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Ratings Changes: House and Governors

A Commentary By Kyle Kondik

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Affluent suburban seats looking dicier for GOP, but their numbers in the House are not all bad; Colorado, Michigan gubernatorial races shift to Democrats.

KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— A slew of new House polling, mostly from the New York Times and Siena College, contains bright spots for both parties but also suggests a Democratic edge in the race for the House.

— We have seven House ratings changes, all in favor of Democrats.

— We also have two gubernatorial ratings changes, also in favor of Democrats.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

Table 2: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings changes

By now, those who watch the House of Representatives are aware of the New York Timesmassive House polling project in conjunction with Siena College. They are in the field daily and will release dozens of House polls from now through the November election. They are providing House analysts (and the general public) with a treasure trove of nonpartisan data about the most competitive House races, many of which might not even have received a single nonpartisan survey were it not for this project. So this House analyst is grateful for the data they are providing. And while operatives on both sides complain about certain aspects of the polling — particularly that NYT/Siena is continually updating the progress of the polling, providing partial results that can be misleading even though the site features an admirable array of cautions and caveats — we have heard from several pros who are hitting “refresh” on their web browsers every night to keep track.

Better to be a polling junkie than another kind of addict, we suppose.

Overall, the numbers are broadly suggestive of an environment where Democrats appear to be favored in the House, but there are results with which both sides can be pleased.

For Republicans, the completed polls showed state Del. Carol Miller (R) with a 48%-40% lead in WV-3 over state Sen. Richard Ojeda (D), an ancestrally Democratic open seat that has become one of the most Republican districts in the country at the presidential level, and also had former Paul Ryan aide Bryan Steil (R) up 50%-44% over ironworker and online fundraising sensation Randy Bryce (D) in WI-1, the seat Ryan is leaving behind as he heads into retirement. While both of these seats are right of center at the presidential level — overwhelmingly so in the case of WV-3 — they are vulnerable as open seats, but the GOP seems to be holding up OK in both (we call WV-3 a Toss-up still, and WI-1 Leans Republican). Other strong results for Republicans include TX-23, where Rep. Will Hurd (R) was up 51%-43%, which seemed to confirm the thought from many observers that he was well-positioned despite occupying a swing district. The GOP also got good news from a part of TX-23 on Tuesday night, when Pete Flores (R) won a traditionally Democratic state Senate seat in a special election victory over ex-Rep. Pete Gallego (D), who held TX-23 from 2013-2015. On balance, special election results since the 2016 presidential election have pointed to a positive environment for Democrats, but this particular one definitely did not.

Perhaps the best poll result for Republicans in public polls lately was not from the NYT/Siena project, but from Monmouth University, another nonpartisan pollster that has helpfully stepped up its House presence this cycle. Monmouth has former state Assemblywoman Young Kim (R) up 51%-41% based on a historical midterm turnout model over lottery winner and philanthropist Gil Cisneros (D) in CA-39, an open Southern California seat that is traditionally Republican but that Hillary Clinton carried by nearly nine points in 2016. The president’s party rarely holds such districts — open seats that the other party won in the last presidential race — but Kim’s local appeal, the district’s GOP tradition, and an aggressive advertising campaign by the Congressional Leadership Fund (the group that arguably has eclipsed the National Republican Congressional Committee as the top outside conservative spending group on the Republican side) seems to be pushing Kim ahead. We’ll see if it lasts. Also encouraging for Republicans is that KY-6, a Republican-leaning district based in Lexington that is bluer down-ballot, seems to be something of a tie based on the NYT/Siena polling. Former Marine pilot Amy McGrath (D) had apparently been leading Rep. Andy Barr (R, KY-6) there previously, but a combined Barr/CLF onslaught attacking McGrath for a variety of liberal statements may have brought Barr back from the brink.

Still, Barr is one of many Republican incumbents who is below 50% in at least some polling. If one believes the environment is Democratic-leaning and very well could become more Democratic-leaning as opposed to less as the election approaches (that’s what happened for the presidential out-party in the last three midterms, all waves), one has to wonder how GOP incumbents below 50% will increase their level of support. So that’s why NYT/Siena polls showing Republican incumbents in tied races but at only around 45% support, like Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R, CA-48) and Peter Roskam (R, IL-6), are not good for the GOP. Both represent districts that backed Clinton after supporting Mitt Romney in 2012, President Trump’s approval is weak in both, and Democrats lead in both districts on the question of which party respondents prefer would control the House. So even though those polls are ties, their findings are probably more encouraging for Democrats than Republicans.

