Sabato's Crystal Ball

Public Rates Presidents: Kennedy, Reagan, Obama at Top, Nixon, Johnson, Trump at Bottom

Ipsos/UVA Center for Politics poll measures views of recent chief executives at Presidents’ Day

UVA Center for Politics February 15th, 2018


As Americans prepare to celebrate Presidents’ Day, they rate John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan the best of recent chief executives, according to a new poll conducted by Ipsos in conjunction with the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

The Center for Politics and Ipsos collaborated to survey Americans’ views of modern presidents and asked them to rate the dozen presidents who have served since the early 1950s. The strong showings by Kennedy and Reagan reaffirm a previous Reuters-Ipsos/Center for Politics* survey from May 2017 that found them both with similarly high marks.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, the two most recent Democratic presidents, round out the top four, while the current president, Donald Trump, finds himself near the bottom of the ratings.

Obama, Reagan, and Kennedy received the most support from respondents when asked which recent president they wish was serving in the White House right now.

The online poll sampled 1,004 adults on Feb. 7-8, 2018. The precision of Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll had a credibility interval of ±3.5 percentage points for all respondents surveyed.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being terrible and 10 being excellent, Kennedy had the highest average rating, 6.56, of any post-World War II president (going back to Dwight Eisenhower). The father-son Republican presidential pair of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush received the exact same rating, 5.45. Table 1 shows the average rating for modern presidents by the poll’s respondents.

Table 1: Average overall rating for each modern president and by respondent’s party ID

Kennedy took the top spot in these ratings thanks to the strongest bipartisan support of any modern president. Naturally, he had a high rating among Democrats (7.09), but he also received top marks from independents — 6.62, the highest any president earned from that group — and from Republicans (6.20). Kennedy’s rating among Republicans was the highest rating the opposite-party identifiers gave to any modern president. The next highest were Ronald Reagan’s (5.15) and George H.W. Bush’s (4.96) rating among Democrats.

Independents rated Kennedy highest (6.62), but they also held relatively positive views of Reagan (6.21) and Barack Obama (6.11).

Among partisans, Reagan was the highest-rated president among Republicans, with GOP identifiers giving him an average of 8.03. With a 7.20 rating, President Donald Trump earned the second-best score among Republicans, reinforcing the reality that GOP voters have rallied around him.

As for Democrats, they gave Obama a rating of 8.65, the highest for any Democratic president and the highest for any single president among a partisan group. Bill Clinton was second behind Obama among Democrats with 7.19, followed by Kennedy at 7.09.

Few would dispute that JFK and Reagan have worn well over the decades, more so than any of their modern colleagues, and the data in this survey confirm that.

Today’s extraordinarily high level of partisanship mainly explains why the two most polarizing presidents among Democratic and Republican respondents are the two most recent, Obama and Trump. The difference between the average rating among Democrats and Republicans for Obama was 5.18, the largest margin of any president. Trump was next, with a sizable difference of 5.06. Clinton and Reagan tied for a distant third with a partisan difference of 2.88.

Reflecting his scandal-driven exit from the White House, Richard Nixon earned the lowest score among all respondents, 3.80, with Democrats, Republicans, and independents all rating him lower than 5.0. Lyndon Johnson, chief prosecutor of an unpopular war in Vietnam, was not far above Nixon with an overall average of 4.17.

Fading public memories and generational replacement play some role in the rating of many modern presidents. Americans have fuzzy images of Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and even George H.W. Bush despite the fact that many scholars view them as fair-to-good presidents. Generally speaking, the oldest respondents (age 55 and up) were less likely to respond “don’t know” when rating the presidents, particularly when rating the less recent presidents.

Trump earned the third-lowest overall mark among respondents, 4.20, and his 3.77 average among independents was the second worst, just above Nixon’s 3.70. Compounding Trump’s weak performance among independents was his exceptionally low rating among Democrats, 2.14, the worst mark for any president among any partisan cohort. For comparison, Republicans gave Obama an average rating of 3.47.

That Democrats give the lowest ratings to Trump — lower even than Nixon — is remarkable, but so is the high evaluation of Trump among Republicans. This may be further evidence that the Trump brand and the Republican Party are increasingly synonymous, though Trump does not rate as highly among Republicans as Obama does among Democrats.

Another notable finding was that women routinely gave lower average scores to 10 of the 12 modern presidents. Only Obama and Jimmy Carter received higher average scores among women than men, although in some instances the differences by gender were very minor (Carter, Clinton, and George W. Bush). Curiously, the president with the largest gender gap in mean rating was Dwight Eisenhower, who received a score of 5.73 among men and 4.32 among women, for a difference of 1.41. Trump had the second-largest gender gap, 0.95. These data, along with data by age group, are presented in Table 2 below.

Table 2: Modern president ratings by age and gender

Eisenhower, the earliest president surveyed, received middling ratings from the 18-34 and 35-54 age groups (4.19 and 4.56, respectively), but those who were more likely to remember him (the 55 years or older cohort) gave Eisenhower an average rating of 6.08. Ike’s mark was third best among those 55+ behind Reagan (7.14) and Kennedy (7.04). The eldest age cohort rated Nixon worst of all modern presidents, with an average rating of 4.36.

Conversely (and unsurprisingly, given the Democratic lean of younger Americans), 18-34 year olds rated Obama highest, 6.96. As those in their early 30s were in their early 20s when Obama was first elected in 2008, his presidency shaped much of their adult lives. For those in the younger half of the 18-34 cohort, Obama was president for much of their teenage or even some of their childhood years.

Perhaps reflecting his aspirational rhetoric and the glamour of what became known as “Camelot,” as well as the fact that an assassin cut short his life, Kennedy ranked second among young people with an average rating of 6.28. The only other president over 5.0 among young people was Clinton (5.67). One thing the youngest and oldest age cohorts could agree on was a disdain for Nixon, who ranked last among 18-34s with an average rating of 3.4. Millennials rated Trump second-worst, with an average rating of 3.55.

Among the middle age cohort — 35 to 54 year olds — Reagan was the most well-regarded president, with an average rating of 6.65, followed by Kennedy at 6.30, and Obama at 6.09.

The survey also asked respondents which modern president they would choose to serve right now, assuming all were alive and could legally serve. About one-third (31%) of respondents picked Obama, followed by Reagan (22%), Kennedy (16%), and Trump (9%) — with Trump’s votes coming almost entirely from Republicans.

Table 3: Respondents’ preferred choice for president right now, assuming all of these presidents were alive and eligible to serve

Obama’s lead on this question came mostly from strong Democratic support: Nearly three of five Democratic respondents (58%) would want Obama as president, and among Democrats, only Obama, Kennedy (19%), and Clinton (10%) received double-digit support. Republicans, meanwhile, still strongly preferred Reagan (44%) to the current Republican president, Trump (24%). Kennedy showed his usual crossover appeal in this category, finishing third among both Republicans (9%) and Independents (18%).

The full results and methodology are available here and the crosstabs are available here.

