Notes on the State of Politics: May 26, 2021

A silver lining for House Democrats; Democrats in good shape in NM-1 special; Republicans still clearly favored in top Florida races despite emergence of credible challengers

Dear Readers: This is the latest edition of the Crystal Ball’s “Notes on the State of Politics,” which features short updates on elections and politics.

— The Editors

The House: A silver lining for Democrats

Last week’s Crystal Ball, which featured hypothetical ratings of the House that did not take looming redistricting into account, painted a relatively bleak picture for Democrats. We rated 19 Democratic seats as Toss-ups if no district lines changed, and just two Republican ones. Republicans need to net just five additional seats to win the House next year.

However, there is at least one reason to think Democrats could be able to limit their losses next year or even hold on to the majority: The Democrats are not that overextended into hostile, Republican territory.

Despite not holding the majority, Republicans hold more seats in districts that Joe Biden won, nine, than Democrats hold in districts Donald Trump won, seven. And three of the seven Trump-district Democrats — Reps. Cindy Axne (D, IA-3), Elissa Slotkin (D, MI-8), and Andy Kim (D, NJ-3) — hold seats that Trump won by less than a point apiece. The most Republican-leaning seat based on the 2020 presidential results won by any Democrat is ME-2, which Rep. Jared Golden (D) held despite it voting for Trump by 7.4 points.

Compare that to 2010, the last time Democrats were trying to defend a House majority in the first midterm of a Democratic president. Democrats won 49 seats carried by John McCain in the 2008 presidential race, and roughly half of those were in districts Barack Obama had lost by double digits: Democrats actually won 31 of Obama’s 150 worst-performing districts in 2008. Republicans held a fair number of Obama-won seats in 2008 — 34, which speaks to the higher levels of ticket-splitting just a dozen years ago — but only nine were ones Obama won by double digits. Democrats would go on to lose all but 12 of their McCain-won districts in 2010.

We saw something similar in 2018, when Democrats won back the House: Republicans won 25 seats carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and they lost all but three in the 2018 midterm.

Part of the reason why Democrats are not very overextended is that they only won 222 House seats in 2020. Democrats won 257 in 2008, and Republicans won 241 in 2016. The bigger your majority, the likelier it is that you are cutting into unfavorable turf. As such, Democrats don’t hold a lot of Trump-won territory, which could insulate them from significant losses if the political environment cooperates to at least some degree.

There’s one major caveat here: These numbers will change because of redistricting. Some current Democrats in Biden-won seats may find themselves in Trump-won seats, or vice versa, next year. It may also be that some current crossover district members might find themselves no longer in crossover seats, as friendly map-drawers alter their districts in ways that help them win reelection. So we’ll have to revisit the list of crossover members as the redistricting process begins in earnest later this year.

NM-1: Democrats remain favored as election nears

While redistricting is certainly an obstacle to handicapping most 2022 House elections, one race that won’t be dependent on new lines will be next week’s special election in New Mexico’s 1st District. The seat was vacated earlier this year when then-Rep. Deb Haaland (D, NM-1) resigned to lead the Department of the Interior.

The Crystal Ball’s initial read on the race was that this Albuquerque-area district should stay in Democratic hands, but Republicans could pull off an upset if enough factors lined up — in early February, we rated a potential special election in NM-1 as Likely Democratic. Nearly four months later, we feel the same way about it.

In the months since February, voters in three other districts have gone to the polls for special elections, but none have been especially informative of the national mood. In Louisiana’s 5th District, now-Rep. Julia Letlow (R, LA-5) won a March primary outright — the whole campaign, she was seen as a clear favorite to replace her late husband, who won the seat last year, then died of COVID-19. In Louisiana’s heavily Democratic 2nd District, which went to an April runoff, the partisan outcome was never in question. Finally, though TX-6 is a competitive district on paper, it’s headed to a July 27 runoff that will feature two Republicans — Democrats, admittedly, did not invest in getting one of their candidates past a jungle primary earlier this month.

While New Mexico may not be the first state that comes to mind on the subject of Trump-era political realignments, NM-1 is an example of how pervasive recent national shifts have been. In their March conventions, both parties nominated legislators whose districts speak to this.

The Republican nominee, state Sen. Mark Moores, holds a seat that takes in some northern Albuquerque neighborhoods: in 2008, his SD-21 supported John McCain 53%-46%, but went for Biden by about five points last year. Democratic state Rep. Melanie Stansbury’s district followed a similar path. Her HD-28 is on the city’s eastern edge and gave McCain a narrow majority, then supported Biden 55%-43% a dozen years later.

Still, despite the longer-term Democratic trend at the presidential level, Republicans are pointing to their overperformance there in last year’s Senate race. Biden carried New Mexico by nearly 11 points, while now-Sen. Ben Ray Lujan’s (D-NM) margin was only a little more than half that. In fact, Lujan ran furthest behind Biden in NM-1. The Republican nominee, Mark Ronchetti, who was (and now is again) a longtime TV meteorologist, got within 15% in NM-1, while Trump lost it by over 20%. Map 1 considers the presidential and Senate results in the Bernalillo County part of NM-1 (the county casts over 90% of the district’s votes).

Map 1: Bernalillo County portion of NM-1 in 2020

Biden and Lujan carried the vast majority of precincts — perhaps not very surprising, considering the Democratic lean of the district. Still, if Republicans are going to pull off an upset next week, the light blue Biden/Ronchetti precincts would be the areas to watch. Moores’ (SD-21) and Stansbury’s (HD-28) districts are outlined, and both are in the more competitive part of the county. Ronchetti won SD-21 by about six points (similar to McCain’s showing in 2008) and came within a point of carrying HD-28, despite Biden’s double-digit lead there.

