KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— We now rate 218 House seats — the magic number for winning a majority — as at least Leans Republican in our House ratings.
— A large number of races remain close and competitive. The danger for Democrats is that these races end up breaking disproportionately to the Republicans.
— 4 Toss-ups move to Leans Republican this week.
— After these changes, 218 seats at least Lean Republican, while 195 at least Lean Democratic, and there are 22 Toss-ups. Splitting the Toss-ups evenly, 11-11, would give Republicans 229 seats, or a net gain of 16.
— We suspect the Republicans will do better than just a split in the Toss-ups, so our updated forecast is a GOP gain in the high teens or low 20s.
Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes
Table 2: Crystal Ball House ratings
The race for the House with 2 weeks to go
Way back in January, and even as redistricting was still being completed, we suggested that the biggest question about the race for the House was not whether Republicans would win the majority, but rather how big the eventual Republican majority would be. Though there have been twists and turns along the way, that still appears to be the key question with a couple of weeks to go until the election.
While we have always described the Republicans as favorites to win the House majority this cycle, today’s rating changes represent the first time we’ve had at least 218 districts rated as Safe, Likely, or Leans Republican — the minimum number required to win a majority.
Overall, the House playing field remains large and is mostly made up of districts that Joe Biden carried and that Democrats hold. Several weeks ago, we wrote about the districts that have seen at least some outside spending by party groups. There were 57 back then, and the number is up to 61 now. Our sense is that many Democratic incumbents are holding their own but are south of 50%, making them vulnerable to the whims of a GOP-leaning overall national political environment (we’ll address some of these members in one of the bullet points about polling below).
Our changes this week primarily push a handful of Toss-ups to Leans Republican, while also noting another very deep sleeper we didn’t note in our upset watch piece last week.
New York and Oregon have become persistent trouble spots for Democrats. The open-seat Oregon gubernatorial race is a very real Republican pickup opportunity, as are 3 open House seats where Joe Biden won by between 9-13 points. OR-5, the least blue of the 3 seats, has become a real headache for Democrats, as it appears that former Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R) has an edge over 2018 OR-2 nominee Jamie McLeod-Skinner (D), who ousted Rep. Kurt Schrader (D, OR-5) by primarying him from the left earlier this year. Democratic outside groups have stopped spending in the district, which is more competitive than the Biden +9 topline would indicate — Republican gubernatorial nominees won it in both 2016 and 2018. Democrats drew a gerrymander in Oregon designed to get them 5 of the state’s 6 seats, but it just seems like things are going poorly enough for them in the state that they won’t get there. The 2 other open-seat races, OR-4 and OR-6, are also highly competitive, with OR-6 the better GOP pickup opportunity.
Likewise, we’re also pushing one of several competitive open seats in New York, NY-22, from Toss-up to Leans Republican. Our understanding is that the race to replace retiring Rep. John Katko (R, NY-22) between a pair of Navy veterans, Brandon Williams (R) and Francis Conole (D), remains close with a lot of undecideds; a Spectrum News/Siena College poll from late September had Williams up 45%-40%, and the race may very well be closer than that. However, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) seems very likely to lose this district (Biden won it by 7 but it is redder down-ballot). We just as easily could have moved NY-19, a neighboring Toss-up open seat, instead of this one, but the overall message we wanted to convey with this change is that we just don’t think Democrats are going to max out in the competitive seats in NY.
We’re also making one other change in New York state: Rep. Joe Morelle (D, NY-25) moves from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic. This is a deep sleeper race, as Biden carried this district by about 20 points, although it’s another place where Hochul’s apparent troubles could hurt Democrats more broadly. We also remember one of the great near-upsets in recent House history, when the late Rep. Louise Slaughter (D) unexpectedly came very close to losing the previous version of this district in a race that was not on anyone’s radar in 2014. Morelle’s opponent is former Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary (R), who was fired after the death of Daniel Prude at the hands of Rochester police in March 2020 (for more on that, and the race overall, see this recent preview from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle). A Republican internal poll showed Singletary within 4 points of Morelle — although as we often note, internal polls that get released should be taken with a grain of salt. This does feel like the kind of cycle where Republicans may pull a shocker in a very unexpected place — from a rating standpoint, we at least want to have any of those possibilities rated as Likely as opposed to Safe Democratic. It would still be a big surprise if Morelle lost.
Out in California, heavyweight Democratic outside House spending group House Majority PAC cut its remaining reservations earmarked to help former state Assemblywoman Christy Smith (D) in her rematch with Rep. Mike Garcia (R, CA-27). Polling in this district is all over the map, and Biden did win it by a dozen points. We expect this margin to be narrow — Garcia only barely won in 2020 — but it’d be at least a mild surprise if he lost. Also out west, Rep. Yvette Herrell (R, NM-2) is defending a gerrymandered, Biden +6 district against former Las Cruces City Councilor Gabe Vasquez (D). This is another one that remains very close but where we think the GOP will end up with the advantage, at least partially because Vasquez expressed some left-wing views in since-deleted social media posts that play right into Republican attacks.