More alarming for Republicans is that other Clinton-district incumbents Reps. Mike Coffman (R, CO-6) and Erik Paulsen (R, MN-3) were clearly losing to their Democratic challengers (both Democrats were up by about 10 points on their Republican opponents). Even more alarming for Republicans is that the results basically make sense: One would expect Republicans in affluent, highly-educated suburban seats to be struggling in this kind of environment. Both move from Toss-up to Leans Democratic , joining another high-end suburban district incumbent, Rep. Barbara Comstock (R, VA-10), in the underdog column. A warning to Democrats: Even in a bad environment, one or more of these incumbents could still win, as several of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents did in 2006 even amidst a wave. In fact, the NRCC believes Comstock currently leads her race, but that opinion is far from universally held even on the GOP side. In any event, we give all three less than 50-50 odds at this point.

We have reiterated many times this cycle the vulnerabilities that Republicans face in open seats, and one of those where the Democrats have a decent shot is NM-2, a usually GOP seat that covers southern New Mexico. The last time this seat was open, Democrats won it, but then-former Rep. Steve Pearce (R, NM-2) came back to recapture it in the 2010 wave after he lost a 2008 Senate race. Pearce is running statewide again, this time for governor, and Democrats love their candidate, water rights attorney Xochitl Torres Small (D), who faces state Rep. Yvette Herrell (R). Trump won the district by 10, so it’s tough sledding for a Democrat, but NYT/Siena found it roughly tied (other polls have shown Herrell leading). Both party committees are engaged in the race, a tell-tale sign that both sides see a very competitive contest. We are moving NM-2 from Leans Republican to Toss-up. Another open GOP seat that appears to be a decent Democratic target is FL-15, a district that covers some of suburban Tampa and also some rural areas. Attorney Kristen Carlson (D), the Democratic nominee, recently released an internal poll showing her effectively tied with state Rep. Ross Spano (R) in another district Trump carried by 10. All caveats about internal polls aside — they often are overly rosy for the side that releases them publicly — this looks like another competitive open seat, so we are moving it from Likely Republican to Leans Republican.

While Republican open seats are going to be hard for the party to defend, some Democratic open seats in recently-competitive districts are looking like easier holds for the party on the right side of the national environment. One of those is AZ-9, a Phoenix-area seat that Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D) is leaving behind to run for Senate. While Sinema had a challenging race in 2012, she coasted in 2014 and 2016 as the district swung toward Hillary Clinton, and former Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton (D) seems well-positioned to hold it. We’re moving AZ-9 from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic. For future reference, Stanton is probably someone to watch as a possible Democratic candidate for the special election that will be held for Arizona’s other Senate seat in 2020; in fact, if Sinema had not run this year he might’ve been the nominee in this cycle’s open-seat Senate race instead.

In recent weeks, internal polls (and one public poll) have shown Rep. George Holding (R, NC-2) effectively tied with former state Rep. Linda Coleman (D) in a suburban Raleigh seat that Trump won by 10 points. NC-2 moves from Likely Republican to Leans Republican , and both Holding and Rep. Ted Budd (R, NC-13) are endangered Tar Heel State Republicans in districts that might be Toss-ups at some point. A wrinkle in North Carolina is that this is what some there have called a “blue moon” election — there is no Senate or gubernatorial race on the ballot to juice turnout, which might help engaged Democrats given the intensity edge the party has demonstrated in many places nationally in the aftermath of 2016.

Finally, scandal-plagued Rep. Chris Collins (R, NY-27), who holds a Buffalo-area seat that probably is the most Republican seat in New York state, is not going to leave the ballot despite insider trading charges. It is very hard to get off the ballot in New York, and Collins may not want to leave office and forfeit the possibility of using his potential resignation as a chip to trade in as part of a future plea deal. But an indicted lawmaker on the ballot gives the GOP a headache here, just like in CA-50, where Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) also is running under indictment on corruption charges. We’re moving NY-27 from Likely Republican to Leans Republican, matching our CA-50 rating. Neither of these districts should otherwise be competitive. As of now, our sense is that Hunter’s race is closer to a Toss-up than Collins’ is.

