The Race for the House, Part Two

Rating changes in 7 districts a mixed bag for each party; previewing the NY-3 special

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— We are making 7 House rating changes this week, with 4 benefiting Democrats and 3 benefiting Republicans.

— Republicans continue to be closer to the magic number of 218 in our ratings than Democrats, but there are enough Toss-up races that we broadly consider the race for the House to be a Toss-up overall.

— The NY-3 special remains highly competitive less than a week before the election.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes

District Old Rating New Rating
Ashley Hinson (R, IA-2) Likely Republican Safe Republican
Lauren Underwood (D, IL-14) Likely Democratic Safe Democratic
Jared Golden (D, ME-2) Leans Democratic Toss-up
Don Bacon (R, NE-2) Leans Republican Toss-up
Greg Landsman (D, OH-1) Leans Democratic Likely Democratic
Vicente Gonzalez (D, TX-34) Likely Democratic Leans Democratic
Kim Schrier (D, WA-8) Leans Democratic Likely Democratic

Table 2: Crystal Ball House ratings

Across the House playing field

Following last week’s release of 2023’s fourth quarter campaign fundraising reports, we thought this was a good time to go through our House ratings and make a few revisions.

The changes don’t alter the overall House rating math all that much: currently, we have 212 districts rated as Safe, Likely, or Leans Republican, 203 as Safe/Likely/Leans Democratic, and 20 Toss-ups. Splitting the Toss-ups down the middle would lead to… a 222-213 Republican House, or exactly zero net change from what happened in 2022. So Republicans are a little bit ahead in the ratings, but we’d classify the overall battle for the House as a Toss-up.

The relatively scant House generic ballot polling generally shows a small Republican lead—the FiveThirtyEight average pegs it as half a point and the RealClearPolitics average has it as 2 points. This makes the overall environment seem like we’re still stuck in 2022, an observation we ran by several sources on both sides of the aisle without much pushback.

In yesterday’s part one of our House analysis, we discussed the correlation between House and presidential results and what we saw in 2016 and 2020. Two of the relatively few “crossover” district members are Reps. Jared Golden (D, ME-2) and Don Bacon (R, NE-2). The pair are linked not only by being crossover members, but also because of the Electoral College quirk that is unique to their two states: Both Maine and Nebraska award electoral votes by congressional district. This allowed Donald Trump, by carrying Golden’s sprawling ME-2 in 2016 and 2020, to pad his electoral vote tally by one, and Joe Biden was able to do the same in 2020 by carrying Bacon’s Omaha-based NE-2.

That both districts are likelier than not to award their electoral votes to the party opposite of their current House incumbent is the main reason we’re moving both districts from Leans to Toss-up, although they both are poised to have potentially strong opposition.

Golden continues to stand out as perhaps the House Democrats’ most independent member. A recent FiveThirtyEight analysis of 2023 congressional roll call votes found that Golden was the only House Democrat who voted with President Biden’s position less than 50% of the time. Golden did recently move toward his party on one important issue, though: changing from opposing to supporting a national assault weapons ban following a horrific school shooting in his hometown of Lewiston last fall.

Golden’s likely Republican opponent is state Rep. Austin Theriault, a former NASCAR driver. Those who bemoan the predominance of elderly politicians in federal government will find something to like about this potential matchup—Golden is 41, and Theriault is only 30. Golden is probably still helped by Maine’s ranked-choice voting system for federal races, as well as Mainers’ willingness to split tickets (as demonstrated both by Golden’s recent success and Republican Sen. Susan Collins’s crossover victory in 2020), but we could also easily imagine Trump enjoying a bigger margin in this district than his 6-point win in 2020. Golden still has a huge cash on hand edge on Theriault, who Republicans nonetheless hope will be a better fit for the district than the former Republican incumbent, Bruce Poliquin, who Golden beat in 2018 and 2022.

Bacon, meanwhile, is potentially easier to portray as a rank-and-file Republican, with a voting record more in line with other members of his caucus, according to that same FiveThirtyEight analysis. Bacon first won in 2016, reclaiming for his party a seat that had flipped against then-Rep. Lee Terry (R) in 2014. One indicator of Terry’s weakness that year—the former incumbent had a severe case of a common political affliction, foot in mouth syndrome—was a surprisingly slim 6-point primary victory over Tea Partier Dan Frei (R). Frei is back a decade later, as he recently launched a primary challenge to Bacon. It’s hard to know how seriously to take any primary challenge, but this may keep Bacon focused to at least some degree on his right flank, which in turn may help state Sen. Tony Vargas (D) in his effort to reduce Bacon’s enviable level of crossover support in the general election. Bacon beat Vargas by 3 points in 2022, not exactly a runaway for the incumbent in a decent Republican environment. Bacon leads the cash-on-hand race $1.55 million to $1.11 million, so Vargas is solidly positioned for a challenger.

Some of our House ratings are based on what we’re calling “realignment watch.” Namely, we may rank a seat in a category that may seem a little less friendly to the incumbent party than one might expect because of the possibility of a significant shift at the presidential level. That’s the main reason we’re moving Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D, TX-34) from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic.

