KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Joe Biden’s currently strong lead in the presidential race is being felt in the suburbs, which if it lasts could imperil Republicans in some of their formerly dark red turf.
— Texas merits special attention, where as many as 10 Republican-held House seats could become vulnerable if Trump were to lose the state.
— We have 11 House rating changes, 10 of which benefit Democrats.
— Democrats remain favored to retain their House majority.
Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes
Table 2: Crystal Ball House ratings
A second Blue Wave in the suburbs?
Well-educated suburban districts, particularly ones that also were diverse, were a major part of the Democrats’ victory in the House in 2018. Democrats captured many formerly Republican districts where Donald Trump performed significantly worse in 2016 than Mitt Romney had in 2012. Democratic victories in and around places like Northern Virginia, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, the Twin Cities, Atlanta, Orange County, CA, parts of New Jersey, and elsewhere came in seats that meet this broad definition.
And then there’s Texas. Democrats picked up two districts there, one in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex (TX-32) and another in suburban Houston (TX-7). But Democrats put scares into several other Republican incumbents, and the closeness of presidential polling in Texas could lead to unexpected opportunities for Democrats there this November.
Trump has generally led polls of Texas, but many have been close and Biden has on occasion led, like in a Fox News poll released last week that gave him a nominal lead of a single point.
Tellingly, of 18 Texas polls in the RealClearPolitics database matching Biden against Trump dating back to early last year, Trump has never led by more than seven points — in a state he won by nine in 2016. It seems reasonable to assume that Trump is going to do worse in Texas than four years ago, particularly if his currently gloomy numbers in national surveys and state-level polls elsewhere do not improve.
In an average of the most recent polls, Trump leads by two points in Texas. In 2018, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) won reelection over then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D, TX-16) by 2.6 points. If Trump were to win Texas by a similar margin this November, the congressional district-level results probably would look a lot like the Cruz-O’Rourke race. Those results are shown in Map 1, courtesy of my colleague J. Miles Coleman.
Map 1: 2018 Texas Senate results by congressional district
TX-23 is competitive primarily because it’s two-thirds Hispanic, and it already leans to the Democrats in our ratings. TX-10 and TX-24 better fit the suburban mold: Both have significantly higher levels of four-year college attainment than the national average (particularly TX-24), and Republican incumbents in both seats nearly lost to unheralded Democratic challengers in 2018.
Cruz won the remaining districts, but several of them were close: TX-2, TX-3, TX-6, TX-21, TX-22, TX-25, and TX-31 all voted for Cruz by margins ranging from 0.1 points (TX-21) to 5.1 (TX-25). These districts all have at least average and often significantly higher-than-average levels of four-year college attainment, and they all are racially diverse.
In other words, these districts share some characteristics of those that have moved toward the Democrats recently, even though they remain right of center.
This is all a long preamble to an alarming possibility for Republicans: If Biden were to actually carry Texas, he might carry many or even all of these districts in the process. In a time when ticket-splitting is less common than in previous eras of American politics (though hardly extinct), that could exert some real pressure on Republicans in these districts.
We already have several of these districts included in our House ratings (Table 2, included for reference at the top of the article). But we are moving four additional ones from Safe Republican to Likely Republican: Reps. Dan Crenshaw (R, TX-2), Van Taylor (R, TX-3), Ron Wright (R, TX-6), and Roger Williams (R, TX-25). They join Rep. John Carter (R, TX-31) in the Likely Republican category.
To be clear, we don’t really see any of them in immediate danger, and they certainly can and probably will run ahead of Trump in their districts — just like they all ran ahead of Cruz in 2018 (they also likely will have the kind of resource edges that can help make this happen). The same can be said of Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) at the statewide level, who appears to be doing better than Trump in polls (although that may not last in the end).
Trump’s Texas sag in 2016 didn’t immediately imperil any Texas Republican U.S. House members, except for retiring Rep. Will Hurd (R) in the perpetually swingy TX-23; it took the 2018 midterm, when Trump’s unpopularity led to big House losses for Republicans, to make many of these districts much more competitive. So it’s possible that Biden could do really well, but not have strong-enough coattails in these and other similar kinds of districts. We also still like Trump’s chances in Texas, despite the close polls.
However, if that changes — and if Biden wins the state without much ticket-splitting — there could be some unpleasant surprises down the ballot for Republicans in Texas. That could also include control of the Texas state House of Representatives, which might be in play if things get bad enough for Republicans this November.
