KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— We are making a couple of House rating changes this week, both of which are to the benefit of members who won recent special elections.
— Going solely by presidential partisanship, our moves in Alaska and South Texas would seem odd, but each area has key idiosyncrasies.
— The changes keep our overall House rating picture the same: 215 seats at least lean to the Republicans, 196 at least lean to the Democrats, and there are still 24 Toss-ups.
Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes
RGV vs RCV
In 2020, Democrats didn’t win any House districts that Donald Trump carried by a double-digit margin. That same year, House Republicans won a few double-digit Joe Biden seats, but the bluest of those was Biden +11. Yet, in today’s update, we are moving a Trump +10 seat from Toss-up to Leans Democratic, and we’re moving a seat that Biden carried by nearly 16 points from Leans Democratic into the Toss-up category. How can that be?
Well, put very simply, one letter can change a lot: RGV vs RCV.
The location of one of these districts — in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) — makes it a promising opportunity for Republicans, while the election format in the other district — ranked choice voting (RCV) — has aided Democrats.
We’ll start off with the RGV part of the story.
As those who have been following our updates for the last year or so have probably noticed, we’ve generally been bearish on Democrats’ chances this year in South Texas — this area includes the Rio Grande Valley.
But first, a quick detour to Appalachia. A dozen years ago, Republican U. S. Senate candidate John Raese was describing West Virginia’s political landscape. While he conceded that the state had a significant Democratic tradition, he noted that it was nonetheless an “extremely conservative” state. Raese would go on to lose (twice) to now-Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, but in the years since, the state’s “conservative” orientation has increasingly trumped its historical partisan tendencies. Indeed, back then, Manchin, as a moderate Democrat, was close to a perfect fit for the state — but he is now much more the exception than the rule in a state dominated by Republicans.
We can see South Texas following a similar path — it ultimately may not become as solidly red as the Mountain State, but the toothpaste might already be out of the tube. In 2020, Trump made some historic inroads there, and state Republicans have worked to solidify those gains. Compared to other heavily Hispanic areas around the country, South Texas, where border security and oil production are salient issues, could be especially tough for national Democrats.
As with West Virginia, South Texas also has a pervading cultural conservatism. Earlier this year, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D, TX-28), a Blue Dog who survived multiple progressive primary challenges, admitted that his anti-abortion position put him in the minority within his caucus but added, “In my district, I’m not.” The abortion issue hasn’t necessarily been a net plus for local Democrats, as it has been in many other places across the nation.
In 2020, Democrats won all 3 seats in South Texas. But with today’s rating updates, the Crystal Ball doesn’t consider them to be clear favorites in any.
As it is, we have District 15, which was changed from Biden +2 to Trump +3 during the redistricting process, rated as Likely Republican. In District 28, Cuellar was given a bit of a cushion — Biden would have carried his new seat 53%-46%, up slightly from the 52%-47% spread in the old seat. But the veteran Blue Dog has a better-funded challenger this year than he did in 2020 and his home was raided by the FBI several months ago (though he has not been charged with anything, the FBI has not formally cleared him). Those factors are keeping the race in the Toss-up column.
This leaves District 34, which is seeing a high profile member-vs-member contest. During redistricting, current TX-15 Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez was drawn into the new 34th seat and opted to run there. From a purely partisan standpoint, this move was to Gonzalez’s advantage, as the new 34th was drawn to be a Democratic “vote sink” in the area — it gave Biden 57% in 2020, although that was down from the 66% that Hillary Clinton took in 2016. But earlier this year, the resignation of then-Rep. Filemon Vela (D, TX-34) precipitated a special election in the outgoing, and more marginal, version of the district. National Democrats largely avoided that election and Republican Mayra Flores won the seat outright. Flores, who became the first Mexican-born woman to serve in the House, is running against Gonzalez in the new 34th District.
As the campaign has shaped up, Gonzalez has had some less-than favorable headlines. In June, he suggested that, as someone born on the Texas side of the border, he is a better representative of the area — Flores criticized those remarks as nativist. Republicans are also hitting Gonzalez, who is an attorney by trade, on some of his old cases. To be fair, Flores has also had some setbacks: last month, her district director resigned over sexual misconduct allegations.