This poll represents the latest collaboration between the University of Virginia Center for Politics and Ipsos, an international, independent marketing research firm. Last year, the Center and Reuters*-Ipsos released polls on Americans’ racial attitudes in the wake of a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville and on Americans’ attitudes toward recent presidents, which also showed Kennedy and Reagan receiving the highest marks.

*Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly omitted Thomson Reuters as one of the sponsors of the two polls released last year that are mentioned above.

Senate 2018: Republicans Still Have Plenty of Targets

And Democrats need all the breaks to win a majority

Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball February 8th, 2018



— Republicans have better than 50-50 odds to hold control of the U.S. Senate even in the event of a Democratic wave in November.

— The reason is the map: Including the two independents who caucus with them, the Democrats are defending 26 of the 34 seats being contested this fall, which is the most lopsided Senate map any party has faced in a midterm since 1938. Five of the Democratic seats are in states that Donald Trump won in landslides, and another five are in states he won.

— Because the map is so good for Republicans, it is possible they will add to their majority even if the electoral environment otherwise breaks against them in other elections, such as those for the U.S. House of Representatives.

— That said, the Democrats do have a path to a Senate majority, albeit slim.

— Our current outlook is for a continuing Republican majority but little net change in what is already a closely divided Senate.

— We have two ratings changes this week, both upgrades for Democrats. Appointed Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) moves from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic as she seeks election to the remainder of former Sen. Al Franken’s (D-MN) term, and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) moves from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic. Map 1 shows our current state-by-state ratings.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings changes

Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

The overall picture: Don’t lose sight of how bad of a map this is for Democrats

The victory by Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) in a special election in December did provide Democrats a potential path to a Senate majority, albeit a narrow one. The Democrats need to defend all 26 of the 34 seats they currently hold,[1] and then flip two of the eight Republican-held seats. Those would most likely be Arizona, an open seat, and Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller (R) is seeking a second term.

We know that the presidential party usually suffers in midterms, especially if the president is unpopular. While President Trump’s approval rating has rebounded slightly in recent weeks, moving from an average in the high 30s to one that’s now in the low 40s, his overall numbers are still weak and could just as easily fall back as the year moves on. The midterm reelection rate for non-presidential party Senate incumbents is 91% in the era of popular elections (since 1913), while it’s just 75% for presidential party incumbents. Democrats are fortunate that they have incumbents running in all 26 seats, although Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) is an appointee.

But it’s hard to overstate how Republican this year’s Senate playing field is.

First of all, both the Senate and the House have a similar Republican bias. The median House seat based on 2016 presidential performance, held by Rep. Scott Taylor (R, VA-2), voted for Trump by 3.4 points. Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by 2.1 points, so the median House seat is about 5.5 points right of the nation. The same is true in the Senate. The median Senate seat based on 2016 is an average of North Carolina (Trump by 3.7) and Arizona (Trump by 3.5), which is Trump by about 3.6 — again, about the same as the House (5.7 points to the right of the nation). So the Democrats are just naturally at a bit of a disadvantage in the House and Senate at the moment.

But that natural disadvantage is exacerbated by the roster of seats that Democrats are trying to hold on this year’s Senate map.

Democratic incumbents are defending seats in the following five landslide Trump states: Indiana (Trump +19.0 points), Missouri (+18.5), Montana (+20.2), North Dakota (+35.7), and West Virginia (+41.7). If these states were House seats — two of them, Montana and North Dakota, actually are because both states only have single, statewide at-large seats — all would rank among the top third of Trump’s districts nationally.

Democrats currently hold only a single House seat among the third of districts that voted most heavily for Trump, moderate Rep. Collin Peterson (D, MN-7).

So the danger for Democrats is that all five of these incumbents are living on borrowed time and several of them may be doomed no matter what the national environment is. And remember that whatever Trump’s national approval is, his standing in these states is going to be significantly higher, as demonstrated recently in Gallup’s rundown of Trump’s state by state approval in 2017. Trump’s average 2017 approval in Gallup was 38%, but his two best states — West Virginia (61%) and North Dakota (57%, tied with Wyoming for Trump’s second-highest approval) — both have Democratic senators running for reelection. Trump was also above water in Montana (52%) but below in Missouri (47%) and Indiana (44%), as well as every other state where a Democratic senator is running for reelection. It seems likely Trump’s approval will be positive in North Dakota and West Virginia in November almost no matter what, but the Republicans would have an easier time in other states if they could defeat incumbent Democratic senators by appealing just to Trump approvers alone. However, to beat vulnerable Democratic incumbents in red states, the GOP may still need to win at least some voters who disapprove of the president, which strikes us as something of a heavy lift. But that’s also where Trump being in the low 40s nationally in approval as opposed to in the 30s could make a considerable difference in individual states.

In other words, there’s a world in which Democrats win control of the House but lose several net Senate seats. That would be an odd result historically, but it’s not impossible given the unique circumstances of this year’s Senate slate.

Let’s turn to the state of play in individual races.

The Senate, seat by seat

Republicans hold a 51-49 edge in the U.S. Senate, so to flip the chamber Democrats must retain all of their current seats and win two Republican-held seats. Let’s start with the Democrats’ two best targets to achieve the latter goal.

Presently, Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) is probably a little worse than 50-50 to win reelection in a state that Clinton narrowly carried, although his race remains a Toss-up in our ratings. As it stands, Heller may have trouble in his primary against perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian (R), although Heller now seemingly enjoys the support of the White House and Republicans argue he is better-positioned in the GOP contest than before. However, Trump’s backing probably doesn’t help Heller in the general election against Rep. Jacky Rosen (D, NV-3), a first-termer who beat Tarkanian in a very close race in 2016. Rosen was a blank slate in 2016 and even though she now has a federal voting record, she may be something of a generic Democrat in November, which may not be a bad thing in a midterm environment that is something of a referendum on the president’s party. If Democrats don’t win the Nevada Senate seat, they probably are having an underwhelming performance across the board.

The open seat in Arizona is a pure Toss-up. National Republicans hope that Rep. Martha McSally (R, AZ-2) fends off fringe opponents Kelli Ward and Joe Arpaio in the GOP primary — Ward is a former state senator who challenged Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in a 2016 primary and Arpaio was the controversial and long-tenured Maricopa County sheriff who lost reelection decisively in 2016. Arpaio’s campaign, which may be something of a stunt to pay off legal fees, could actually end up helping McSally by splitting what might charitably be called the “anti-establishment vote” with Ward (the non-charitable adjective, as used by a source, would be the “crazy vote”). On the other hand, some Democrats argue that Arpaio’s presence in the primary generates more coverage for a primary that very well could pull McSally to the right, potentially hurting her in much the same way that Heller could be hurt by his primary.

Three-term Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D, AZ-9) will likely face the Republican nominee in the general election. She has cultivated a relatively moderate voting record, but Republicans will hope to paint her as a liberal in a state that is probably trending Democratic but still has deep Republican lineage: The state hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988, when Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) won his final term before retiring in 1994.