One other factor in our decision to make Garcia and Herrell small favorites: It’s been very rare for non-presidential party incumbents to lose in recent midterms, although that advantage is likely mitigated to some degree by their districts getting more difficult through redistricting.
At this late point in the cycle, we’re working to eliminate Toss-ups as opposed to adding to the list. However, there are a number of races in the Leans Democratic column where Republicans may very well be closing in. Those include the districts held by Reps. Mike Levin (D, CA-49), Katie Porter (D, CA-47), Jahana Hayes (D, CT-5), Abigail Spanberger (D, VA-7), Kim Schrier (D, WA-8), and, most notably, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D, NY-17), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee whose race has attracted a considerable amount of Republican outside spending (and now some Democratic spending) as we near the finish line.
A few other observations:
— Nonpartisan public polling of House races has become something of a rarity, but we got 3 of note over the past week in a trio of the most important Toss-up races in the country. Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D, MI-7), Susan Wild (D, PA-7), and Elaine Luria (D, VA-2) first won in 2018 and are all defending districts that President Biden carried by 2 points or less. So these are 3 of the Democratic incumbents one would expect to have a hard time in a Republican-leaning environment. However, the polls all show them still alive in their races: Slotkin was up 47%-41% according to a Detroit News/WDIV-TV survey; Luria was tied 45%-45%, per a Christopher Newport University Wason Center poll; and Wild had a nominal 47%-46% lead in a Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll. Now, it may be that all 3 end up losing — in fact, to be honest, we think that’s probably the likeliest outcome, despite these polls. Luria and Wild are basically tied and under 50%, and one way to interpret polls is that a late tie often goes to the challenger, especially when the challenger is on the right side of the political environment. But the overall point is that none of these are necessarily gimmes for the GOP.
— Florida has earned a reputation as being among the fastest-counting states for voting, and it would be great if we could look to the state for some early signs about the 2022 House picture. Unfortunately, the state’s GOP gerrymander means there really are not any highly-competitive races in the state. We don’t list any of the state’s 28 House districts as Toss-ups or even Leaners. The most competitive district in the state is likely the Miami-area seat held by Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R, FL-27). Salazar defeated then-Rep. Donna Shalala (D) as part of the 2020 GOP surge in South Florida, and Salazar prevailed even as Joe Biden won her district by about 3 points (although that was well down from Hillary Clinton’s nearly 20-point 2016 margin). Salazar got a little help in redistricting, as her district now backed Trump by a few tenths of a point. She faces state Sen. Annette Taddeo (D), and Republican outside groups have felt the need to give Salazar a bit of air cover. This is still a Likely Republican race — if Taddeo won, it would be a signifier of a significantly better night for Democrats in the House than we currently expect.
— Earlier this year, we speculated about the possibility that, following this election, no Democrat would hold a district won by Donald Trump in 2020. That could still happen, although we do have a couple of Trump-district Democrats as small favorites, Reps. Mary Peltola (D, AK-AL) and Marcy Kaptur (D, OH-9). Our sense is that both are still ahead in their races, and both benefit from weak opposition. The crazy circumstances in Alaska have continued: Major outside spending groups on both sides have stayed away, and Republicans have not come up with a good strategy for the state’s top-4 ranked-choice voting system. Meanwhile, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said she will rank Peltola first on her ballot, ahead of former 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin (R) — there’s no love lost between Murkowski and Palin (the latter beat Murkowski’s father, then the incumbent, in a 2006 gubernatorial primary). State pollster Ivan Moore recently showed both Peltola and Murkowski favored in their respective races, and they appear to share a good number of voters despite being in different parties. Murkowski’s chief rival is Kelly Tshibaka (R), who is running to Murkowski’s right with the endorsement of Donald Trump. Beyond Peltola and Kaptur, Reps. Jared Golden (D, ME-2) and Matt Cartwright (D, PA-8) appear to be holding their own in Trump districts, although we continue to rate both as being in Toss-up races. The number of Trump-district Democrats is very likely to be small, just as the number of Mitt Romney-district Democrats (5) who won in 2014 and the number of Hillary Clinton-district Republicans (3) who won in 2018. But a total wipeout, while still possible, would be at least a mild surprise at this point.
After today’s rating changes, we now show 218 districts rated Safe, Likely, or Leans Republican and 195 at least Leans Democratic, with 22 Toss-ups remaining.
Per Crystal Ball tradition, we will push all the Toss-ups to a Leans rating before the election — and we reserve the right to move some of the leaners from one lean column straight to the other, bypassing the Toss-up column (do not pass Go and do not collect $200, to quote Monopoly).
Splitting the Toss-ups down the middle, 11-11, would give the GOP a 229-206 House edge, or a net gain of 16. However, at this point we’d probably pick the Republicans in two-thirds of the Toss-ups, and they may very well end up flipping some of our current Leans Democratic seats as well. Overall, we’re thinking the likeliest House outcome is a GOP gain of somewhere in the high teens or low 20s.