Initial House Ratings: Battle for Majority Starts as a Toss-up
A Commentary By Kyle Kondik
CA/NY vital for Democratic comeback; new maps in NC/OH could give Republicans a buffer.
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— The overall battle for House control in 2024 starts as a Toss-up.
— Relatively similar numbers of Democratic and Republican seats start in the most competitive Toss-up and Leans categories, although Republicans start with a few more targets in large part because of the likelihood that they will benefit from redistricting in North Carolina and Ohio.
— Big blue states California and New York, where Republicans have made key gains over the past couple of cycles, loom large as Democrats plot a path back to the House majority.
The House at the starting gate
After consecutive election cycles in which the favored side won the House, but by significantly smaller margins than many (including us) expected, we want to be clear from the start how we’re viewing the House this cycle: The race for the majority begins as a Toss-up.
While midterms, and not presidential years, much more frequently serve as the engine of change in the House — 10 of the last 12 shifts in power came in midterm cycles — it is also rare for a midterm to produce such a small majority for the winning side as last year’s did.
The Republicans won a 222-213 edge last year, which is just 4 seats above the magic number of 218. That is the smallest number of seats won by the winning side in a midterm since the 1942 election, when Republicans won the national popular vote for House but were unable to break the Democratic majority (Democrats won 222 seats to the Republicans’ 209, with the remaining few seats going to third parties).
In the years since then, every other majority won in a midterm was at or above 230 seats except for the majorities that Republicans won in 1998 (223) and 2002 (229). Those happened to be a pair of strong midterm cycles for the incumbent president, Bill Clinton’s Democrats in the former and George W. Bush’s Republicans in the latter. This past midterm will also go down as a good one for President Biden’s Democrats, and while they still lost the House, they kept their losses to such a manageable number that they put themselves in striking distance of winning the House majority this cycle. That’s the same thing Republicans did in their impressive albeit losing House effort in 2020 — keeping it close and setting themselves up for the following election.
The bottom line is that parties typically build themselves a bigger buffer in the midterm than Republicans did last year, which likely contributes to the history that the House has not flipped in a presidential year since 1952. Such streaks are noteworthy but are often made to be broken.
Speaking of 1952, which represented 1 of just 2 House victories for Republicans from the Great Depression all the way through the Republican Revolution of 1994 (1946 was the other), Republicans got an assist that year in redistricting. Following the 1950 census, Republicans in California and New York engaged in what the legendary congressional scholar David Mayhew described as “ingenious cartographic efforts” in redistricting that contributed to Republicans flipping the House.
More than 7 decades later, redistricting may also prove decisive in the House — potentially helping Republicans hold on to the majority and keeping the long streak of the House not flipping in presidential years alive. Meanwhile, those key states of California and New York again loom large in this cycle’s battle for the House.
With that in mind, Table 1 shows our initial House ratings for the 2024 cycle. A total of 44 seats — 20 currently held by Republicans and 24 held by Democrats — begin in the most competitive categories (Toss-up or Leans). That’s just 10% of the total seats in the House.
Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings
In no particular order, let’s go through the highlights:
— Both North Carolina and Ohio are poised to have new congressional maps this cycle. There will be time to go through the contortions and specifics later, but the overall point is this: State Supreme Courts in both states constrained the maps that the GOP wanted to impose in both states last cycle, and conservatives scored victories in key state Supreme Court races in both states last November, which should give the Republicans a freer hand to operate in both states. New GOP gerrymanders could threaten up to 3 Democratic seats in Ohio and 4 in North Carolina — this is why we are starting all of those potential Republican targets in the Toss-up column for now. This reflects the Democratic exposure in these 2 states while also conveying uncertainty about what is actually going to happen. These potential redistricting losses — not all of which are guaranteed to occur — make up the majority of the Democratic Toss-up column.
— There are a number of other unresolved court cases that could impact redistricting, potentially in favor of Democrats in at least some places. CNN’s Ron Brownstein recently had a good summation. At the moment, the only states where the anticipation of future redistricting changes impacts our ratings are, again, North Carolina and Ohio. If and when other legal developments increase the likelihood of new maps in other states, we will adjust our ratings as warranted.
