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House Update: Tiny Movement Toward Republicans

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik

At this very early point in the 2014 race for the U.S. House, small Republican gains -- as in, less than five seats -- look likelier than a similarly small gain for Democrats. That’s because the Republican targets just look a little better than the Democratic ones.

While it would be foolish to rule out any outcome, there is no indication at this point that the Republican House majority is in jeopardy.

That’s obvious from our recent tweak of our Crystal Ball U.S. House ratings. Chart 1 shows the changes we’ve made since our last update (April 4), and Chart 2 shows the ratings overall. The House, which after last week’s special election of Rep. Jason Smith (R, MO-8) is now at full strength, has 234 Republicans and 201 Democrats. That means Democrats need to pick up 17 seats to grab the majority.

Chart 1: Crystal Ball U.S. House ratings changes

Chart 2: 2014 Crystal Ball U.S. House ratings

Notes: Members in italics hold seats that the other party's presidential candidate won in 2012. *Signifies possible retirements or candidacies for other offices; **shows members vulnerable to primary challenge. Ratings for all 435 seats are available here.


Here are three, basic reasons why the Republicans remain heavy favorites in the House:

1. Democrats don’t have enough credible targets. There are only 15 Republicans listed in the competitive “toss-up” and “leans Republican” columns in the vulnerable seat listings above. Even if the Democrats were to hold all their current seats -- unlikely -- and defeat all of the most vulnerable Republicans, they’d still be two seats shy of a majority. Several of the Republicans in the “likely” column could move to a more competitive category, but just as many or more are probably closer to moving off the list into “safe” territory.

2. The national political winds appear pretty neutral right now. President Obama's net approval rating is slightly negative: the poll average at RealClearPolitics.com put his approval/disapproval at 46.7%/48.0%, and Huffington Post's Pollster average has it at a 47.0%/47.9% spread; meanwhile, Pollster gives Republicans a tiny 0.5 percentage point-lead on the national House generic ballot question, while RealClearPolitics gives the Democrats a small 3.3 point-lead. These are not numbers that argue for big movement either way, and a static environment is good for the party who already controls the House. If things sour for one party or the other between now and November 2014, history suggests it will be the Democrats who are harmed, because they hold the presidency. Not to mention, the dark cloud of bad headlines and scandals hovering over the White House could also harm Democratic prospects next year if they linger.

3. The Democrats’ most vulnerable seats are more vulnerable than the Republicans’ most vulnerable seats. Of the 34 seats in the highly competitive leans and toss-up categories -- 19 held by Democrats, 15 held by Republicans -- Republicans not only have an edge because they have fewer seats to defend, but also because they did better in their seats in 2012 than Democrats did in theirs. Democrats won their 19 toss-up and leaning seats by an average of 4.1 percentage points, while Republicans won their toss-ups/leaners by 6.3 points. In other words, Republicans have a slightly better and slightly longer list of true targets.

Potential Democratic House candidates who are mulling runs are probably aware of these basic obstacles, which helps explain why Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), concedes that many Democrats, particularly ones running in more conservative districts, would prefer to wait until 2016 to run, when Hillary Clinton might be at the top of the ticket.

There are only nine ratings changes in this update: seven are in favor of the Republicans, and two are in favor of the Democrats.

The first true retirement of the 2014 cycle, that of Tea Party leader Rep. Michele Bachmann (R, MN-6), has actually proven to be a boon to her party. Bachmann, because of her highly controversial history, could have potentially kicked away a heavily Republican seat. Now, her retirement -- and the subsequent exit of her 2012 opponent, businessman Jim Graves (D), from the 2014 field -- shifts this race off the board. Also leaving the list of competitive seats is that of Rep. Steve King (R, IA-4). Now that he is officially not running for the U.S. Senate, it seems unlikely his seat will be a target. Former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack (D) ran a spirited 2012 campaign against King -- who like Bachmann is a conservative firebrand -- but still lost by eight points in a district that President Obama also lost by eight points. Vilsack isn’t running again, and King should be fine. And now that Rep. Kristi Noem (R, SD-AL) has passed on a Senate run, her seat also moves to safe territory.