Redistricting looms for 2021 — at the very least, Republicans who currently control state government in Texas may have to dramatically re-draw the map to shore up incumbents whose safe seats have eroded over the course of the decade while also accommodating a few new House seats because of Texas’ explosive growth. For Republicans, their gerrymander after the last census (albeit blunted a little by judicial intervention) made practical political sense, but demographic changes and coalition shifts pushed 20 of the 36 districts to vote more Democratic than the state in the 2018 Senate race. And if Democrats somehow win the state House, they will have a formal seat at the table in the redistricting process next year.
Other rating changes
Democrats and their allies have been releasing internal House polls at a way higher rate than Republicans in recent months — this is something we touched on briefly in our Electoral College update last week.
It’s fair to say, in our own experience, that Democrats sometimes have a habit of releasing internal polls more often than Republicans do. It is also fair to say that internal, partisan polls often have a bias, predictably, toward the side that releases them: FiveThirtyEight, in its polling analysis, has found a 4-5 point average bias toward the side of the candidate/group that conducts the poll in the closing weeks of a campaign. Still, we do follow these polls, and if one side is releasing a whole lot more polls than the other side, it may be a sign that they feel better about their numbers.
According to FiveThirtyEight, which keeps track of all polls (including internals), Democrats or their allies have released 18 House internal polls since the start of May (with most of them coming within the last couple of weeks), while Republicans have released only four — and two of them released in June were very old, one with field dates in March and another from December of last year (before, you know, some stuff happened).
Not all of the Democratic polls showed Democrats leading — a few were in districts we rate as Safe Republican where the Democratic candidate was down mid-to-high single digits.
But others were more interesting. One of them had Wright, the TX-6 Republican mentioned above, leading his Democratic opponent, Stephen Daniel, just 45%-41%. Biden and Trump were tied in the district after Trump carried it by 12 points in 2016 (Romney had won it by 17).
Two Democratic internal polls of PA-1, a suburban district based in Bucks County in the Philadelphia suburbs, had Christina Finello (D), an unheralded and underfunded challenger to battle-tested Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R, PA-1), effectively tied with Fitzpatrick while Biden was leading Trump by double digits districtwide. (Hillary Clinton won the district as currently drawn by two points — it became a bit more Democratic as part of the Democratic state Supreme Court’s unwinding of a GOP gerrymander in advance of the 2018 election.)
Whatever the truth is, we probably erred in moving PA-1 to Likely Republican back in April. Fitzpatrick is a strong incumbent with a less conservative voting record than much of the rest of his caucus, but this is a battleground seat that he very well could lose, particularly if Biden carries Pennsylvania. Fitzpatrick was held to an underwhelming 63% in last month’s primary by a Trumpier candidate, suggesting he has some work to do on his right flank, but he was still reelected in 2018 after taking a similarly low 67% in the primary. We’re moving PA-1 back to Leans Republican.
Another one of the shocking Democratic polls, released earlier this week, was in the open seat IN-5, held by retiring Rep. Susan Brooks (R). This is another high-education suburban seat that contains suburbs and small-town areas north of Indianapolis. It has some similarities to Rep. Troy Balderson’s (R) OH-12, a district that hosted a very competitive special election two summers ago.
Trump carried the district 52%-41% in 2016, down from Romney’s 58%-41% victory in 2012. Two years later, Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) very narrowly carried the district even as he was losing to now-Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) statewide. Christina Hale (D), a former state legislator who was the Democrats’ 2016 lieutenant gubernatorial nominee, will face state Sen. Victoria Spartz (R), who won a fairly nasty primary a few weeks ago. The Democrats had Biden up an eye-popping 10 points in the district, and had Hale leading 51%-45%. Even if those are overly rosy numbers for Democrats — and they probably are — we do think it’s hard to give the GOP a clear edge in an open-seat race in a district like this anymore. IN-5 moves from Leans Republican to Toss-up.
A few other rating changes:
— One of the Republicans’ biggest missed opportunities is in NY-19, where they failed to recruit a major challenger to Rep. Antonio Delgado (D). The primary between fashion designer Ola Hawatmeh (R) and veteran Kyle Van De Water (R) remains uncalled as New York continues to tabulate votes, but Delgado has a huge warchest and should be OK against either, even if Trump carries this district again (he did by six in 2016). NY-19 moves from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic.
