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Mixed Signals In The Race For The House

A Commentary by Kyle Kondik

Could Trump ruin what has otherwise been a decent Republican cycle?

This may be a particularly bad time to write an update on the House. But we’re going to do so anyway, if only to explain why that is.

Mainly, it’s because we’re in a very hazy period in the battle for control of the lower chamber — a battle that, it should be noted, the Republicans were winning handily as of a week ago. And Republicans may still be winning handily.

No, that does not mean that Republicans were in line to add to their majority, which is bigger than any they’ve held in almost every American’s lifetime. But they were poised to limit Democratic gains to a reasonable 10 to 15 seats, or maybe even less than that, which would have been a good outcome for Republicans given how overextended they are in the House. Democrats need to win 30 seats to take the House, and they remain significantly out of range of that target.

A sign of the Republicans’ strength in the House so far this cycle is that it’s hard to argue the Democrats have truly put away any competitive, Republican-held seat. Reps. Rod Blum (R, IA-1) and Cresent Hardy (R, NV-4), two fluky 2014 winners in blue districts, were left for dead by many, including us (we’ve had both districts rated as Leans Democratic for a year). Yet both incumbents are still very competitive. The National Republican Congressional Committee is spending in both districts to prop up the incumbents, and it’s not clear that either is losing. Hardy is probably in worse shape than Blum, who has been leading some recent polls.

Similarly, some other embattled members, like Reps. Frank Guinta (R, NH-1) and David Jolly (R, FL-13), are still afloat as well, even though neither is beloved by national Republicans. Guinta has been plagued by campaign finance questions and barely won his primary, while Jolly decided to run for reelection late in the cycle in a reconfigured district that has become several points more Democratic. Still, these districts aren’t slam dunks for Democrats, either — Republicans are still poised to spend heavily in NH-1, and Democrats are investing in FL-13 to support ex-Gov. Charlie Crist (D).

The overall point is this: If there were some massive wave building for Democrats in the House, these races would be off the table by now. Democrats could very well win all of them — in fact, we still favor them in all of these districts — but if this is still the frontline of the battle for the House, then Democrats have not advanced all that far into GOP-held territory with less than a month to go until Election Day.

Recently, the NRCC claimed that no Republican incumbents were trailing in its internal polling. Democrats disagree with that based on their own polling, but the NRCC’s assertion was not crazy, precisely because some of the party’s weakest incumbents are still getting national support and hanging tough. Republicans also still have a decent chance to win one or more Democratic-held seats, like open seats in AZ-1 and FL-18 or those held by Reps. Brad Ashford (D, NE-2), Ami Bera (D, CA-7), and Rick Nolan (D, MN-8). We favor Democrats in most of these districts, but only narrowly.


We do not yet know the implication that Donald Trump’s apparent weakening in the polls will have down the ticket, which is why this is an odd time to take a look at the House. We’re in a lull: Neither side has much fresh internal polling yet assessing the effect of the second debate and Trump’s indefensible comments to Billy Bush from 2005.

Some of the early signs are ominous for House Republicans. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted over the weekend found that poll respondents preferred a Democratic-controlled Congress by six points, one of the higher margins in House generic ballot-style polling we’ve seen this cycle. A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee internal poll found similar results earlier this week, and BuzzFeed’s Kate Nocera reported that NRCC Chairman Greg Walden (R, OR-2) told House members on a call a few days ago that Republican House polling was not trending well. Speaker Paul Ryan (R, WI-1) is pulling back on his support of Trump, turning his attention to holding the House majority. In other words, it’s possible that we could see a Republican collapse down the ballot as we approach the finish line. We wrote a few weeks ago that unless there was a major shift in the presidential race, with Trump collapsing, “the Democrats’ path to winning back the House majority, always just a small possibility, is nearly closed.” Could that be happening? It is too soon to tell, but it’s on the table.

For what it’s worth, we still think the presidential race will be decided by single digits but that Clinton is settling in as a heavier favorite. But even a Barack Obama 2008-sized win by Clinton, seven points, probably won’t provide the lift Democrats need to win the House. There just aren’t that many competitive districts that are plausibly winnable by Democrats, and a high percentage of the districts were drawn by Republicans after the 2010 census.