The other six Republican seats are clearly less viable targets for Democrats. Republican incumbents in Mississippi, Nebraska, and Wyoming should be fine, and former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney should be a lock to win an open seat in Utah (Republican Senate institution Orrin Hatch is retiring).

That leaves Tennessee and Texas, though those races remain Democratic reaches for the time being.

In the Volunteer State, early polling shows Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R, TN-7) well ahead in the GOP primary field. Her strongest opponent for the nomination is likely ex-Rep. Stephen Fincher (R), who had $3.7 million cash on hand compared to Blackburn’s $4.6 million at the end of 2017. Tennessee does not require a runoff if a candidate falls short of a majority in the primary, and Blackburn benefits from stronger name ID, making her better positioned to win her party’s nomination. The Republican nominee will almost certainly face ex-Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) in the general election. Bredesen’s entry led attorney and veteran James Mackler to abandon his bid for the Democratic nomination, and many believe the former governor is the only candidate who could make this deep-red state race competitive. Yet Tennessee has become much more Republican than it was previously. This means that Bredesen is really going to have to find the special electoral sauce to overcome the state’s lean. Granted, Bredesen won 69% in his 2006 reelection, so no one is counting him out. However, neither Blackburn nor Fincher seem likely to throw a Senate race away like some poor GOP candidates in recent past cycles. The Tennessee race remains Likely Republican.

Texas is something of a white whale for Democrats. Believers in the “demographics is destiny” Democratic thesis see it as a state that the party can put into play in the near future. Is 2018 that time? Probably not, but there are at least signs that the Senate race could be competitive. Depending on the pollster, Sen. Ted Cruz (R) has a middling-to-solid approval rating. It is true that Gallup found Trump’s approval at 39% and disapproval at 54% in Texas, findings that caused some to wonder if Cruz might be in trouble. However, one important caveat to the Gallup data (also cited above) is that the firm surveyed all adults, not just registered or likely voters. As Texas has one of the highest population shares of non-citizens in the country and white voters turn out to vote at a much higher rate than Latino voters do, the state’s electorate differs quite a bit from its overall population. Cruz’s likely general election opponent is Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D, TX-16), who actually outraised the incumbent senator $2.4 million to $1.9 million in the fourth quarter (though Cruz maintains a $7.3 million to $4.6 million cash-on-hand edge). It appears O’Rourke is capable of making the race interesting. Although Trump is almost certainly more popular with Texas voters than among all Texans, the president’s nine-point win there was the smallest margin for any Republican presidential nominee since 1996. And while the electorate may be more GOP-leaning, shifts in turnout have flipped expectations on their head in races like the Alabama special election in December 2017, so a relative voter surge among Democratic-leaning constituencies is not out of the question in November. In fact, given the partisan trends in Tennessee and Texas, it would not be unreasonable to view the Lone Star State as a better Democratic target than the Volunteer State. The Texas race is still Likely Republican but the Crystal Ball remains watchful.

The Republicans’ best pickup opportunity is the Toss-up race in Missouri, where Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) very well could be trailing against state Attorney General Josh Hawley (R), the likeliest Republican nominee. Two recent polls gave some indicators as to the dynamic. A Republican pollster, Remington Research, polled the state for the publication Missouri Scout and found Hawley up 49%-45%, while Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling found McCaskill up 45%-44%. The PPP poll’s question order — it asked several questions before getting to the Senate horse race — might have primed respondents in McCaskill’s favor, which is why we look at the two polls (and some other things we’ve heard) to suggest McCaskill might be starting from behind. But McCaskill also is a strong campaigner who has won tough races in the past even as Missouri has become more and more Republican. McCaskill was also heartened by four special state legislative elections in Missouri on Tuesday where Democrats ran significantly ahead of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance, capturing one of the seats. This continues a strong positive trend for Democrats in special elections across the country this cycle, although those races are not necessarily predictive for the future, particular because they typically feature turnouts much lower than even midterm turnouts.

Hawley has had some troubles lately, such as some controversial comments about how the 1960s sexual revolution led to the nation’s human trafficking problem. McCaskill is hoping Hawley’s comments are a redux of Todd Akin’s infamous comments on rape from 2012, but we don’t really see this as a game-changing comment in and of itself. Additionally, Rep. Ann Wagner (R, MO-2) is rumored to be taking another look at the race after she surprisingly decided not to run several months ago. One never knows what might happen but Wagner certainly isn’t fundraising like someone seeking a Senate seat: She raised just a little over $100,000 last quarter, although the former Republican National Committee co-chair is sitting on an impressive $3.2 million war chest. Hawley’s fundraising total was a little bit under $1 million, which was OK but not great for one of the GOP’s elite Senate recruits, and some Missouri Republicans are getting a little antsy about Hawley’s campaign. Hawley, who was just elected as attorney general in 2016, is now running a major office while also running against a cagey incumbent for Senate: That’s a lot to juggle.

Another Toss-up race is Indiana, where Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) is running for a second term after a 2012 victory against a flawed GOP opponent. Republicans concede that Donnelly is popular but they argue his numbers are soft and that the GOP nominee can eventually overwhelm the incumbent. Democrats point to a divisive primary that could go to any of three candidates: Reps. Luke Messer (R, IN-6), Todd Rokita (R, IN-4), or Mike Braun (R), a wealthy businessman and former state legislator. There’s every reason to expect this to be a top GOP pickup opportunity, but until the primary gets sorted out it’s hard to say much more about it.

Our final Democratic-held Toss-up is Florida, which is based on the strong possibility that term-limited Gov. Rick Scott (R) will challenge Sen. Bill Nelson (D). Scott, who possesses immense personal wealth, is typically a late-starter when it comes to campaigns. That’s fine for him, but potentially not for Republicans if he decides against a bid. We would upgrade Nelson’s standing if Scott passes, and the GOP likely would need to find another self-funder to enter the race. Assuming Scott runs, he has better personal favorability and approval than when he won very close races in 2010 and 2014. Then again, 2018 is not going to be as Republican a cycle nationally as those elections were.

We list five other states as Leans Democratic in deference to Democratic incumbents: Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. These combined with Florida, Indiana, and Missouri round out what we see as the true Republican targets.

Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) are both seemingly good fits for their Republican-leaning states, and neither faces a top-tier GOP recruit. Republicans believe Heitkamp is more vulnerable because North Dakota is just fundamentally more Republican. For instance, Montana has a Democratic governor and two-fifths of its state legislators are Democrats; North Dakota hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1988 and only about a sixth of its state legislators are Democrats. The Democratic fear is that North Dakota is just so Republican that even a popular Heitkamp can’t win there, although they are confident that she has the right profile to win. Fortunately for the incumbent, her potential challengers are unproven: state Sen. Tom Campbell (R) or former state GOP Chairman Gary Emineth (R).

