|Dear Readers: If you missed last week’s special UVA Center for Politics program, “The Shock of January 6,” it is now available on our YouTube channel, UVACFP.
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— With some key national factors seemingly in their favor, Republicans could win a healthy majority in the House in 2022 — perhaps even their biggest in nearly a century.
— However, compared to past Republican midterm wave cycles, specifically 1994 and 2010, Republicans probably have less room for growth.
— As a majority of states have enacted new maps, we can chart out what a banner night for House Republicans may look like.
The GOP’s hunt for House history
The last two times the Republicans flipped the House from blue to red — 1994 and 2010 — they did so on the power of huge numerical gains. Republicans won 54 more seats in the ’94 wave than they had won in the previous election and then 64 more in 2010’s wave. These were the two largest net gains for either party in any House election cycles since the late 1940s.
With a favorable political environment and encouraging results in last November’s New Jersey and Virginia elections, Republicans are dreaming of repeating this feat. The National Republican Congressional Committee listed 70 offensive targets immediately following those elections, a wide playing field that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R, CA-23) emphasized in his own post-2021 election comments.
There are, though, at least a couple of reasons to believe that whatever the Republican House gain is this year — if there is in fact a gain, which seems very likely — will be smaller than in the past couple of GOP mega-waves.
The first is simply that the Republicans are starting this cycle from a much higher point than they did in 1994 and 2010. In the elections preceding those cycles (1992 and 2008), Republicans had won just 176 and 178 seats, respectively. In 2020, Republicans won 213 seats — just 5 seats shy of a majority. So Republicans are starting this cycle with roughly 35 more seats than they held in advance of their 1994 and 2010 victories.
The second is that the Democrats are not very overextended, at least based on the 2020 presidential results. Democrats only won 7 seats that Donald Trump carried for president; compare that to 2008, when Democrats won 49 seats that John McCain carried. Part of what happened in both 1994 and 2010 was conservative districts that voted Republican for president realigning their down-ballot voting from Democratic to Republican (as one of this article’s authors documents in his new history of House elections, The Long Red Thread). While redistricting will shuffle the total number of Donald Trump-district Democrats and Joe Biden-district Republicans, this election cycle is not going to feature nearly the same treasure trove of conservative-leaning turf for Republicans to target as ’94 and ’10. In 2010, the more recent of those years, Republicans picked up 16 seats that supported John McCain by double-digits 2 years earlier — Democrats begin with no such seats now.
However, the potential certainly exists for Republicans to have a blockbuster 2022 election. And they will not need a 50 or 60-seat net gain to make history. When assessing GOP potential in 2022, the number we have in mind is 35. A net gain of that size would give the Republicans 248 House seats — eclipsing the Republicans’ 247-seat victory in 2014 as the largest Republican House majority since the Great Depression.
How plausible is such a gain? That’s something we’ll be tracking throughout the election year. Four years ago, we plotted a Democratic “Drive for 25” — a play off the Democrats’ House slogan in 2012, a year they failed to win the majority — in which we charted a Democratic course to a bare majority. Democrats ultimately netted 41 seats in the 2018 cycle. Let’s take a look at what a Republican path to a 35-seat net gain might look like. We’ll start in the states that have completed redistricting, and then look at the states where the maps are still in progress.
To be clear, this is not a firm prediction. We’re just showing what a Republican path to a 35-seat net gain might look like. In the conclusion, we’ll offer some thoughts on where we think things stand now.
A hypothetical path to 248
Throughout this section, we’ll be including a running tally of net change in the House, illustrating a path to Republicans netting 35 seats. Their total number of gains will likely need to be larger than 35, though, because even in bad years the party on the right side of the political environment usually loses at least one or more seats. That will be the case in 2022 for Republicans, if only because of reapportionment and redistricting.
Republicans won 213 House seats in 2020, so that is our baseline starting point for this exercise. They will be losing 1 of their 3 seats in West Virginia because of the state’s loss of a House seat in reapportionment (-1; here begins the running tally of Republican gains that you’ll see in parentheses throughout this section). They also appear likely to lose 2 seats in Illinois because of Democratic gerrymandering, as 1 of their 5 current seats is eliminated and another, IL-13, is turned into a seat that Democrats should flip (-3). However, Republicans could plausibly flip Democratic-held seats in Illinois: IL-17 is an open, Biden +7 seat in the west, and they could perhaps pick off a suburban Chicago seat — IL-6 is set to see a potentially contentious member-vs-member Democratic primary — to offset their other losses there and maintain 5 seats in the delegation (-1). Meanwhile, Democrats gerrymandered Oregon to add the new seat that the state earned in reapportionment, but Republicans could conceivably win 1 of the 5 districts Democrats drew for themselves, with OR-5 as the most plausible target (0).
