Sabato's Crystal Ball

House 2016: Is It Possible for Republicans to Kick Away Their Majority?

A three-part path to a highly unlikely GOP electoral meltdown

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 8th, 2015


Republicans working to maintain the party’s historically large House majority appear relatively confident about the aspects of the next campaign they can control: incumbent performance, recruitment of challengers, staffing, fundraising, etc. What concerns them are the aspects of the campaign they do not control.

Which brings us to today’s action on Capitol Hill, where the House GOP caucus is taking its first step toward replacing retiring Speaker John Boehner (R, OH-8), who is set to resign at the end of the month. If Republicans ultimately choose poorly in replacing Boehner, or if the more rambunctious members of the House majority do not allow that person to govern, there is a chance, however remote, that the GOP could kick away its otherwise ironclad House majority. But such a monumental disaster for Republicans would require more than just the House becoming even more unruly than it’s already been over the last several years.

To be clear, a continuing GOP House majority remains by far the likeliest outcome of next year’s House election. The headline of a recent, helpful Roll Call House overview by Emily Cahn remains an accurate description of the state of play: “GOP House Majority is Sturdy Heading into 2016.”

Democrats do have a list of about 15-20 credible targets, while Republicans have a shorter list of plausible pickups (these are the Toss-up and Leans seats listed in our Crystal Ball ratings, shown below in Table 1). If Democrats hold the latter and win the lion’s share of the former, they could be about halfway to netting the 30 seats they need to win the House. But then the list of true targets dries up. In order for the Democrats to really threaten the Republican majority, they are going to need a major GOP meltdown.

In three parts, this is what the Republican doomsday scenario might look like:

1. The new speaker, be it House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R, CA-23) or someone else, does an even poorer job of controlling the caucuses’ far-right id than Boehner, and a December shutdown is just a precursor to a year of widely-covered chaos in the House leading into next November. The key term here is “widely-covered” — the House Republican caucus would have to be so dysfunctional that it became a perpetual national story, generating bad headlines for the party and its presidential nominee.

2. Many swing-seat Republicans, including some who have been serving in the House for years and who typically have easy elections, recoil at the bleak post-Boehner landscape and decide against running for another term.

3. The party’s presidential nominee, who may have spent late 2015 and the first half of 2016 cheering the efforts of shutdown-hungry elements of the Republican caucus, ends up being a colossal general election dud.

It would take something this dramatic to put those Likely Republican seats, and the House, in play: a collective Republican self-immolation.

Item No. 1, or at least a short shutdown in December, is probably the most likely. But even if there is a December shutdown that does temporary damage to Republican numbers in the House generic ballot polling — which is exactly what happened during the October 2013 shutdown — it might not have long-lasting effects. Clearly the 2013 shutdown didn’t prevent Republicans from having a strong 2014 midterm.

But that’s not to say a short shutdown would do no damage. National Democrats, who are watching the Republican leadership fight with glee, are looking for “Lee Terry Moments.” Terry, a former Republican congressman from Nebraska, memorably said he could not “handle” giving up his paycheck during the 2013 shutdown. While memories of the shuttered government faded, Terry’s comment did not, and it contributed to his loss to Rep. Brad Ashford (D, NE-2), one of the few bright spots for congressional Democrats on election night last year. Democrats hope an unflattering shutdown spotlight might lead to similar mistakes that they can later turn into campaign ads.

Democrats are facing questions, not unfair ones, about their recruiting this cycle (see the Roll Call piece linked above for what is for Democrats a sobering but accurate assessment). They lack credible candidates in several seats vital to any future Democratic House majority. But there are still months to go, and Republican strife could serve as a great recruiting tool.

So, too, could the retirement of entrenched incumbents.

A number of Republicans from swing seats did retire last cycle, like Reps. Jim Gerlach (R, PA-6), Tom Latham (R, IA-3), Gary Miller (R, CA-31), Jon Runyan (R, NJ-3), Frank Wolf (R, VA-10), and others. But Republicans held all of their open seats except for Miller’s, an outlier that for complicated reasons he had little hope to hold anyway. These retirements ended up being well-timed for a midterm dominated by Republicans.