Unlike some of his red-state colleagues, Tester has not really moderated his voting record in the Trump era. He is likely banking on the weakness of his opponents, and it’s unclear as of yet who will face him: state Auditor Matt Rosendale (R), Air Force veteran Troy Downing (R), and former Judge Russell Fagg (R) are the likeliest candidates.

Ohio is not as red as the five aforementioned Trump states with Democratic incumbents, but Trump’s eight-point win in 2016 suggested that Ohio might be headed in that direction. Certainly if populist Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) loses reelection, the Democrats in Ohio are through, at least for the time being. Brown was set to face a rematch with state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), but Mandel dropped out last month to take care of his wife, who is dealing with a health issue. Replacing Mandel as the likeliest GOP nominee is Rep. Jim Renacci (R, OH-16), who switched from the gubernatorial primary after Mandel’s exit and also after it had become apparent that state Attorney General Mike DeWine (R) was locking up the gubernatorial nomination. Trump has essentially endorsed Renacci, although the congressman first has to get past businessman Mike Gibbons (R), who was pushing Mandel in the primary a little bit before the state treasurer got out. One example: The Franklin County (Columbus) Republican Party actually endorsed Gibbons over Mandel, although the Franklin County party is effectively an arm of outgoing Gov. John Kasich (R), who does not get along with Mandel, and some former Kasich staffers are working for Gibbons. A Republican businessman winning a statewide primary would be far from surprising, but Renacci is the favorite. One other wrinkle: Gibbons is squishy (for a Republican) on the abortion question, which could cause him trouble in the primary if Renacci feels the need to attack.

In the general election, Brown will have to restore some Democratic strength in the predominately Appalachian part of the state east and south of Greater Cleveland. Renacci represents some of that territory in the House, and if a pro-Trump voting record ends up being an asset in the fall, Renacci has it. That said, we’re not sure Trump is going to be an asset here (or in many other states, even ones that voted for him). All in all, the Mandel for Renacci swap has not really changed our outlook in Ohio: Brown is a modest favorite but he should face a very competitive challenge.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) may be a bit rattled these days. He is running again in a state that Trump won by more than 40 points and his fellow Democrats are disappearing. Former Rep. Nick Rahall (D, WV-3) lost a southern West Virginia House seat in 2014 and was replaced by Rep. Evan Jenkins (R, WV-3), who is seeking the nomination to challenge Manchin against state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R). The turf Jenkins represents backed Trump by 50 points last year, and Manchin likely needs to win that district decisively to win reelection (WV-3 was Manchin’s strongest district in his 2012 reelection win). Manchin helped Gov. Jim Justice win the governorship in 2016, but Justice switched parties from Democrat to Republican last year. Manchin apparently had second thoughts about even running for reelection, which likely would have forfeited the seat to Republicans, and he’s been circulating a proposal in which sitting senators would agree not to campaign against one another. The White House also seems set to run hard against Manchin after it seemed possible the administration would give him a pass. The GOP nomination is very much worth having even though it’s possible that Manchin retains enough of a unique appeal to survive and even thrive.

One perplexing wild card in the Mountain State is the candidacy of a third Republican, disgraced former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship (R), who was convicted of conspiring to circumvent federal mine safety rules following the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that left 29 dead in 2010.

Finally, in Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) should also face a strong challenge but her opponent is unclear, and there is a late primary (August 14). Veteran Kevin Nicholson (R) has the support of outside conservative groups like the Club for Growth as well as GOP megadonor Richard Uihlein, but the state’s powerful GOP party apparatus seems to prefer state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R), and party bigwigs like former Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (R) back her. Businessman Eric Hovde (R), the 2012 GOP primary runner-up, may also get in. Baldwin, a liberal from Madison, presents a textbook target for Gov. Scott Walker (R) and state Republicans, who have turned Wisconsin politics into a battle of Madison and Milwaukee versus everywhere else (a calculus that can break in favor of everywhere else, if only barely in the case of Trump in 2016). But with Trump in the White House, Wisconsin could easily snap back to the left in reaction, which would help Baldwin and potentially imperil Walker, who will also be on the ballot as he seeks a third term as governor.

The remaining Democratic seats, including two in states Trump narrowly carried (Michigan and Pennsylvania), seem like much harder lifts for Republicans. If Republicans somehow win any of the seats that follow, they are likely having a historically strong cycle.

Minnesota has two Senate races to keep an eye on in 2018. The resignation of Sen. Al Franken (D) led to the appointment of now-Sen. Tina Smith (D) to replace him and precipitated a special election that Smith is running in. That contest will coincide with the regularly-scheduled election for Minnesota’s other seat, held by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D). We have rated Klobuchar’s seat as Safe Democratic since May 2017 as the incumbent won very comfortably in 2012 and has only token opposition in 2018. The real action seemed more likely to happen in the special election for Franken’s old seat, where Smith could be vulnerable as an appointed Senate incumbent. However, the GOP’s strongest-possible recruit, ex-Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), passed on the race in January, though he still might run for his old job in St. Paul — in March, Pawlenty will leave his post as CEO of Financial Services Roundtable, seemingly a first step toward a gubernatorial bid (the state filing deadline is June 5). We would move the governor’s race from Leans Democratic to Toss-up if Pawlenty ran, although we suspect his time as a big-time DC association head would provide plenty of fodder for Democratic opposition researchers.

In Minnesota’s special election, ex-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R, MN-6) — a much less attractive statewide GOP option — also considered the race, but she decided against a bid. Smith’s leading general election opponent now appears to be state Sen. Karin Housley (R), and with Pawlenty and Bachmann out, it is unclear if any other notable Republicans will run. (Fun fact: Housley is married to NHL Hall of Famer Phil Housley.) Minnesota Democrats have largely rallied around Smith, and while she does have at least one intraparty opponent, she may avoid the type of serious primary challenge that has sometimes hampered past appointed incumbents. In light of the environment, Klobuchar’s popularity and potential coattails, and Pawlenty’s choice to stay out, Smith looks like a stronger bet to win the seat in her own right. As a result, we are moving the special election from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic.

The Michigan GOP thought it had a decent recruit to challenge incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) in a state that Trump won in a squeaker in 2016. However, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bob Young (R) exited the race in early January because of fundraising challenges. With Rep. Fred Upton (R, MI-6) having opted to run for reelection, the Republican nomination appears to be a battle between businessman Sandy Pensler (R) and businessman and veteran John James (R). Pensler can self-fund, having already seeded his campaign with $5 million, so perhaps he can make some noise if he wins the GOP nod. James raised about $700,000 in the fourth quarter, which is not a lot for a Senate race but also is not too shabby for an otherwise unproven candidate. Nonetheless, lacking an A-List opponent in what should be at least a Democratic-leaning environment, Stabenow is in a solid position to win reelection. This race continues to be Likely Democratic.