Arizona and Michigan have a number of competitive seats that Republicans could very credibly flip in a good or even neutral year: We currently favor Republicans to flip the new AZ-2 (+1) and AZ-6 (+2) and, on a good night, they’d also have better-than-even odds to flip the new MI-7 (+3) and MI-8 (+4). Under this rosy Republican scenario, we also have Rep. Peter Meijer (R, MI-3) hanging on in his reconfigured Biden-won seat, limiting Democrats to just 4 dark blue seats in metro Detroit (Republicans also would be winning MI-10, an open, narrowly Trump-won seat also in Detroit’s orbit, which in effect makes up for a Republican seat eliminated elsewhere in the state to account for Michigan’s loss of a seat in reapportionment). California’s independent commission eliminated a Democratic seat but left 3 Republicans in difficult districts; let’s assume they all win and that Republicans flip 1 of the 3 California districts we rate as Leans Democratic (+5). Republicans have a decent chance to flip a new, marginal Biden-won swing seat created by Colorado’s independent redistricting commission (+6). They shouldn’t have much trouble winning a newly-created district in Montana (+7). While Democrats got their preferred map in New Jersey, we currently favor the Republicans to flip NJ-7 (+8). A court-drawn map in Virginia leaves VA-2 and VA-7 as credible Republican pickup opportunities (+10).
Assuming Republican gerrymanders stand in North Carolina and Ohio — both are being challenged in state courts — Republicans would be likelier than not to gain in both states. OH-9 was redrawn to favor Trump (+11) while the new seat North Carolina added from the last census was drawn to lean red (+12). Rep. Kathy Manning’s (D, NC-6) Greensboro-area seat was dissolved (+13), while Democrats’ hold on NC-2, a light blue open seat in the northeastern part of the state, looks shaky (+14). A 3-judge panel in North Carolina recently upheld the Republican maps, though the ruling was promptly appealed to the state Supreme Court, where Democratic justices hold a narrow edge. On Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court struck down a Republican state legislative gerrymander, and that court might do the same to the congressional gerrymander in a separate case. So while these states figure prominently in the GOP Drive to 35 at the moment, they may not be so promising for Republicans the next time we go through this.
Texas Republicans designed their new map to win a 25-13 edge statewide — up from 23-13 now — with an outside shot at 26-12 if Blue Dog Rep. Henry Cuellar (D, TX-28) in reddening South Texas lost a primary or was otherwise vulnerable in a general. Let’s say Republicans do win his seat and max out their Texas map (+17). Republicans also gerrymandered Georgia to flip a Democratic seat, GA-6 (+18). Republicans didn’t change northwest Indiana’s IN-1 much in redistricting, but the high single-digit Biden seat is trending the wrong way for Democrats (+19).
Democrats gerrymandered New Mexico and Nevada to target a Republican-held seat in the former and attempt to preserve the 3 seats they already hold in the former. However, in doing this, they created 3 single-digit Biden seats in Nevada, and turned NM-3 into a district that Biden only won by about 11. The Nevada seats are all gettable for Republicans, and maybe an extra seat in New Mexico too (+23).
Rep. Jared Golden (D, ME-2) currently holds the best Trump seat of any Democrat, and redistricting only modestly reduced the former president’s margin (about a half-dozen points). He would have a hard time surviving under these kinds of conditions (+24).
In Iowa, Rep. Cindy Axne (D, IA-3) retains a district that narrowly favored Trump both times he was on the general election ballot, making this seat a very attractive Republican target (+25).
From here, things get hazier, as a critical mass of states have yet to finalize their maps — however, we can make some educated guesses.
Washington state’s map is not technically final yet, but it appears as though Rep. Kim Schrier (D, WA-8) will again run in a district where Biden did a little better than he did nationally — Republicans have at least two serious recruits in WA-8, and the seat is redder down the ballot (+26).
Minnesota, with its divided government, will very likely continue its decennial tradition of having the courts draw its maps. Rep. Angie Craig (D, MN-2) could be in a similar boat as Axne and Schrier. Her Trump-to-Biden seat gave Biden a 52%-45% margin — which about matches Minnesota as a whole — but the area has some GOP heritage, and if the court opts for a minimal change map, MN-2 is a very credible Republican target (+27).
Next door, Wisconsin is another state that could see minimal changes: with redistricting in the hands of the conservative state Supreme Court, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers submitted a plan that shifts relatively few residents, although the court may opt for a submission put forward by the Republican legislature. Either way, retiring Rep. Ron Kind’s WI-3 would have still supported Trump by mid-single digits. The last time the party in the White House held an open seat in a midterm that the sitting president lost 2 years earlier was way back in 1990, when the GOP held IA-2. Though that district happens to be just across the border from WI-3, it still suggests Democrats would be underdogs to hold the redrawn district (+28).
On paper, Kansas Republicans have enough votes to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s (D-KS) veto, though they may be constrained by their state’s Supreme Court. Still, even if Rep. Sharice Davids’ (D, KS-3) seat isn’t drastically changed, its partisanship would probably be somewhat similar to that of the Democratic-held seats in Nevada (+29).
In Tennessee, Rep. Jim Cooper’s (D, TN-5) Nashville seat will likely get split up. This week, Republicans in the state House released a plan that rips Nashville’s Davidson County three ways — this arrangement reduces Biden’s share in TN-5 from 60% to the low 40s. While Republicans could have been more aggressive (they may still amend that plan), it should still give them a clear pickup opportunity (+30).