The GOP could have a harder time defending the seats of some members who have already announced their retirements this cycle, like Reps. Dan Benishek (R, MI-1), Mike Fitzpatrick (R, PA-8), Chris Gibson (R, NY-19), and John Kline (R, MN-2). History guarantees that more retirements are coming. The key question for Republicans: How many more, and from which districts? Historically, it’s easier to capture an open seat than to beat an incumbent.

It’s not hard to imagine some Republicans heading home for the holidays after a horrific, bruising December shutdown fight and months of leadership battles, wondering, “Why exactly do I want to go through two more years of this?”

The final prong, as mentioned, is the impact of the presidential race. We won’t dwell on that here, but the fate of many House Republicans could be pegged to their presidential nominee. A mainstream candidate will help them keep their seats. An extreme or damaged one could act as an anvil. (The same is true for the Democrats, it’s worth noting.)

The upcoming election could follow many different paths, almost all of them leading to continued Republican control of the House. But, as outlined above, there is a path for the Democrats, one that the House GOP leadership battle will help widen or narrow in the weeks and months to come.

Democrats probably cannot win the House next year, but Republicans can lose it with a combination of boneheaded missteps at the House and presidential level. That Republican doomsday scenario should be on the minds of GOP members as they take their first step today toward picking a new leadership team.

A number of noteworthy ratings changes and developments in individual races are discussed below.

Table 1: 2016 Crystal Ball U.S. House ratings

Table 2: Crystal Ball House rating changes

These rating changes are mostly favorable to Democrats, though that should not be taken as a sign of a recent overall trend toward Democrats in the House. Remember: Republicans are at a high-water mark in the House, holding their biggest majority since right before the Great Depression. It’s not impossible that the Republicans net a few House seats next year, but the far likelier outcome is that the Democrats net at least a few new seats of their own. If that’s what transpires, there probably will be a handful of House incumbents on the chopping block.

At the moment, two House Republican incumbents clearly seem more endangered than the rest: freshmen Reps. Rod Blum (R, IA-1) and Cresent Hardy (R, NV-4). Both hold districts that are several points more Democratic than the nation as a whole, and they were two of the biggest surprise winners on election night 2014. Our sources on both sides of the aisle agree that Blum and Hardy largely stand out as the most threatened Republicans, and we thought we needed to distinguish them from the other vulnerable Republicans. So both Blum and Hardy move from Toss-up to Leans Democratic. There are competitive primaries in both seats to determine which Democrats get to face these endangered incumbents. If either or both of these incumbents hang on, Democrats will probably have a rotten election.

A trio of other GOP incumbents move from Leans Republican to Toss-up. Rep. Mike Coffman (R, CO-6) won a relatively comfortable victory over a solid opponent in 2014, but he almost lost to a weaker one in 2012 with presidential-level turnout. While Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R, ME-2) has impressed many Republicans after his surprising 2014 victory, he too will face a different kind of electorate in his vast district, which covers most of Maine. And Rep. Lee Zeldin (R, NY-1), who some sources believe has not tailored his persona and voting record to his perpetually swingy Long Island seat, is likely to face one of two well-funded Democrats. Based on incumbency, all three of these members probably retain a tiny edge, but Democrats will go after them hard and they should face strong opponents.

Republicans have a handful of real targets. The decisions by Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D, AZ-1) and Patrick Murphy (D, FL-18) to run for Senate opened up two of the five Democratic-held House seats won by Mitt Romney in 2012, and they are both in the Toss-up column. But outside of these districts and a handful of others, Republicans are mostly faced with targeting incumbents they failed to beat in a favorable environment last year. One of them, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D, NY-18), dispatched incumbent Nan Hayworth (R) in 2012 and then narrowly beat her in a rematch last year. He moves from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic as Republicans consider whether he’s worth going after this cycle.

There is some good news for Republicans in these rating changes. Rep. Jackie Walorski (R, IN-2), a narrow loser in 2010 and then a narrow winner in 2012*, goes from Likely Republican to Safe Republican. Democrats do not seem interested in seriously vying for her seat, which is more Republican than any district they currently hold. And while Democrats have lined up to run against Hardy, the accidental Nevada congressman listed above, the party is still searching for a candidate in NV-3, an open seat that Rep. Joe Heck (R) is giving up as he pursues a Senate seat. State Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson (R), who might have been the party’s U.S. Senate nominee had Heck decided to stay put, is running for this seat, and despite some potential troubles on his right is clearly the top candidate on either side. We’re moving this race from Toss-up to Leans Republican as we wait and see whom the Democrats come up with.