While third quarter fundraising numbers haven’t come out, Gonzalez has a cash on hand advantage, although, according to Rob Pyers’ useful expenditure sheet, outside groups are helping Flores close the gap. We should note that there has been outside spending on both sides, which is another sign that both parties view it as competitive.
We are moving TX-34 from Leans Democratic to Toss-up. While the partisanship of the district could be too much for Flores to overcome — even as the area has reddened, it still retains a clear Democratic lean — the trajectory of the race has not been good for Democrats. After redistricting concluded in the Lone Star State last year, we started this seat off as Safe Democratic.
Now, to the RCV district.
Just over a month ago, the Last Frontier was the scene of a special election upset. Former state Rep. Mary Peltola (D) beat out former governor, and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin to succeed the late Rep. Don Young (R, AK-AL) — Young died in March after representing the state in the House for 49 years. Peltola, who made history as the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress, certainly has strengths of her own, but was very likely helped by the state’s new “tundra primary” format.
In June, Alaska voters chose from a slate of nearly 50 candidates — the top 4 vote-getters advanced to a ranked-choice second round. Other than Palin and Peltola, Republican Nick Begich III and independent Al Gross made the cut. Begich, who was already running for the seat before Young died, is from a prominent Democratic family in the state — most notably, his grandfather and namesake preceded Young in the House, and his uncle, Mark Begich, was elected to the Senate in 2008 and served a term. Gross, who ran for Senate as a Democratic-aligned independent in 2020, dropped out shortly after the first round of balloting concluded.
In the initial returns of the second round, Peltola took 40% to Palin’s 31% and Begich’s 29%. With that, Begich was eliminated. In what may have been the result of some acrimony between the 2 GOP candidates, only half of Begich’s voters listed Palin as their second choice — 29% of his voters went to Peltola, and, perhaps more importantly, 21% of his ballots were exhausted (no second choice was marked). The lukewarm support Palin received from Begich voters enabled Peltola to win by 3 points. According to calculations from cinyc9, if Begich had made the final count with Peltola, he would have won by about 5 points. But Peltola is now an incumbent, which may matter in a state as parochial as Alaska.
The ranked-choice November election will (basically) feature the same cast of candidates: Peltola, Palin, Begich, and Libertarian Chris Bye made it past the initial round for the regular election.
As of early September, Peltola had over $1 million on hand, which was more than what her main rivals had combined — we suspect her advantage there could grow once the updated Q3 numbers come out. As Crystal Ball Managing Editor Kyle Kondik pointed out last week, the Alaska At-Large seat is a rare competitive seat that has not seen any outside spending so far (and, as he also noted, that is subject to change).
In the special election, Peltola had one of the more memorable, and effective, slogans we’ve seen this cycle: “Fish, Family, & Freedom.” She has spent much of her career working on issues related to fisheries, an important facet of the state’s economy, and emphasized her support for abortion rights — Alaska is generally considered one of the more socially libertarian states. In one of her recent ads, she cited Young, who traveled across the state to meet with constituents of all political parties, as a role model. On Capitol Hill, Peltola is taking after Young in another way: she is becoming an active legislator — after less than a month in office, one of her bills, which is aimed at supporting Alaska veterans, passed the House. She has also retained some of Young’s staff.
The advent of the tundra primary system may have made Alaska a trickier state to poll, but the surveys that we do have put Peltola in a good position. Most recently, state pollster Ivan Moore — who showed that the Democrat had a path to victory in the special election — found that Peltola would beat Begich 54%-46%. If Palin made the final round with Peltola, the incumbent would win by a wider 56%-44%. Polls from Dittman Research and the AARP similarly point to Peltola keeping her seat.
To us, this is all enough evidence to move the seat from Toss-up to Leans Democratic.
With this update, Peltola joins Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D, OH-9) on the list of Democratic incumbents that we favor to hold Trump-won districts — as it happens, they are the most junior and most senior women in the House, respectively. As with Peltola, Kaptur may have some unique appeal in a parochial-minded district, but she is also getting an assist from subpar opposition.
The overall math in the House remains the same in our ratings: 215 seats at least lean to the Republicans, 196 at least lean to the Democrats, and there are 24 Toss-ups. Splitting the Toss-ups down the middle would result in a 227-208 Republican House, or a Republican net gain of 14 compared to what they won in 2020.