In New Jersey, recent events have slightly altered the picture for Sen. Bob Menendez (D). In November 2017, the judge in his federal corruption trial declared a mistrial after the jury could not reach a verdict. Then last week, federal prosecutors opted against retrying Menendez, who was accused of exchanging political favors for gifts and campaign contributions. These developments have made it far more likely that Menendez will successfully run for reelection. New Jersey is a solidly blue state at the federal level — it last elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in 1972 — and Menendez should benefit from the midterm political environment. If Hillary Clinton were president, we would view this race differently. Still, we cannot completely rule out the possibility of a Menendez loss. The stench of corruption will hang over the incumbent throughout the campaign and it already shows in his underwater approval ratings. It seems he will first face at least some intraparty opposition, most notably attorney Michael Starr Hopkins (D), who worked for the past two Democratic presidential campaigns and is a cable news commentator. Nonetheless, most institutional parts of the Garden State Democratic Party remained solidly behind Menendez during his trial, so a primary loss seems unlikely in a state where county and state parties hold a lot of sway. The GOP field is still developing, but perhaps the name garnering the most buzz is recently retired pharmaceutical executive Bob Hugin (R), who is reportedly “definitely running” and has self-funding potential. We will keep an eye on this race to see if the GOP can truly put it into play, but for now it remains Likely Democratic.

Next door in Pennsylvania, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D) also holds one of the 10 Senate seats up for election in states that Trump carried in 2016. However, much like Stabenow in Michigan, there is not much reason to think Casey is in great danger at this point. The Keystone State only narrowly went for Trump and the midterm environment should boost Casey to some degree. On top of that, Casey’s likeliest general election opponent, Rep. Lou Barletta (R, PA-11), is now getting heat from some Republicans over how he’s running his campaign. According to the Washington Examiner, some in the Pennsylvania GOP worry that Barletta’s hard-edged immigration rhetoric will play poorly in the Philadelphia suburbs and hurt down-ballot Republicans. In addition to these concerns, Barletta raised only $500,000 in the last quarter of 2017, leaving him with about one-eighth of Casey’s campaign war chest to start 2018. We still rate this race as Likely Democratic.

In Maine, Sen. Angus King (I) remains on track to win a second term, particularly because Gov. Paul LePage (R-ME) seems unlikely to follow through on his repeated threats to challenge the incumbent (and it seems unlikely LePage could beat King even if the outgoing governor did run). The Pine Tree State remains Likely Independent/Democratic.

There’s one other race we want to mention in detail: In the Crystal Ball’s home state of Virginia, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) is seeking reelection in the aftermath of his defeat as part of the Democrats’ failed 2016 presidential ticket. Kaine appears to be in good shape for reelection: He has $9.2 million cash on hand, one of the highest figures among incumbents up for reelection in 2018; the Old Dominion should be Democratic-leaning in 2018 if its 2016 and 2017 election results are any indication; and the incumbent lacks a top-level GOP challenger, to the chagrin of Virginia Republicans. The most notable GOP candidates are Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart (R), state Del. Nick Freitas (R), and minister E.W. Jackson (R). Stewart made waves in the 2017 gubernatorial contest when he nearly upset Ed Gillespie for the GOP nomination while running as a neo-Confederate and immigration hardliner. Jackson ran a distant fourth in the 2012 Republican primary for U.S. Senate, but came to greater prominence as his party’s nominee in the 2013 lieutenant governor’s race, which he lost to now-Gov. Ralph Northam (D). The minister opened his 2018 campaign by attacking primary rival Stewart for supposedly having had “dealings” with the Muslim Brotherhood, rhetoric reminiscent in tone to some of Jackson’s previous comments. Freitas, a conservative member of the House of Delegates who has received backing from Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT), may wind up being the establishment’s de facto choice against Stewart and Jackson. Stewart starts as the GOP favorite because of his performance in last year’s gubernatorial primary and the campaign network he has already built. Still, it is possible that Freitas and Jackson could take away parts of the anti-establishment primary vote from Stewart while Freitas garners enough support from more-establishment Republicans to win the nomination. However, it seems there is not much chance of a GOP win in 2018, so we are moving the Virginia race from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic.

One other lurking problem for the Virginia GOP is the margin in the Senate contest, which will be at the top of the ballot. If Kaine wins by as much or more than Northam won the gubernatorial race (nine percentage points), his coattails could help down-ballot Democrats and endanger Republicans running for reelection to the House of Representatives, perhaps most notably Reps. Barbara Comstock (R, VA-10) and Scott Taylor (R, VA-2). And if Kaine were to win by what amounts to a landslide in this day and age, that could even threaten GOP House incumbents in redder seats, such as Reps. Dave Brat (R, VA-7) and Tom Garrett (R, VA-5). Fear of a blowout at the top of the ticket is one reason why many establishment Republicans are worried about Stewart, whose rhetoric might play very poorly in some parts of the commonwealth with competitive or potentially competitive House races.

Democrats are in no danger of losing a number of other seats they already hold: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is also a safe bet to win reelection.

Generally speaking, Democratic Senate fundraising was a lot more impressive than Republican fundraising in the fourth quarter. Money isn’t everything, but it is helpful. Republicans argue that the passage of tax cuts late last year has reengaged donors and that 2018’s first quarter will be better for their candidates. We’ll see.

Overall, Democrats point to the fact that none of their vulnerable incumbents have retired and that Republicans have not gained a clear advantage in any of the red states defended by Democrats thus far. They also believe, and we tend to agree in some instances, that Republicans have not produced obviously top-tier challengers in several states, such as Montana and North Dakota. Republicans believe the internal politics of many of these states will eventually push at least some of these states into their column, particularly after primaries sort themselves out. Don’t be surprised if many of the races we’ve described are hotly contested all the way until Election Day — and in particular if the environment is only a little bit Democratic-leaning as opposed to a lot.


1. Two independents who caucus with the Democrats and who are seeking reelection this cycle are included as Democrats in this total: Sens. Angus King (I-ME) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

The Districts That Will Determine the Next House Majority

Charting out the Democrats’ path to 218 seats, district by district

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball February 1st, 2018



— In sketching out a potential path to a bare Democratic House majority of 218 seats out of 435, we found that in all likelihood the Democrats will need to win similar numbers of Republican-held seats won by Hillary Clinton as well as by Donald Trump in the last presidential election. Clinton-won districts are not enough on their own.

— It is hard to construct a Democratic majority without the party netting several seats from California, and Democrats also likely need to win at least multiple seats apiece in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, where a new district map may be in the offing.

— The growing number of Republican-held open seats may allow the Democrats to net a third or more of the seats they need to win the House from districts that don’t have an incumbent. But as we’ve previously said, the majority of Democratic gains will have to come from beating incumbents, unless considerably more Republican incumbents retire from vulnerable seats. Since we wrote an overview of open seats two weeks ago, two more swing district Republicans announced their retirements: Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R, NJ-11) and Pat Meehan (R, PA-7).

— A caveat: What follows is NOT a projection. We are not making many specific House calls nine months before the election, and our own belief is that, as of this moment, the race for House control is about a coin flip. Democrats should gain seats, but on the face of the seats currently available to flip, we’re unsure if they can net the 24 seats they need to win control. A look at the specific targets might help explain our reticence in prematurely declaring the House for the Democrats despite clearly favorable national conditions. A tsunami might well develop in the fall, but that’s a judgment that cannot be reached with the information we have today.