— We are assuming, for the sake of these ratings, that Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D, MI-7), a proven incumbent in a marginal Lansing-based seat, ends up running for U.S. Senate (she is not an announced candidate, but observers on both sides of the aisle expect her to run). So her district starts as a Toss-up; we will move her district to Leans Democratic if she unexpectedly runs for reelection instead. Also starting in the Toss-up category is CA-47 in Southern California, which Rep. Katie Porter (D) is leaving behind as she pursues an open-seat Senate run of her own. The district voted for Joe Biden by 11 points, which suggests that it should not be a Toss-up. But CA-47 is not as blue down the ballot — as Porter’s 3.5-point victory last cycle suggests — and Republicans have scored some surprising successes in similar kinds of districts in California recently. One other wrinkle is the possibility of a strange outcome in the state’s top-2 primary; all candidates run together on the same ballot in the primary, with the top 2 finishers advancing to the general election regardless of party. Although such a scenario has not come to pass in a truly competitive seat since the 2012 cycle, Democrats sometimes worry about 2 Republicans advancing to a general election in a district like this. It may also be the case that Republicans have a competitive presidential primary going on in California at the time of the primary while Democrats do not, which could impact turnout. Democrats already have credible options running to replace Porter, although the departing incumbent is an exceptionally strong fundraiser, which is helpful in a district covered by the expensive Los Angeles media market. So this is all enough for us to start CA-47 as a Toss-up.
— Beyond CA-47, Democrats don’t have much defending to do in California, as their other seats all start as either Safe Democratic or (in a couple of instances) Likely Democratic. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are defending a trio of incumbents in double-digit Biden seats: Reps. John Duarte (R, CA-13) and David Valadao (R, CA-22) in the Central Valley, and Mike Garcia (R, CA-27) in Southern California. They all start as Toss-ups. Garcia in particular benefited from a weak opponent, former state Assemblywoman Christy Smith (D), in his victories in 2020 and 2022. On Wednesday morning, former Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides (D) announced he will challenge Garcia, and some Democrats are optimistic about his candidacy.
— New York, where Republicans enjoyed something of a localized “Red Wave,” features 5 new incumbents who start in the Toss-up column, including the now-infamous Rep. George Santos (R, NY-3), with his tsunami of scandals and bogus resume. If Santos actually advanced to the general election next November, he would be a significant underdog. But perhaps he resigns before then, resetting the table for a special election, or otherwise retires or loses in a primary. In the other key Biden-won seats held by Republicans, Democrats will hope that the presidential tide helps wash away newly-elected Reps. Anthony D’Esposito (R, NY-4), Mike Lawler (R, NY-17), Marc Molinaro (R, NY-19), and Brandon Williams (R, NY-22), although Democratic recruitment will also be vital in these races. D’Esposito, who holds the bluest seat held by any Republican, won the suburban Long Island district directly south of the one that Santos holds, while the others won districts north of New York City.
— If Democrats win back the House, California and New York will likely play a huge role in the outcome — just like they did way back in 1952, the last time the House flipped in a presidential year. But Democrats often worry about these big, blue states because they are “orphan” states — they are uncompetitive at the statewide level for president and Senate, so there’s not a big statewide mobilization effort to drive turnout in competitive congressional districts. House Majority PAC, the heavyweight outside spending group that backs Democratic candidates, announced Wednesday it is planning a dedicated $45 million fund to target New York House seats, a clear acknowledgement of the state’s importance to the Democratic path to the majority as well as the need for Democrats to spend extensively there.
— Out on the West Coast, newly-elected Reps. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D, WA-3) and Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R, OR-5) benefited from flawed general election opponents who toppled incumbents in primaries. Both rank among the most vulnerable incumbents for their respective sides.
— Eastern Pennsylvania, the native region of President Joe Biden, is the site of a pair of key, Toss-up defensive assignments for Democrats: Reps. Matt Cartwright (D, PA-8) in the Scranton area and Susan Wild (D, PA-7) in the Lehigh Valley.