The two races shifting toward the Democrats have to do with candidate recruitment. Democrats are excited by the candidacy of lawyer Gwen Graham, daughter of former Sen./Gov. Bob Graham (D-FL), against Rep. Steve Southerland (R, FL-2) in a panhandle district. The area might be a little too conservative for Democrats these days, but Graham should be able to run a good race against Southerland. Meanwhile, former state Rep. Jennifer Garrison (D-OH) is being recruited by the DCCC for a run in OH-6, an Ohio River district now held by Rep. Bill Johnson (R), who -- like Southerland -- first won in 2010. Garrison may be a female Democrat, but she’s not someone who is likely to be supported by the liberal EMILY’s List: She’s anti-abortion, and she acquired a rather notorious reputation amongst Ohio liberals for winning a seat in the state legislature by running to the right of a Republican incumbent on gay marriage in 2004. At this point, OH-6 belongs on the list of competitive districts, although Johnson remains a clear favorite. (State Sen. Lou Gentile is another possible Democratic candidate in OH-6.)

We suspect that even socially conservative Democrats are going to have a hard time in Appalachia this cycle given President Obama’s immense unpopularity there; recall that Clinton destroyed Obama in this part of the country in the 2008 primary. Whether the shift away from Democrats in Appalachia is temporary or permanent will be a big question that a Clinton presidential campaign can help answer, but that’s a topic for beyond 2014. Other seats similar to OH-6 on our competitive race list are KY-6 and PA-12, which Republicans flipped in 2012, and WV-2, which Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) is vacating to run for the Senate. Keep an eye in particular on PA-12, where ex-Rep. Mark Critz (D) is considering a comeback against Rep. Keith Rothfus (R).

The other four seats with rating changes are in California and Illinois, two safe Democratic presidential states that could nonetheless have a lot of action in the House. They deserve a closer look.

Republican targets, Democratic turf

Ronald Reagan grew up in the Land of Lincoln and made his political name in the Golden State, and both states voted for him twice in his presidential victories. But these states are Democratic bastions now, and the party’s dominance in both extends to the congressional delegations: Democrats hold 38 of 53 seats in California (72%) and 12 of 18 seats (67%) in Illinois. Democrats picked up four seats in each state last fall, which, combined, accounted for their entire national net gain in House seats (eight seats). Redistricting -- partisan in the case of Illinois, and nonpartisan in the case of California -- ended up benefiting Democrats in both places.

Republicans hope that some of these seats snap back to them in 2014, when Obama won’t be on the ballot, and Democrats are trying to protect their freshmen while also seeing to some unfinished business in both places. More than 20% of all the races listed on our competitive charts are located in California or Illinois (16 of 72). Of those 16, Democrats currently hold 11.

The biggest shift of any House race over the past couple months comes in the district of Rep. Scott Peters (D, CA-52), which moves from likely Democratic to toss-up thanks to the entry of Carl DeMaio, a Republican who nearly won San Diego’s mayoral race in 2012. DeMaio, who is openly gay, is presenting himself as a new Republican focused on economic as opposed to social issues, although he “was more conservative than the Republicans whom San Diego voters generally favor for mayor,” according to a recent Los Angeles Times article. Republicans are touting an internal poll from late April showing DeMaio up 10, which is not particularly believable. Internal polls are almost always too optimistic for the side that commissions them, and Republicans have a “boy who cried wolf” problem in particular given the poor track record of their internal 2012 surveys. That said, this is probably a legitimate coin flip race in a district where President Obama won about 52% of the vote.