Back in 2020, Donald Trump performed way better in South Texas than Republican presidential candidates typically perform. Texas Republicans capitalized on this shift by redrawing the three House districts that predominantly cover the region, shifting TX-15—Gonzalez’s old district—from a narrow Biden district to a narrow Trump one. Gonzalez opted to run in TX-34, redrawn as a Biden +16 seat (although that margin was down considerably from typical Democratic performance). Now-former Rep. Filemon Vela (D, TX-34) announced his retirement in advance of Gonzalez’s shift and then later resigned, sparking a special election in the old, less blue version of TX-34 that Republican Mayra Flores won in June 2022. Gonzalez and Flores faced off in the new TX-34 in November 2022 as sitting members of the House; despite a lot of pre-election buzz that Flores could win, Gonzalez ended up winning by a fairly comfortable 8.5-point margin. What prompts us to move this to a more competitive category is mainly the possibility that the realignment that we thought might intensify in 2022 could instead do so in 2024. Flores is running again and raised almost $1 million in 2023’s fourth quarter, although she also spent a lot and Gonzalez had double her cash on hand. The other remaining South Texas Democrat, the moderate Henry Cuellar, has a more competitive district than Gonzalez’s but won easily despite a lot of Republican attention in 2022 and does not seem to be a real target this time (he has also avoided a primary from his left after narrowly winning renomination in 2020 and 2022). Rep. Monica De La Cruz (R, TX-15), who flipped the redder version of Gonzalez’s old district in 2022, also should be OK in 2024.

Moving the other way, from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic, are Reps. Greg Landsman (D, OH-1) and Kim Schrier (D, WA-8), neither of whom have drawn particularly serious opposition in districts Biden won by roughly 7-8 points (Republicans running against them did not crack six figures in the most recent campaign finance reporting quarter). The top-two Washington state primary in August can give us a decent preview of the November campaign, so if Schrier shows any weakness there, we can always reevaluate. (We also will be watching the upcoming March 5 top-two California primary for November clues.)

And moving off the competitive board altogether are Reps. Ashley Hinson (R, IA-2) and Lauren Underwood (D, IL-14). They too do not seem to have drawn significant opposition and don’t appear likely to factor into the national campaigns for the fall. Hinson beat strong opponents in 2020 and 2022 in a red-trending northeast Iowa district, while Underwood beat a Republican incumbent in a traditionally GOP-leaning seat in 2018, held on in 2020, and then got help from a Democratic gerrymander in 2022.

The looming NY-3 race

Disgraced former Rep. George Santos (R, NY-3), who has nonetheless become a cultural phenomenon even as the law catches up with his checkered past, tweeted in the midst of House Republicans’ failed attempt to impeach Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas on Tuesday evening: “Miss me yet?” (This is perhaps a reference to an amusing billboard featuring George W. Bush that appeared early on in the Obama administration.) After joining with Democrats to expel Santos (for perfectly defensible reasons), Republicans nonetheless found themselves one vote short, although they may succeed in impeaching Mayorkas at a later date (House Majority Leader Steve Scalise was away for the vote).

The difficult-to-wrangle House Republican Conference is in need of all the votes it can get, and they might be able to get one back in the seat Santos used to hold: NY-3, which is holding a special election next week.

Former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D, NY-3) held down the Nassau County-centered district for three terms from 2017-2023 and is trying to reclaim it following Santos’s surprisingly large 8-point open seat victory in 2022, part of a New York Democratic disaster that was probably the single biggest contributor to the party’s loss of the House. The Republican candidate, county legislator Mazi Pilip, is a native Ethiopian Jew who served in the Israel Defense Forces before moving to the United States. That is a topical bio for the times, although Pilip has been criticized for not running a more visible campaign and avoiding the press.

The failed Mayorkas impeachment vote helps highlight the political role of the roiling topic of immigration, which surely is the point of the whole exercise, as the effort would die in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Some of what is going on with immigration is probably just the predictable rhythms of what political scientists call “thermostatic” public opinion—the public sometimes breaks against the party in power on certain issues. So if Donald Trump was viewed as too hard on immigration, now Joe Biden is viewed as too soft. But the intensity of the negative views toward Biden on immigration are striking, as his approval on that issue is markedly below his already-poor overall approval rating, and Republicans—often loaded for bear on the immigration issue anyway—see it as a particularly potent and positive issue for their side now. That big-city mayors like New York City’s Eric Adams (D) have criticized the administration on immigration policy as cities far from the border have struggled with a considerable number of migrants has also likely helped raise the salience of the issue.

Immigration has become a huge focus in the NY-3 race, with Republicans hammering Suozzi over a statement that he “kicked ICE out of Nassau County,” a reference to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Suozzi is using his own advertising to defend himself from those attacks. From a national perspective, Democrats are hoping Republicans simply go overboard on immigration and overplay their hand; congressional Republicans swiftly killing a border-protection compromise negotiated in the Senate could be a lifeline to Democrats trying to dig themselves out of a deep hole on the issue. The NY-3 result may help indicate how real of a problem for Democrats and how big of an asset for Republicans the immigration issue actually is.

In NY-3, there is also the matter of poor Democratic performances in Nassau in the Biden era. Honestly, if this Biden +8 district existed with the same demographics in, say, suburban Milwaukee or Philadelphia, the Democrats might be having an easier time. It’s just possible that something bad is going on for the Democrats on Long Island that may not necessarily be generalizable to many other parts of the country.

That said, Democrats have—in general—performed fairly well in special state legislative and congressional elections since the Dobbs abortion rights decision in mid-2022. If the same thing happens in NY-3, it would fit neatly into that broader narrative. Democrats have spent considerably more on the race than Republicans, and Suozzi outraised Pilip roughly 3-to-1 in the most recent reporting period. But GOP outside spending behemoth Congressional Leadership Fund has come in big at the end of the race, perhaps indicating that the race is there for the taking.

There is only one recent public poll of the NY-3 race that we’re aware of, an Emerson College survey from mid-January that had Suozzi up 3 points. Our understanding is that this remains a margin-of-error contest, which helps explain why both sides are so intensely competing for it down the stretch.

The Democrats probably should win it, and if we felt compelled to lean the race, we’d push it ever so slightly and anxiously toward them. But it’s close enough that we’re just going to hold it, formally, as a Toss-up in our ratings. We’ll react to the result in next Wednesday’s Crystal Ball.