In the New Hampshire state House, Republicans passed a plan that would have essentially conceded Rep. Ann Kuster’s (D, NH-2) district while making her fellow Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas more vulnerable in the 1st District. Though the plan may ultimately not pass, Pappas would not be guaranteed reelection even if his district was kept as is: from 2010 to 2016, Democrat Carol Shea-Porter and Republican Frank Guinta famously traded off the district every two years (+31).
While it’s hard to tell what Pennsylvania’s districts will look like — like in Wisconsin, there is divided government, so the state Supreme Court may once again end up drawing the maps — Democrats hold most of the state’s marginal districts. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D, PA-8) will likely retain a Trump-won seat, while Rep. Susan Wild (D, PA-7) will probably run in whatever seat contains the Lehigh Valley, an area that often mirrors the state as a whole — which is to say, swingy. Rep. Conor Lamb (D, PA-17) is running for Senate and leaving behind an open, narrow Biden seat in suburban Pittsburgh, though its successor district could be one that Trump carried. Under this scenario, a Republican seat is eliminated to account for Pennsylvania losing a seat in reapportionment, but Republicans flip these 3 swing seats, giving them 11 of Pennsylvania’s 17 seats (+33).
The states with, respectively, the third and fourth-largest House delegations, Florida and New York, have not finished redistricting yet. Florida’s new 28th District will probably elect a Republican (drafts from the state Senate establish FL-28 as a seat based in red-leaning Polk County), and they also could create several swing seats winnable for Republicans in a good GOP year. New York is a state where Democrats could make life much harder for several GOP incumbents and likely will chop a Republican district to account for the state’s loss of a seat in reapportionment. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Republicans lose 2 seats in New York but add 4 in Florida, which nets out to a 2-seat gain (+35).
For the purposes of this exercise, we’re assuming that any changes in the states not otherwise mentioned above effectively cancel themselves out. We’ll have more to say about the unfinished states once redistricting is finalized.
While the district lines are still being drawn, this hypothetical path to a historically large Republican majority is based on Republicans flipping a sizable number of seats that Joe Biden won in the 2020 presidential election. Of the Republican gains above, we estimate that a little over a third of them would have been won by Trump and a little under two-thirds were won by Biden (though only by single digits in many cases).
Using the current congressional districts, the median House seat is IL-14, which voted for Biden by 2.4 points (if you line up all 435 seats on a continuum based on their 2020 presidential vote, IL-14 would be exactly in the middle). Based on our estimates, Republicans could probably get about halfway to the historic net gain they need just by winning seats where Biden performed worse than that current median seat. Additionally, several of the light blue seats we mentioned are left of the median but would not necessarily require a GOP mega-wave to flip. We should note, though, that Republicans will also have to defend some of their own seats that are left of that median.
We mentioned above that this is not a projection. Reasonable people may either scoff at us for suggesting that some of these Democratic-held seats are vulnerable — or think that we should be mentioning even more Democratic-seats as legitimate Republican targets. We plan to revisit this “Drive to 35” as redistricting is completed and as the campaign progresses. And the race for the House is not over; Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green just went through how Democrats could hang on. From a Democratic perspective, the list above can serve as a guide to the kinds of seats they will need to largely hold in order to hang onto the majority.
One rough approximation of what to expect in the House comes from national generic ballot polling. In current averages, the generic ballot is roughly tied. However, the Democrats’ average share of the vote in such polls (in the low 40s) is very similar to Joe Biden’s average approval rating (also, on average, in the low 40s). One would expect Republicans to have a better chance to win over more undecided Biden disapprovers than Democrats would, which is why it’s so important for Democrats that Biden’s approval improves. Otherwise, we could see the Republicans building a more consistent generic ballot edge throughout the election year.
Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz has a House forecasting model based on the generic ballot and electoral history — he debuted this cycle’s version of the model in the Crystal Ball last summer. If the generic ballot polling ends up as roughly tied (as it is now), the model would suggest something like a 15-seat net gain for Republicans. A Republican lead of 10 points would correspond with a net gain of more like 30 seats. There have been some individual generic ballot polls in recent months that have shown Republicans with a 10-point lead, although there also have been some with Democrats doing well too.
To be clear, and as of now, we wouldn’t pick Republicans to net 35 seats in the House, although we also don’t think it’s outlandish to suggest that they could. If we were forced to pick the House right now, our total number of net Republican gains would probably have a 2 in front of it, as opposed to a 3. But there’s plenty of uncertainty — again, the lines aren’t even final in many places.
Given the tiny current Democratic majority and the various advantages Republicans have in this midterm election cycle, the question about the House may be more about how big of a majority the Republicans can build as opposed to whether they will win the majority at all. Democrats hope the latter remains a germane question; Republicans want to pour it on.
As you follow how the campaign develops, keep the number 5 in mind — the small number of net gains the GOP needs to win the House. But also file away a couple of other numbers: 35 and 248.
To see our House ratings, which we are updating as redistricting is completed on a state-by-state basis, visit the House page on our Crystal Ball website.