The remaining counties in NM-1 don’t account for many votes, but they lean Republican. So Moores’ formula would seem to hinge on running up the score in those areas, then banking on pro-GOP reversion in the suburbs.

A crowdfunded poll out Monday, conducted jointly by the nonpartisan Elections Daily and the conservative RRH Elections, gave Stansbury a 49%-33% lead, roughly the same margin that Haaland won with last year. The race will feature two third party candidates. One is a Libertarian, and the other is former state Commissioner of Public Lands Aubrey Dunn — elected as a Republican to that post, he switched to the Libertarian Party while in office, but he is on the ballot as independent. Given his past affiliations, it seemed Dunn would be more of a net drain on Moores, but he actually fares better in the poll with college graduates, a group that has fueled Democratic gains in the area. President Biden’s approval stood at 58%-39% in the poll, down slightly from the margin he sported there last year against Trump.

A datapoint from the poll that election enthusiasts will appreciate is that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) would lead her 2018 opponent, former Rep. Steve Pearce (R, NM-2) by 15%, down from the 23% margin she took there three years ago — Lujan Grisham has seen some unfavorable headlines in recent months, though she could still win statewide, with a few points to spare, with that type of margin in NM-1. Lujan Grisham preceded Haaland as NM-1’s representative.

As of last Friday, registered Democrats seemed to have a healthy lead in the early vote, casting 61% of the early ballots compared to just 27% for Republicans. Early voting will continue until Saturday, and the picture could change by then, but we suspect that there could be a familiar polarization by voting method — as with the 2020 general election, Republicans could be waiting until next week to vote. But barring a sizeable Republican surge next Tuesday, Democrats are going into the final stretch of this race as the favorites.

Florida: Top races still rated Likely Republican

Democratic wheels have been turning in Florida in recent weeks. Rep. Val Demings (D, FL-10), a one-time contender for the second slot on Joe Biden’s presidential ticket, is likely to run for Senate against Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Rubio is set to seek a third term in the Senate next year. Demings’ decision appears to have sidelined another Senate contender from the Orlando area, Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D, FL-7), who somewhat surprisingly decided against a Senate bid on Monday.

Democrats therefore may avoid a contentious primary for the right to face Rubio, although there are at least two big names in Democratic circles who appear to want the right to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL): Rep. Charlie Crist (D, FL-13) and state Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried (D). Crist has already announced his bid, and Fried has indicated she is likely to run. Back when he was a Republican, Crist served a single term as governor from 2007-2011. He lost to Rubio running as an independent in a 2010 Senate contest — Crist left the GOP after it became apparent that Rubio was likely to beat him for the Republican Senate nomination — and then lost a very close race against then-Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) as a Democrat for governor in 2014. Crist won election to the House in 2016, where he has served ever since. Fried, meanwhile, won an open seat squeaker for agriculture commissioner in 2018 even as Democrats were narrowly losing the Senate and gubernatorial races to Scott and DeSantis, respectively.

Florida holds its primaries in late August, so while Murphy’s decision may prevent Demings from having to win a tough, late primary, Crist versus Fried, if it happens, could be somewhat reminiscent of the 2018 primary between former Rep. Gwen Graham (D, FL-2) and then-Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D), which Gillum somewhat surprisingly won (there were other prominent candidates in that race, but Gillum and Graham finished well ahead of the others and together split nearly two-thirds of all the votes). Gillum lost to DeSantis in November 2018 by about half a point.

Demings plus Crist or Fried would give the Democrats a pairing of credible candidates, but we still favor DeSantis and Rubio in these races. Both are incumbents without obvious problems, and Democrats have in recent years come up empty in Florida’s top statewide races.

The 2020 presidential election in the Sunshine State was perhaps the Democrats’ worst performance over the last several cycles, as Donald Trump carried the state by 3.4 points. Trump’s increased margin from 2016 — when he carried the state by 1.2 points — was driven largely by significant improvements in South Florida’s Palm Beach, Broward, and (especially) Miami-Dade counties. Joe Biden carried all three counties, but he only won Miami-Dade by seven points after Hillary Clinton carried it by 29 points in 2016, and Biden suffered smaller but still notable underperformances in Palm Beach and Broward. If Biden had matched Clinton’s margin of victory (based on percentage of the vote cast) in these three counties, Trump’s winning statewide margin would have been cut from about 370,000 votes to only about 50,000. A recent report from the Democratic data firm Catalist found that Trump performed better in 2020 than he did in 2016 with Latinos overall, but his biggest overperformance came with those of Cuban ancestry — an important group in Miami-Dade. Catalist estimated that Clinton won Florida Latinos by a 65%-35% spread in the two-party vote, but Biden only won them 51%-49%. Latinos make up a little less than a fifth of all Florida voters.

So one challenge for the Democratic statewide ticket, whoever ends up leading it, is improving the party’s performance in South Florida and with Latinos. At least against Rubio, a Cuban-American candidate from South Florida, this may be challenging: In his successful 2016 reelection, Rubio only lost Miami-Dade by 11 points, 18 points better than Trump (it also seems reasonable to expect that DeSantis and Rubio might perform similarly across the state — there was not much daylight between Scott and DeSantis in 2018). And however credible some combination of Demings along with Crist or Fried may be, none of those three candidates are Latino (Crist is a white man, Fried is a white, Jewish woman, and Demings is a Black woman).

The stakes in Florida, as always, are high: DeSantis is emerging as a top, non-Trump contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, but a reelection loss likely would cripple his candidacy. A Rubio loss would likely kneecap Republican odds of winning the Senate majority next year. But despite the likelihood of a decent pairing of Senate and gubernatorial candidates for Democrats, the incumbent Republicans remain well-situated barring convincing evidence to the contrary in a state where Republicans retain a small but solid statewide edge.