It’s also worth noting that the NBC/WSJ poll might have caught Trump and Republicans at a very low point: The survey was conducted over the weekend and on Monday while the Trump/Bush video was dominating the national news and in the midst of the second debate, which several polls suggested  Clinton won (but not by as much as the first debate). Other House generic ballot surveys generally show a smaller Democratic lead. The RealClearPolitics and HuffPost Pollster averages peg the Democratic edge at about five points: We think those polls will need to be around D +10 or more to really indicate that the House majority is in play.

There is one interesting and potentially important wrinkle, though. What if Trump, who already is kicking free of GOP leaders, decides to go completely rogue and starts advocating for his supporters not to back Republican senators and House members who withdrew their support from Trump? This is “more or less what House Republican leadership expects,” according to Politico’s Jake Sherman. Any loss of Republican base votes could doom GOP members in Democratic districts, particularly well-educated ones where changes in the white vote — specifically, Clinton’s likely overperformance with college-educated whites — could cause big, Democratic shifts in the presidential vote, increasing the need for Republicans to attract crossover votes. Republicans are confident that voters will split their tickets in their favor, but their bigger fear is that GOP turnout collapses, depriving both Trump and down-ballot Republicans of precious votes. Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics looked at how this has played out in the past, particularly in the Republicans’ disastrous 1974, post-Watergate midterm. Democrats had similarly bad problems with horrible turnout in their recent 2014 midterm defeat.

As we wait for more information, we are moving six House districts this week, all in favor of the Democrats. A common but not universal theme with these seats is that they have high levels of education and might flip from backing Mitt Romney in 2012 to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

While the district typically leans Republican, Hillary Clinton has a very good chance to carry NJ-5, a suburban New York City-area seat where nearly half of residents over the age of 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree, indicating the potential for a big Trump underperformance. Rep. Scott Garrett (R) was already in trouble there in his contest against well-funded, former Bill Clinton speechwriter Josh Gottheimer (D): Garrett ruffled feathers at the NRCC by refusing to give the committee money because it supported gay candidates, a position that also turned off his one-time allies in the financial industry. House Majority PAC, an outside group that supports Democrats, showed Gottheimer leading in a recent poll. This seat goes from Leans Republican to Toss-up.

Reps. Darrell Issa (R, CA-49) and Kevin Yoder (R, KS-3), while not in as much trouble as Garrett, also occupy highly-educated districts that Mitt Romney easily carried that likely will flip to Clinton, and national Democrats are showing a lot of interest in the districts. They both slide from Likely Republican to Leans Republican. We’re also making the same change in the open VA-5, a Republican-leaning district of roughly average education and median income that Trump is favored to carry (perhaps only narrowly). In VA-5, state Sen. Tom Garrett (R) is facing a spirited challenge from former Albemarle County Board of Supervisors member Jane Dittmar (D). Dittmar will have to run up the score in the Charlottesville/Albemarle County part of the district (which includes the University of Virginia Center for Politics), but she has an outside shot in a sleeper race.

There has been buzz all cycle that Rep. John Mica (R, FL-7) was very worried about facing a competitive race for the first time in a long time in a reconfigured district that Obama won in 2012. Those fears are coming true, as businesswoman Stephanie Murphy (D) has excited national Democrats with her late-starting campaign. Mica’s power of incumbency is blunted by the fact that he did not represent close to half the district prior to court-ordered redistricting. This race also moves from Leans Republican to Toss-up.

Finally, Democrats are breathing easier about NY-3, where former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi (D) has seemingly taken a clear lead against state Sen. Jack Martins (R) in a swing district where Clinton appears likely to improve on Obama 2012. That district moves from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic.

So our current House ratings show 228 seats Safe, Likely, or Leaning Republican, 193 Safe/Likely/Leaning Democratic, and 14 Toss-ups. Splitting the Toss-ups down the middle seven to seven would make the House 235-200 Republican, or a net gain of 12 for the Democrats. We’ve consistently suggested a Democratic gain in the 10-15 range, and that’s where we remain as we await more information on whether Trump is truly dragging down House Republicans or not.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

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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