Another potentially close race is developing in the Greater Chicago area, where ex-Rep. Bob Dold (R) is seeking a rematch against the man who just barely defeated him in 2012, Rep. Brad Schneider (D, IL-10). This district is one that used to be held by now-Sen. Mark Kirk (R), so it has long favored moderate Republicans. However, President Obama won 58% of the vote here; granted, that might be a bit inflated because of the president's home field advantage, but the partisan lean of the district is enough to keep Schneider a small favorite for now. Downstate, Democrats are pleased to have recruited Ann Callis (D), a former judge, to run against Rep. Rodney Davis (R, IL-13). Davis remains a small favorite in a district that Mitt Romney barely won, although he first needs to contend with a primary challenge from Erika Harold, a former Miss America (who also has a Harvard degree). A primary could do Davis, a relative political newcomer, some good -- former NBA star Allen Iverson might not have liked "practice," but some politicians could use it. The same goes for the top Democratic recruit in CA-31, Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar. A number of Democrats, including Aguilar and former Rep. Joe Baca, are competing for the right to challenge 2012 accidental winner Rep. Gary Miller (R). Given that Aguilar sleepwalked through the 2012 top-two primary and missed the chance to face Miller, a full primary campaign might do him some good.

Moving on to the competitive list, but only into the likely category, are Reps. Lois Capps (D, CA-24) and Bill Foster (D, IL-11). It wouldn’t be accurate to call them safe at this point, but they are heavy favorites to win reelection. Capps, 75, is sometimes mentioned as a possible retiree.

These aforementioned House races, and the others listed on the competitive race charts above, could dominate the political action in both states. California has no Senate race, and Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is a heavy favorite for reelection. Sen. Dick Durbin (D) should have a cakewalk reelection in Illinois, although the gubernatorial race could be competitive. That largely depends on what popular state Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) does; her entry into the contest could turn it into a snorer. Perhaps Brown and Madigan could provide some coattails in a year without a presidential race.

The wild card: Redistricting

It is an overlooked fact that in 2004, while President George W. Bush was winning reelection and Republicans were padding their then-advantage in the U.S. Senate, Democrats actually gained two House seats -- if one discounts Texas, that is.

In the 49 other states, Democrats gained a net of two seats in the House. But when Bush’s Lone Star State was added to the total, Republicans gained four seats nationwide. A 2003 remap of the Lone Star State, masterminded by then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), led to a six-seat Republican gain there.

In nearly every state, redistricting is a once-in-a-decade affair that happens in a year that ends in an “01” or an “02.” But not everywhere, and not in Texas, which is accustomed to redistricting being a multi-year process.

Texas legislators are currently holding a special session to deal with redistricting. Basically, Republicans passed a House redistricting plan last cycle that was too friendly to their own party and not friendly enough to the minority population in Texas, which accounts for nearly all of the state’s booming population growth. A court altered the map for use in last year’s election, but the expectation was that the legislature would revisit the map this cycle. Gov. Rick Perry (R) and state Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) want the legislature to just ratify the court-drawn map for use for the rest of the decade, but it’s possible that such a decision would not pass legal muster. If the courts end up drawing the map, Democrats could make a dent in the state’s 24-12 Republican-controlled House delegation. (Under the current map, only one of the 36 House districts is truly competitive: TX-23, held by freshman Democrat Pete Gallego.)

Complicating matters further is that the U.S. Supreme Court is contemplating a challenge that could effectively end Justice Department preclearance of new redistricting maps in places with a history of racial discrimination, like Texas.

In other words, Texas redistricting is a mess, and it appears the courts will have their say: On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled state Senate redistricting committee approved the interim (current) map on a party-line vote, and the full Senate and House are expected to follow suit. Then come the lawsuits.

Florida, too, has an ongoing legal battle over redistricting, which could also lead to an improved map for Democrats.

Courts drawing different maps in Florida and Texas that allow Democrats to gain seats out of both places would be the electoral equivalent of divine intervention -- a dose of which, having to do with redistricting or something else, is almost a requirement for the Democrats to have a real shot at taking the House next year.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Commentary by Larry Sabato

Kyle Kondik is the House Editor at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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.

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