KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Recently-released fundraising reports indicate a mismatch between the best-funded GOP candidates and the districts in which they are competing.
— At this point, Democrats are more likely to net House seats than Republicans, although we’re still not expecting much net change overall.
— There are eight rating changes this week: seven in favor of Democrats, one in favor of Republicans.
Table 1: House rating changes
Big GOP fundraisers not matched to best district targets
Recently-finalized House fundraising reports covering April through June reinforced an emerging theme of this year’s House elections: The Republicans have a number of well-funded challengers, but those challengers are not necessarily matched to the seats that the GOP has the best chances of winning.
Some of the top GOP fundraisers, for instance, included 2018 nominee Young Kim (R) against Rep. Gil Cisneros (D, CA-39); businesswoman Genevieve Collins (R) against Rep. Colin Allred (D, TX-32); and veteran Wesley Hunt (R) against Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D, TX-7). But these challengers are all trying to win seats that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 and that these now-incumbent Democrats flipped in 2018. All of these districts profile as places where Joe Biden seems likely to run ahead of Clinton’s 2016 showing.
Historically, it’s difficult to beat an incumbent House member while that incumbent’s party is carrying the district for president. There are typically a few instances each cycle when that happens, but only a few. For instance, this happened in only two districts in 2016 and two districts in 2012, per a count by National Journal’s Alex Clearfield. The incumbents who lose these races sometimes have considerable problems: The two who lost in 2016 were Reps. Scott Garrett (R, NJ-5), an ideologue out of step with his suburban district who attracted negative headlines for refusing to pay dues to the National Republican Congressional Committee over the NRCC’s support of gay candidates, and Frank Guinta (R, NH-1), who had major campaign finance problems. Both of those districts were won by Donald Trump in 2016, but only narrowly.
In other words, the Republicans may be able to win one or a couple of these targeted seats if their candidates perform really well and the Democrat makes mistakes, but they probably won’t win many.
Meanwhile, Republican outside groups are going to have to carry a good deal of weight in some of the redder districts where Democrats are playing defense. For instance, Rep. Kendra Horn (D, OK-5) may be the most vulnerable House Democratic incumbent, but she is sitting on a $2.6 million warchest while her two potential GOP opponents, state Sen. Stephanie Bice and businesswoman Terry Neese, each have had only about $100,000 cash on hand as they head to an Aug. 25 runoff for the right to challenge Horn in November. That won’t necessarily prevent the ultimate nominee from beating Horn, but this race is no slam dunk for the GOP.
That speaks to a larger observation about the House map: In all likelihood, some Democratic incumbents will lose, but no Democratic incumbent is an outright underdog as of now — even members who hold seats that Trump won by double digits in 2018, like Horn or Reps. Joe Cunningham (D, SC-1), Collin Peterson (D, MN-7), Max Rose (D, NY-11), and Xochitl Torres Small (D, NM-2).
In fact, some of these members have a decent chance to win. One of them, Torres Small, moves from Toss-up to Leans Democratic in this update.
Part of the reason why Torres Small is in the House to begin with is that she faced an opponent who did not distinguish herself in 2018: former state legislator Yvette Herrell (R). Herrell is once again the GOP nominee in NM-2 after winning a nasty primary over businesswoman Claire Chase (R), who some Republicans thought could offer the party a fresh start in the district. Torres Small more than tripled Herrell’s campaign spending in 2018; that edge could get even more pronounced in 2020, as Torres Small holds a $3.9 million to $379,000 cash on hand edge over Herrell as of the most recent reporting. This is definitely a GOP-leaning district: Trump won it 50%-40%, with another 8% going to home state Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. In all likelihood, Trump will carry the district again, although perhaps with a reduced margin. The race is arguably very close right now — a Republican internal poll released recently had it tied 46%-46% (the poll did not include presidential numbers for the district) — and probably will be close in the end. But we suspect Torres Small will be able to generate enough crossover support to hang on to her seat.
We are also moving a Trump-won open seat, IA-2, from Toss-up to Leans Democratic. This southeast Iowa seat has been held for the past decade and a half by Rep. Dave Loebsack (D), a surprise winner in 2006 who became an impressive electoral performer, winning by close but clear margins even in the bad Iowa Democratic years of 2010, 2014, and 2016. Donald Trump won IA-2 by four points — four years after Mitt Romney lost the district by 13. Still, if Joe Biden runs better in Iowa than Hillary Clinton did — polls in the state are roughly tied after Trump won statewide by 10 points — Biden may carry this district, and Democrats have the better-funded candidate, former state Sen. Rita Hart (D), against state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R), who lost to Loebsack in 2008, 2010, and 2014. Just like NM-2, this is a very competitive race, but it’s one where we see a little bit of a Democratic edge. The Republicans’ best target in Iowa is probably Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D, IA-1) in northeast Iowa. IA-1 is a Trump-won district where the GOP does have a very well-funded candidate, state Rep. Ashley Hinson (R), although Hinson suffered bad headlines this week when reports emerged that some of her campaign materials contained plagiarized material. Hinson apologized, and — rightly or wrongly — we don’t think plagiarism accusations carry quite the sting that they once did in politics.
