018).
We’re not going to go through our rationale for each of the ratings; there will be plenty of time to explore all of these districts in depth as the cycle goes along. But the 2016 presidential results, and our very early, subject-to-change expectations for 2020’s results, loomed large in formulating these initial ratings.
Generally speaking, the ratings reflect both where a district has been at the presidential level and where it might be going in 2020. Our best guess is that districts that are diverse and/or have higher-than-average levels of four-year college attainment may either not change much or continue to get worse for the president and Republicans over the next two years. Conversely, districts that are less diverse and/or have lower-than-average four-year college attainment may not change much or might get better for Trump and the Republicans. That’s been the trend in American politics even pre-dating Trump — though the president hyper-charged that trend — and we thought the 2018 results generally reinforced those trends (for more, check out recent Crystal Ball pieces by Alan Abramowitz and Noah Rudnick). So if a rating seems off to you, think about this basic framework, and the rating might make more sense (even if you still disagree with it).
The closing months of the 2018 midterm cycle were dominated by a consensus belief among major election forecasters (including us) that the Democrats were favored to win the House majority and Republicans were favored to hold the Senate majority. As we start the 2020 cycle, that same forecast — Democrats favored in the House, Republicans in the Senate — seems like the best initial bet, which is reflected in our ratings. How the presidential race goes, and whether one side opens up a clear advantage, is probably the most important factor in whether either chamber drifts into true Toss-up territory.