The Drive for 25, Part 2

We’ve previously described the Democrats’ odds of winning a House majority in November as roughly 50-50, and that’s where we remain. Democrats benefit from the usual presidential party midterm drag, President Trump’s lackluster approval ratings, and a flood of candidates. Republicans benefit from the overall House map and the presence of some strong incumbents in marginal districts, even after some key retirements have weakened the front line of their defenses.

But if one believes the Democrats have a clear if challenging road to 218 (or more) seats in the House, as we do, one has to also construct a seat-by-seat path to how they might win that majority. That’s what we’re going to do today.

We’re going to call this the Democrats’ “Drive for 25.” Perceptive readers may recall hearing that phrase before: It was the Democratic slogan in 2012, when the Democrats needed to net 25 seats to win back the House after they lost it in the Republican wave of 2010. (They only netted eight, so Democrats hope the sequel is a lot better than the original.) This path is based on the assumption that Democrats need to win at least 25 current Republican seats to capture the House. Technically, the Democrats only need to net 24, assuming a full strength House featuring a roster of 241 Republicans and 194 Democrats (at present, there are three Republican vacancies that will be filled in special elections later this year — it’s possible the Democrats can pull an upset in one or more of these seats, but let’s assume for now that they don’t; there’s also a Democratic vacancy, MI-13, that won’t be filled until the regular election).

However, even in bad years for the presidential party, that party usually wins at least something from the other party. So for the purposes of this exercise, we’re assuming the Republicans win one, but only one, Democratic-held seat. The best candidate is MN-1, an open seat in southern Minnesota that Trump carried by about 15 points.

Assuming that, the Democrats need to capture at least 25 current Republican seats. What follows is something of a “choose your own adventure” featuring a Democratic path to a bare majority through buckets of different kinds of seats. Obviously, if Democrats were to do a little bit better in one basket, they could make up for a deficit in another grouping (and vice versa).

Here goes:

1. Win all four open seats where Democrats already are favored

Seats: AZ-2 (Open), CA-49 (Open), FL-27 (Open), and NJ-2 (Open)

We recently published a detailed analysis of all of the open seats in the House as of a couple of weeks ago, and these four stood out to us as the likeliest Democratic takeovers. Hillary Clinton won three of the four, and according to our friend Scott Crass, the presidential party has not successfully defended an open seat won by the other party’s most recent presidential nominee in a midterm since 1990. Additionally, we see Trump-won NJ-2 as a good Democratic opportunity because of the candidacy of state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D) coupled with the Republicans’ inability (thus far) to find a top-tier candidate as they seek to replace the retiring Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R, NJ-2), a relative moderate who enjoyed labor support since his initial election in 1994.

If there are any “must-wins” for Democrats in the House, these four seats qualify.

Progress toward Drive to 25: 4/25, assuming pickups in AZ-2, CA-49, FL-27, and NJ-2

2. At least three more Toss-up open seats

Seats: CA-39 (Open), MI-11 (Open), NJ-11 (Open), and WA-8 (Open)

Here are two more Clinton-won open seats (CA-39, WA-8) as well as two Trump-won seats where the president ran a bit behind Mitt Romney’s 2012 showing (MI-11 and NJ-11). Picking up three of these four would get the Democrats to the open-seat goal we set for them two weeks ago: netting at least half a dozen seats from the total number of open seats (50 as of Wednesday afternoon), again assuming that the Democrats lose one of the open seats they are defending (MN-1 in this scenario). The Democrats may be able to net even more than a half-dozen open seats (some others are addressed below).

The one seat here that merits a little further comment is NJ-11, which just became open after long-time Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R) retired earlier this week. The district swung from 52%-47% Romney to just 49%-48% Trump, and the Democrats have a potentially strong candidate there, former Navy helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill (D). NJ-11 is one of the relatively few congressional districts where a majority of residents over the age of 25 has at least a four-year college degree, and it is also one of the 10 wealthiest districts in the country by median income. This profiles as the kind of district where some usually-reliable Republican voters may be sympathetic to the idea of putting a check on the president, although the GOP has an opportunity to find a strong substitute for Frelinghuysen.

Progress: 7/25, assuming pickups in CA-39, MI-11, and NJ-11

3. Net at least three seats from Pennsylvania

Seats: PA-6 (Ryan Costello), PA-7 (Open), PA-8 (Brian Fitzpatrick), PA-15 (Open), and/or ?

The Keystone State sits in limbo as we await a potential remap ordered by the state Supreme Court. It is unclear how much a new district map would benefit Democrats. The map as currently drawn is a fairly obvious Republican gerrymander: The Republicans control 13 of 18 seats in a state that was about 50-50 at the federal level in 2016 (and was more Democratic-leaning before that). Assuming that the remap isn’t delayed — the U.S. Supreme Court could still intervene and allow the old map to remain in effect for 2018 — Gov. Tom Wolf (D-PA) and the Republican-controlled state legislature will have to agree to a new map, or the courts may draw a map. Speculating on what might happen is largely guesswork, but one of the wrinkles of the court’s order is that it wants to limit the splitting of counties.

PA-7, currently held by retiring Rep. Pat Meehan (R), probably would become a Democratic-leaning seat under a remap. Meehan’s current seat is a gerrymandered atrocity that was designed to ensure his reelection after his initial 2010 victory, and it did over the succeeding three elections even though the district actually voted for Clinton in 2016. Meehan was likely in for a hard race anyway, and recent news of his sexual harassment of a staffer only compounded his problems, leading to his retirement. The seat is now a Toss-up under the current lines, and the district could essentially become a Safe Democratic seat if it is dramatically redrawn as a district dominated by Delaware County (Clinton won that county by 22 points, and by itself it has roughly three-quarters of the total population required for a congressional seat). In other words, PA-7 in its current form, or in a different form, is probably something of a must-win for Democrats now that it is an open seat, and it may become the likeliest Democratic pickup in the country depending on the new map.

According to our ratings (based on the current map), Democrats have five additional targets in Pennsylvania: Costello (PA-6) and Fitzpatrick (PA-8), who hold swingy Philadelphia-area seats that may or may not change significantly in redistricting (Fitzpatrick’s may not change much at all given that it is already compactly situated in Bucks County); the Republican-leaning open seat held by retiring Rep. Charlie Dent (R, PA-15); PA-18, a vacant and heavily Republican seat holding a seemingly competitive special election next month; and a Lancaster County-centered seat held by Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R, PA-16). In all likelihood, the redistricting will scramble this list of Democratic targets; it’s also possible that a new map will imperil Rep. Matt Cartwright (D, PA-17), who holds a northeastern seat initially drawn as a Democratic vote sink that Trump nonetheless won by 10 points in 2016.