— Rep. David Schweikert (R, AZ-6) moves from Likely Republican to Leans Republican — his Scottsdale-based district is very similar to many of the aforementioned Texas districts, and he continues to face a House Ethics Committee investigation that has cost him a considerable amount in legal fees. Democrats are still deciding on his opponent, although the frontrunner appears to be well-funded Hiral Tipirneni (D), who ran a respectable race against now-Rep. Debbie Lesko (R, AZ-8) in special and general elections in 2018.
— On Tuesday night, it wasn’t just political observers who were shocked by Rep. Scott Tipton’s (R, CO-3) primary loss to Lauren Boebert (R), a gun rights activist and restaurant owner: Tipton himself almost assuredly was caught off-guard too, given that he didn’t bother spending any of his considerable campaign warchest on TV or radio ads. This sets up a situation similar to what we’ve seen in VA-5, the Crystal Ball’s home district: A right-wing challenger defeats a sitting Republican House member for renomination in a district that Donald Trump carried by about a dozen points and that Republican statewide candidates carried even in losing efforts in 2018. Just like in VA-5, we’re moving the race from Likely Republican to Leans Republican. Though it could develop into a closer race, we still see a Republican edge for now. Boebert has some stances that Democrats could try to use against her: Servers at her restaurant openly carry firearms, and she apparently sympathizes with the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory. The Democratic nominee is former state legislator Diane Mitsch Bush (D), who lost to Tipton by eight points in 2018.
— It’s become fairly obvious that Rep. Katie Porter (D, CA-45), a rising Democratic star, is not a focus of GOP efforts to regain lost ground in Southern California. She moves from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic.
— Taking Porter’s place in the Likely Democratic column is Rep. Peter DeFazio (D, OR-4), a 17-term congressman who represents southwest Oregon. As our friends at Elections Daily recently pointed out, DeFazio’s district contains both of Oregon’s big college towns, Eugene (University of Oregon) and Corvallis (Oregon State University). If usually Democratic college turnout is down this year because of changes to academic calendars and in-person instruction, that could be felt particularly in a district like this.
DeFazio has won voteshares in the mid-to-high 50s in recent years, but Trump came within a few hundred votes of winning the district in 2016. After running against a perennial opponent from 2010 to 2018, DeFazio also has drawn an interesting new challenger: Alek Skarlatos (R), a former Army National Guard soldier who helped subdue a gunman on a Paris-bound train in 2015 (Skarlatos played himself in Clint Eastwood’s movie about the incident).
Though DeFazio’s profile as a progressive populist seems to play well in the district, he hasn’t been immune to federal trends. Coos County, a working-class coastal county that was usually friendly to him, flipped in 2016 and stayed Republican in 2018 There’s enough going on in this district to put it on the competitive board, although DeFazio is still well-positioned. OR-4, as well as Rep. Kurt Schrader’s (D) OR-5, are competitive districts on paper, but Republicans have not been able to mount particularly strong challenges to either in recent years. Oregon is poised to get a sixth district following the 2020 census, and Democrats may be hard-pressed to limit Republicans to just the single seat they hold now. Trump actually won the state outside of overwhelmingly Democratic Multnomah County (Portland), which casts only about a fifth of the statewide vote.
One last thing
Republicans are resting their House hopes largely on their potential to perform well against the 30 Democrats who hold districts that Trump carried in 2016. However, if Trump loses, it wouldn’t shock us if Biden flipped half or even more of those districts; in fact, even if Trump wins, Biden still seems likely to carry several of them. Republican challengers will be hard-pressed to beat Democratic incumbents without some help from the top of the ticket.
This also applies to formerly Republican districts that Clinton narrowly carried in 2016 and Democrats won in 2018, like seats held by Reps. Lizzie Fletcher (D, TX-7) and Tom Malinowski (D, NJ-7). Republicans have strong, well-funded challengers against each — veteran Wesley Hunt (R) in the former seat, and state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R) in the latter — but those challengers may have a hard time if Trump is losing those districts by wider margins in 2020, which at this point seems likely.
Overall, our ratings now show 227 House seats at least leaning to the Democrats, 194 at least leaning to the Republicans, and 14 Toss-ups. Splitting the Toss-ups down the middle would mean a 234-201 House, a one-seat GOP improvement on 2018.
That said, as we scan the Leans Republican and Leans Democratic columns, there may be more GOP seats than Democratic ones that are closer to drifting into the Toss-up column. Second-quarter fundraising reports, which will be trickling out over the next couple of weeks, may provide some additional clues as to the state of these competitive races.
All in all, the Democrats’ grip on the House majority remains strong.