— Reps. Mary Peltola (D, AK-AL) and Jared Golden (D, ME-2) hold the 2 most Republican districts held by any Democrat. But their strong local brands, paired with ranked-choice voting systems that Republicans have yet to master, give each an edge to start.
— Rep. Lauren Boebert (R, CO-3), an in-your-face conservative who only barely won in a clearly GOP-leaning district in western Colorado, has not moderated her behavior at all in the aftermath of her near-loss. But observers on both sides of the aisle think she should be favored anyway because a more engaged and larger 2024 presidential electorate could help her stabilize her vote. This is something we sometimes hear from operatives: Near-miss upsets can occur precisely because a race isn’t heavily engaged with national money, perhaps lulling an incumbent (and maybe even voters themselves) into a false sense of security.
— The Democratic seats in Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Texas that start in the Likely Democratic category are all ones that Republicans competed for to at least some degree in 2022 but failed to capture. They are all districts where President Biden performed better than he did nationally in 2020, and several are probably less attractive targets for Republicans than they were last cycle. That Democrats held onto all 3 of their Nevada seats last year by fairly clear margins (roughly 4-5 points) despite losing the state’s governorship shows the efficacy of the state’s Democratic gerrymander. The Republicans would have to win the state for president by several points just to carry any of those districts, something that seems unlikely in such a closely-divided state. So we view all 3 as clear favorites to start.
— In the respective Leans columns, we gave the benefit of the doubt to a handful of incumbents, including Reps. Don Bacon (R, NE-2) and Tom Kean Jr. (R, NJ-7) on the GOP side and Reps. Yadira Caraveo (D, CO-8) and Gabe Vasquez (D, NM-2) on the Democratic. The former pair will likely have to create some distance between themselves and the GOP presidential nominee in their blue-trending districts, but Bacon has shown the ability to do that and Kean may be able to after knocking off Tom Malinowski (D) last cycle. Caraveo and Vasquez overcame a tricky political environment to each snatch surprising albeit narrow victories. With Democrats likely to carry their districts for president again, we give them an edge to start. We also gave a small edge to first-term Rep. Juan Ciscomani (R, AZ-6), who won an evenly-divided Tucson-area seat last cycle, but not to his fellow Arizona Republican, Rep. David Schweikert (R, AZ-1) in the Phoenix area. Ciscomani’s district is slightly better for Republicans than Schweikert’s, and the latter has seen his performance sag under the weight of redistricting, realignment, and ethics violations. We may be splitting hairs to rate them differently, but we are also in the splitting hairs business.
Sources on both sides of the aisle generally believe that the House playing field is not going to be that large. Part of it is that redistricting slightly reduced the number of truly competitive districts, and the North Carolina and Ohio maps could chip away at that number a little further. But Republicans also probably will not be casting as wide of a net as they did in 2022, as they came up empty in many districts where Biden did better than he did nationally. That includes arguably red-trending but still blue districts like the ones held by Reps. Frank Mrvan (D, IN-1), Henry Cuellar (D, TX-28), and Vicente Gonzalez (D, TX-34). Republicans were hoping that another turn of the realigning wheel in these places after Donald Trump made them more competitive in 2016 and/or 2020 would flip them red in 2022, but that didn’t happen. So Republicans may not push as hard in these districts as they did last time.
Among the Republican advantages this cycle are that the likeliest redistricting changes, in North Carolina and Ohio, should help Republicans to at least some extent.
Among the Democratic advantages are that they have more Biden-district Republicans to target (18) than Republicans have Trump-district Democrats to target (5).
The correlation between presidential and House results has been growing over time, to the point where there is not nearly as much daylight between the results for president and the results for House in an average district as there once was. But there is still daylight, and those differences may ultimately decide the majority.
Our overall ratings show 212 seats rated Safe, Likely, or Leans Republican, 201 rated Safe, Likely, or Leans Democratic, and 22 Toss-ups. Splitting the Toss-ups evenly, 11-11, would result in a net GOP gain of a single seat. Democrats need to net 5 seats to win the majority. Again, we think this is reflective of an overall Toss-up House race to start.
See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik.
See Other Political Commentary.
Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports. Comments about this content should be directed to the author or syndicate.
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