Realistically, under old lines or the likely new lines, the Democrats probably need to net three seats out of Pennsylvania to make the math work elsewhere. PA-7 is the clearest target, both because it is an open seat and because it could become much more Democratic in redistricting; the rest is a question mark.

Progress: 10/25, assuming Democratic pickups in PA-6, PA-7, and PA-15

4. Beat at least three of five vulnerable California incumbents in Clinton-won districts

Seats: CA-10 (Jeff Denham), CA-21 (David Valadao), CA-25 (Steve Knight), CA-45 (Mimi Walters), or CA-48 (Dana Rohrabacher)

Democrats already hold 39 of 53 districts in California, and yet they likely need to squeeze several more seats out of the Golden State to get to a House majority. Two California districts, CA-39 and CA-49, are already listed above because they are open seats, but there are at least five other incumbent-held Republican seats that Democrats will target in California. Democrats came close to beating Denham (CA-10) and Knight (CA-25) in 2016, and Rohrabacher’s (CA-48) unique liabilities involving his admiration for Russia combined with the shifting politics of his district imperil him as well; “shifting politics” also describes the seat held by Walters (CA-45). On paper, Democrats should have a great chance to defeat Valadao (CA-21) in a majority Hispanic district that Clinton won by 16 points, but Valadao has won commanding victories in the high 50s in each of his three general election victories and it’s not clear Democrats will have a strong challenger against him. Looming over all of the California seats is the state’s top-two primary, which occasionally allows two members of the same party to advance to the general election. Democrats need to be sure they advance a candidate to November in all of these seats, which might require outside intervention given bloated Democratic candidate fields in some California races.

Progress: 13/25, assuming Democratic pickups in CA-10, CA-25, and CA-48

5. Defeat three of these six Clinton-district incumbents

Seats: CO-6 (Mike Coffman), FL-26 (Carlos Curbelo), IL-6 (Peter Roskam), MN-3 (Erik Paulsen), TX-23 (Will Hurd), VA-10 (Barbara Comstock)

One of the GOP advantages in this election is that they still have a number of proven incumbents running in Clinton-won districts, these half-dozen members included. Most of these members won relatively clear victories in 2016; the only one who didn’t was Hurd (TX-23), who won by just a little over a point. Democrats will target all six of these districts, but it’s unrealistic to expect them to win all of these seats: As we’ve noted previously, even big waves don’t wash away all of the other side’s most vulnerable incumbents, and a big wave is not guaranteed anyway. Realistically, winning half of these districts would represent a good night for Democrats.

Progress: 16/25, assuming Democratic pickups in CO-6, MN-3, and TX-23

6. Win one of these three Clinton-won, historically Republican seats

Seats: NJ-7 (Leonard Lance), TX-7 (John Culberson), or TX-32 (Pete Sessions)

It’s not entirely clear how vulnerable these three members actually are, although it seems like a safe bet that all three are in for much harder races than they are accustomed to. Lance (NJ-7) first won his seat in the big Democratic year of 2008 by eight points, and he hasn’t really had a close general election since. Meanwhile, Culberson (TX-7) and Sessions (TX-32) never would have been considered as even remotely vulnerable until Clinton narrowly carried both of their suburban Dallas (Sessions) and Houston (Culberson) districts in 2016. Republicans seem about Culberson being caught napping, although he upped his fundraising output in 2017’s fourth quarter, a sign that he may be coming around to his district’s newfound competitiveness. Sessions, a former NRCC chairman, already was sitting on a big warchest and he’s been adding to it.

Progress: 17/25, assuming Democratic pickup in NJ-7

7. Defeat one of two Trump-district freshmen, who were narrow winners in narrow districts

Seats: MN-2 (Jason Lewis) or NE-2 (Don Bacon)

We’re now transitioning into the part of the list where the Democratic targets are almost exclusively in Trump-won districts. With only 23 Clinton-district Republicans to target, and virtually no chance of sweeping those districts even under optimal national conditions, Democrats will need to win some Trump districts to win the House. How many? Read on.

Both Bacon (NE-2) and Lewis (MN-2) were somewhat surprising Election Night winners in 2016: Lewis won an open seat while Bacon knocked off first-term Rep. Brad Ashford (D). The winning Republican margins in both seats were quite narrow: at both the presidential and House levels, the largest margin in either seat was Trump’s 2.2-point win in NE-2, which prevented Clinton from getting an electoral vote from Nebraska (which, along with Maine, is one of two states that award electoral votes at both the statewide and congressional district levels). Adding to the intrigue in both districts is the likelihood that both will feature rematches: Ashford and 2016 MN-2 nominee Angie Craig (D) are the frontrunners for the nominations to face the first-term incumbents, although there is some grumbling in progressive circles that the Democrats should run different candidates.

Progress: 18/25, assuming Democratic pickup in NE-2

8. Net at least two seats from “Trump York”

Seats: NY-19 (John Faso) and NY-22 (Claudia Tenney), but also possibly NY-1 (Lee Zeldin), NY-11 (Dan Donovan), NY-21 (Elise Stefanik), NY-23 (Tom Reed), or NY-24 (John Katko)

While the president’s home base of New York City overwhelmingly rejected him outside of typically Republican Staten Island, Trump made big strides compared to recent Republican presidential performance in much of the rest of New York. He won six more congressional districts (nine of 27 total) across the state than Romney did in 2012 (just three). Much of New York outside of New York City is congressional battleground territory: As recently as 2010, Democrats controlled all but two of the state’s districts, but now they hold only two-thirds (18 of 27). As in California, Democrats likely need to increase their already big majority in the state’s congressional delegation in order to win the House, but the difference between California and New York is that in the former the Democrats have many Clinton-won districts to target, while in the Empire State the Democrats will have to win in Trump-won territory. Of the seven districts listed as potential Democratic targets, Clinton carried only one — Katko’s NY-24 — and even then by a lot less than Barack Obama carried it (Obama won it by 16 in 2012, but Clinton only won it by four). Katko stands out as one of the few Clinton-district Republicans who currently lacks at least one clear Democratic challenger; Democrats were disappointed recently when former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner (D) again ruled out a bid for the seat.

The two clearest Democratic targets on this list are freshmen members Faso (NY-19) and Tenney (NY-22). A host of Democratic challengers is angling to face Faso, while Tenney is likely to face state Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi (D), who previously rebuffed Democratic entreaties to run before jumping in this cycle. The others are all basically reaches, although Zeldin’s Suffolk County seat (NY-1) has historically been very competitive.

Progress: 20/25, assuming Democratic pickups in NY-19 and NY-22

9. Win two of these four Trump seats with down-ballot Democratic DNA

Seats: IL-12 (Mike Bost), KY-6 (Andy Barr), ME-2 (Bruce Poliquin), or UT-4 (Mia Love)

Democrats held all four of these seats as recently as 2012, but in recent years all have fallen to Republicans. Retirements by long-time Democratic members helped Poliquin (ME-2) and Love (UT-4) to win competitive races in 2014, and both were reelected in 2016 with increased margins in rematches against their 2014 opponents. Barr (KY-6) knocked off then-Rep. Ben Chandler (D) in a Lexington-based seat in 2012, and Bost’s (IL-12) larger-than-expected 2014 victory against a first-term incumbent perhaps presaged this downstate district’s more than 15-point swing in margin from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.