Let’s update the big picture. Our new ratings put 208 seats in the Leans/Likely/Safe Democratic column, 199 seats in the Leans/Likely/Safe Republican column, and 28 in Toss-up. Based on those ratings, Democrats would need to win only 10 of the 28 Toss-ups to win the House . One reasonably would expect the Democrats to win more Toss-ups than Republicans given the trajectory of the election, and probably at least a couple of seats where we currently favor the Republicans. On the flip side, the Republicans very well may salvage a few seats we currently rate as Leans Democratic. As noted above, it should surprise no one if someone like Comstock or Coffman came back from the brink, and some seats that seemed like easy Democratic wins may not be. For instance, Politico ’s Marc Caputo reported Wednesday that Democrats are facing some challenges in FL-27, an open South Florida seat that Clinton won by 20 points but that retiring Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) held for decades. One emerging House trend is that Republicans may be persevering in a number of diverse, Clinton-won districts, like CA-39, FL-26, FL-27, and TX-23, in part because of strong candidates but also because the truly fiery, anti-Trump midterm Democratic energy may be concentrated more with suburban, college-educated white voters than with nonwhite voters. If that is the case, Republicans may be able to hold the line in some surprising places, a must if they are to hang on to their majority.

Put it all together, and our best guess right now is a Democratic House gain of somewhere in the low-to-mid 30s. But there are enough very close races that something like a 30-seat gain could turn into more like a 20-seat gain, and leave the Democrats short of a majority (they need to net 23 seats to take a majority). Back in July, we said the Democrats were “soft favorites” to win the House. Their odds have likely gotten better since then, or at the very least have not gotten worse, but the GOP still has an opportunity to retain the House with some breaks.

Upgrades for Democrats in two swing state gubernatorial contests

As soon as Donald Trump won the White House, Republicans knew that holding the Michigan governor’s race would be a slog. Yes, Trump carried the Wolverine State, but the usual midterm trend against the White House combined with fatigue over eight years of total GOP control at the statewide level gave Democrats a good opportunity in the state. After the general election matchup between state Attorney General Bill Schuette (R) and former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D) was set last month, we wanted to wait and see how the dust settled. Now that it has, and Whitmer has led every poll we’ve seen (often by double-digits), and we just don’t see what changes those numbers dramatically in the GOP’s favor in the last month and a half of the campaign. We’re moving Michigan from Toss-up all the way to Likely Democratic, matching our rating in the state’s Senate race. We’ve heard from several sources that the GOP position in Michigan is poor, giving the Democrats a good chance not just to win the governor’s race but also make up ground in the state’s U.S. House delegation.

With this ratings change in Michigan, we now favor the Democrats in three of the six Midwest gubernatorial races (Illinois and Minnesota are the other two), and the other three (Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin) are Toss-ups. Of those three, the Republican nominee is probably only ahead in one of them, Ohio, where state Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) appears to retain a small lead over former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray (D), although that lead is probably only a few points. The Midwest, always swingy and competitive, may break for the Democrats in 2018 after breaking for the Republicans in 2016.

The other change comes in Colorado, where wealthy Rep. Jared Polis (D, CO-2) faces state Treasurer Walker Stapleton (R). Unlike in Michigan, where there’s been a lot of public polls, there’s hardly been any in Colorado, although we have heard that Polis is leading, but perhaps only by a small amount. While Polis is an imperfect candidate — he recently snubbed a longstanding rural state political gathering for no good reason that we could tell — he has a ton of money and is running as a Democrat in a Democratic year in a state that is trending Democratic. So Colorado moves from Toss-up to Leans Democratic. If Polis wins, his victory would be the Democrats’ fourth-straight Colorado gubernatorial win.

So our ratings now show Democrats favored to net three Republican-held governorships, Illinois, Michigan, and New Mexico, while the Republicans are favored to win Alaska, currently held by an independent. There are seven remaining Toss-ups, and all but Connecticut are currently held by Republicans (and Democrats may ultimately have the edge in the Nutmeg State despite the unpopularity of outgoing Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy). So Democrats remain poised to net several governorships, although some of the biggest races — Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin most notably — remain uncertain.

Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik.

See Other Political Commentary .

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