Meanwhile, a number of Republican seats appear to be getting more vulnerable, both because of Biden’s current lead in the presidential race and the emergence of well-funded Democratic challengers.
We took a close look at Texas a few weeks ago and noted what a close presidential race might mean in that state. Even though Trump won first-term Rep. Chip Roy’s (R, TX-21) Austin-to-San Antonio district by 10 points, Roy had a close race in 2018 and the district has demographic characteristics (highly-educated and diverse) that suggest it is rapidly approaching swing seat territory. Roy’s challenger, former state Sen. Wendy Davis (D), will be familiar to readers: She lost to now-Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) in a landslide in 2014. But Texas was a much different and much more Republican state just a six years ago. Davis has a substantial cash-on-hand advantage over Roy. Neither candidate is particularly moderate: Davis became best known for a filibuster of an anti-abortion bill, while Roy was criticized by members of both parties for holding up unanimous consent of a disaster relief bill in 2019. Roy’s saving grace may be that even if Texas is becoming less red at the presidential level, realignment sometimes stalls down the ballot, which could allow him to run ahead of Trump in the district. But this race is real enough that we are moving it from Leans Republican to Toss-up.
Also moving to more competitive categories are Reps. French Hill (R, AR-2) and Richard Hudson (R, NC-8), who represent right-of-center districts and will face Black candidates who outraised the incumbents this quarter: state Sen. Joyce Elliott (D) in the former, and former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Pat Timmons-Goodson (D) in the latter. Both districts have sizable Black voting blocs and some suburban swaths. Spirited Democratic campaigns in each could put the districts in play, particularly if the presidential race in each narrows from 2016 (Trump won both districts by roughly 10 points). In North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper (D-NC) is favored for reelection, and Democrats are making a serious play to flip the state House out of Republican hands. NC-8 overlaps with several key legislative districts, so both parties should be watching the area closely.
Two very longshot Republican districts move from Safe Republican to Likely Republican this week: Reps. Mike Turner (R, OH-10) and Joe Wilson (R, SC-2). This is mostly out of an abundance of caution, although both were outraised in the second quarter. OH-10 is a right-leaning but swingy district covering the Dayton area that is more competitive on paper than Turner’s typically outstanding performance would suggest. SC-2, meanwhile, covers parts of west-central South Carolina, and is somewhat diverse and somewhat highly educated. Trump won it by 19 points, down from Romney’s 25 in 2016, and in 2018 the district voted almost exactly the same as the state in the gubernatorial race, suggesting it may be becoming a better reflection of the state as a whole. Ultimately, if Democrats put South Carolina in play for president and Senate — we are skeptical and rate both statewide races Likely Republican — this is the kind of place where they’d have to perform well. It makes some sense, then, to also call this district Likely Republican. Wilson won by 13 points in 2018 against a financially overmatched opponent. He remains best known for shouting “You lie” at then-President Obama during Obama’s address to Congress on health care in 2009.
These are very much dark horse Democratic targets. One dark horse Republican target comes back onto our ratings board this week: Rep. Ron Kind (D, WI-3). Kind has won easy victories even as his western Wisconsin district has trended Republican: Trump carried it by five points. Republicans appear to have a real challenger this time, veteran Derrick Van Orden (R), who raised a surprising amount in the second quarter (about $550,000). Kind still has a huge cash-on-hand edge, and if Biden carries Wisconsin, he likely will do better in WI-3 than Clinton did (and may flip it from Trump). But a Trump rally and a real challenge from Van Orden could mean more work for Kind — his district is vulnerable enough that it belongs in our ratings, if only as Likely Democratic.
Van Orden was one of a handful of Republicans with military backgrounds who turned in unexpectedly impressive fundraising quarters, outraising Democratic incumbents who hold swing seats we rate as Likely Democratic; others are Alek Skarlatos (R), challenging Rep. Peter DeFazio (D, OR-4); Tyler Kistner (R), challenging Rep. Angie Craig (D, MN-2); and Sean Parnell (R), challenging Rep. Conor Lamb (D, PA-17).
Our general sense is that these candidates are all running in the wrong year for their party, but they’ve also forced observers to take notice of their campaigns.
This week’s rating changes mean we now have 229 House seats at least leaning Democratic, 193 at least leaning Republican, and 13 Toss-ups. Splitting the Toss-ups seven to six Democratic would yield a one-seat Democratic gain from 2018, when Democrats won a 235-200 majority. At this point, a modest Democratic gain seems to be the likeliest House outcome.
For Republicans to make a significant dent in the Democratic House majority, they need at least one of two big-picture things to happen: The president’s numbers need to improve markedly, or the Democratic lead in the House generic ballot (currently in the high single digits in polling averages) needs to shrink. The former might suggest overall improvement in the electoral environment for Republicans at all levels. The latter might suggest that even while Biden may be retaining his lead in the presidential race, voters would be more open to splitting their tickets to put a check on a hypothetical Biden administration.
If neither of these things happen, Republicans may be heading for a redux of 2008: losses at the presidential, Senate, and House levels in the midst of national crisis.