Three of these four seats (all but ME-2, where there are several Democrats running but no obvious frontrunner) feature candidates touted by national Democrats: Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams (UT-4), St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly (IL-12), and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (KY-6). Gray will still face a primary against veteran Navy pilot Amy McGrath (D), whose debut ad went viral online and allowed her to raise a substantial amount of money.

Progress: 22/25, assuming Democratic pickups in IL-12 and KY-6

10. Net at least one seat from Iowa

Seats: IA-1 (Rod Blum) or IA-3 (David Young)

Few states swung harder against the Democrats in 2016 than Iowa, which Trump won by nearly 10 points after the state had generally voted at least a little more Democratic than the nation as a whole since the 1980s. Republicans now hold three of the state’s four House districts.

There have been some signs of slippage for Republicans in the state, though. A Des Moines Register poll pegged Trump’s statewide approval among all adults at 35% as of early December and Gallup had it at 43% over the course of 2017, also among Iowa adults. Even if one assumes Trump’s standing is better among registered voters, it’s still fairly weak statewide given Trump’s 2016 showing. Iowa, one of the whitest states in the country, provides a great test as to whether Democrats can restore some of their performance among whites who do not have a four-year college degree. The Democrats’ troubles in Iowa pre-date Trump, though: Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) won by a bigger-than-expected margin in 2014, the same year Blum (IA-1) and Young (IA-3) first won open-seat House races in districts that would flip from Obama to Trump in 2016.

Progress: 23/25, assuming Democratic pickup in IA-1

11. Net at least one seat from Kansas

Seats: KS-2 (Open) or KS-3 (Kevin Yoder)

Kansas does not seem like the kind of state where Democrats could win a House seat, and yet they have two different but equally compelling opportunities in 2018. One of them is an open seat, KS-2, that is strongly Republican but which ex-Rep. Nancy Boyda (D) captured in a big 2006 upset. Boyda lost it two years later to Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R), who is now retiring, and 2014 gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis (D) is trying to replicate Boyda’s success a dozen years later. The other district, Yoder’s KS-3, was won by Clinton in 2016 even as Yoder won a competitive but clear reelection. A Democratic win in one of these districts would likely be seen as an upset, but to build a majority on this map, Democrats are going to have to spring some victories that would seem surprising this far in advance.

Progress: 24/25, assuming Democratic pickup in KS-2

12. Net at least one of these Trump-won seats in North Carolina, Ohio, or Virginia

Seats: NC-2 (George Holding), NC-9 (Robert Pittenger), NC-13 (Ted Budd), OH-1 (Steve Chabot), OH-12 (Special), VA-2 (Scott Taylor), VA-5 (Tom Garrett), or VA-7 (Dave Brat)

Here is a grab bag of seats across three states: The only one rated as even Leans Republican is Taylor’s VA-2, a GOP-leaning Hampton Roads-based swing seat. Unless there is a big wave, the Republicans should be fine in most if not all of these seats, but Democrats probably need at least one of these races to truly activate in the fall. The best possibilities at the moment may be VA-2; NC-13, where philanthropist Kathy Manning (D) is raising an impressive amount of money against the first-termer Budd; or perhaps OH-1, where Chabot just drew a potentially credible challenger in Hamilton County (Cincinnati) Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval (D).

Progress: 25/25, assuming Democratic pickup in NC-13


To be clear, this provides only a very loose blueprint of what a Democratic path to the House majority might look like. These are not predictions in individual seats.

But just for illustrative purposes, let’s assume Democrats win the following seats (Clinton-won seats are in bold):

AZ-2, CA-10, CA-25, CA-39, CA-48, CA-49, CO-6, FL-27, IA-1, IL-12, KS-2, KY-6, MI-11, MN-3, NC-13, NE-2, NJ-2, NJ-7, NJ-11, NY-19, NY-22, PA-6, PA-7, PA-15, and TX-23

Republicans flip the open MN-1. All else remains the same, and the House is 218-217 when the 116th Congress opens next January, based on this scenario. It’s unlikely that whatever the majority is next year will be so narrow, but it could be very close either way, akin to the Republican majorities following the 1998 and 2000 elections, when the GOP only held a little more than 220 seats in each Congress.

But that said, what would this narrowest of Democratic majorities entail?

Currently, there are 23 Clinton-district Republicans and 12 Trump-district Democrats. That would be reduced to 11 Trump-district Democrats to account, first, for MN-1.

Of the 25 net seats the Democrats would gain, about half would come from the Clinton-district column (13), and about half from the Trump-district column (12). Democrats would thus control 23 Trump-won seats, while Republicans would control just 10 Clinton-won seats. The total number of so-called “crossover” seats would remain largely unchanged, going from 35 total down to 33 total, although the makeup of those seats would change substantially.

One can see how important the Northeast and California looms in these projections: More than half of the projected Democratic pickups come from just four states: California (five), New Jersey (three), New York (two), and Pennsylvania (three).

Table 1 shows our current House ratings, which readers can compare to the hypothetical path we’ve assembled and suggest seats listed (or not listed) that we have omitted from the path above. In all likelihood, if the Democrats do in fact win the House, there are some districts we currently have rated Likely or even Safe Republican that will become highly competitive by the fall.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings

Based on the changes we’re suggesting, Democrats would win every Safe Democratic seat (175 seats, not listed in the table), and Republicans would win every Safe Republican seat (176, also not listed). Democrats, again under this hypothetical projection, would win every seat currently rated Likely or Leans Democratic, a group that includes four seats currently held by Republicans.

The Republican losses would come almost exclusively from seats rated currently as Toss-ups or Leans Republican. Under this scenario, Democrats would carry 14 of the 19 Toss-ups (a group that includes 16 current Republican seats and three Democratic ones). They also would carry eight of 20 Leans Republican seats and one Likely Republican seat.

If this seems too rosy for Democrats — if you don’t believe that they can win seats in, say, Iowa or Kansas, or if you think that the Clinton-won Republican seats in places like California and Texas represent a mirage for Democrats — then you probably think the Republicans are better than 50-50 to hold the House. If, on the other hand, you think that the Democrats can do better in the individual groups of seats spelled out above than the baselines we’ve set, then you might think Democrats can net 30 seats or more to build a more solid majority. Both possibilities — Republicans holding the House, or Democrats winning it and not just by a few seats — are in play.

One final thought, which might comfort Democrats: It seems highly likely that there will be at least one more, and perhaps several more, key retirements from swing seats that move ratings in the Democrats’ favor. Again, we just had two more over the last week: Republicans Frelinghuysen (NJ-11) and Meehan (PA-7). The more retirements there are, the fewer incumbent-held seats listed above are required to flip the House, and the better the Democrats’ chances become.