One important note about these ratings: We realize that both Florida and Virginia are likely to have new House maps sometime soon, and those new maps will change ratings. In all likelihood, Democrats could get a decent chance to net a seat or two in both the Old Dominion and Sunshine State. We analyzed some possibilities in the Crystal Ball recently, and that analysis has not changed. Our current ratings reflect the existing maps, and we’ll tweak them only after the new maps are finalized.

Florida and Virginia’s remapping is but one of the many factors affecting the 2016 House battleground, though in terms of overall importance, it pales in comparison to the path the Republican majority decides to take in its leadership battle and beyond.

*Correction: This post previously misstated Walorski’s electoral record. She lost as a challenger in 2010 and then won for the first time in 2012.

New Hampshire: Toss-Up Central

Competitive races abound in the Granite State

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 8th, 2015


Think New Hampshire isn’t getting enough political attention? You’re probably alone, but a long-awaited move by Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) will likely result, remarkably, in an even greater focus on the Granite State during the 2016 cycle. Hassan announced Monday that she will challenge incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) in the state’s U.S. Senate contest next November, a decision with major consequences not only for that contest but also the state’s concurrent gubernatorial election.

The result, at least for the time being, is two toss-up races. The Ayotte-Hassan Senate contest immediately becomes a Toss-up, having previously been a Leans Republican race while Hassan mulled her options. Correspondingly, the now-open gubernatorial election is also a Toss-up, moving from Leans Democratic.

Tables 1 and 2: Crystal Ball 2016 Senate and gubernatorial ratings changes

Hassan was far and away Democrats’ strongest possible candidate to take on Ayotte; thus, the governor’s Senate candidacy increases her party’s chances of recovering a majority in Congress’ upper chamber. After all, conservative groups had spent the last few months running ads trying to discourage Hassan from running for Senate, a sign that the GOP also viewed her as the Democratic best bet. Early polling, for what it’s worth over a year out, shows a tight race.

The overall Senate math looks like this: If the Democrats can win the Crystal Ball’s three toss-up contests (New Hampshire joins open-seat races in Florida and Nevada in that group), our current ratings (Map 1) would work out to a 50-50 Senate tie, with the presidential race deciding Senate control via the vice presidency. While that still means threading the needle to a significant extent for Democrats, they could conceivably have a shot at getting to a tie without defeating some other incumbent Republicans in competitive states, such as Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Pat Toomey (R-PA). And one or both of Portman or Toomey could conceivably lose, especially if their states go Democratic at the presidential level. Hassan’s run provides Democrats with an additional path to Senate control.

Map 1: Crystal Ball 2016 U.S. Senate ratings

However, the ratings shift in the New Hampshire Senate contest doesn’t mean the incumbent is weak — far from it. Ayotte’s latest fundraising numbers — $5 million cash on hand — suggest she’ll be anything but a pushover, and Hassan will have plenty of catching up to do in that department. The new rating is partly a reflection of the fact that Hassan is a huge recruitment bonanza for national Democrats, but it is also indicative of the relatively balanced political landscape in the Granite State. President Obama won it in 2012, but only six states were decided by a smaller margin; a 20,000-vote swing (2.8%) toward Romney would have won the state for the GOP. New Hampshire has been a swing state in presidential elections since the 1992 election — in that time, it has never deviated more than ±2.65% away from the national two-party vote. There’s really every indication that the state’s high level of presidential competitiveness will continue in 2016, to be joined not only by the Senate race, but also the gubernatorial contest.

Many question marks remain in the 2016 race to replace Hassan in Concord, but now that she’s announced her plans, gubernatorial candidacies on both sides will begin to materialize. So far, the only declared candidate is Executive Councilor Chris Sununu (R), a member of Granite State Republican royalty. His father, John H. Sununu, was a three-term governor and later President George H.W. Bush’s White House chief of staff for nearly three years, while his brother, John E. Sununu, won election to the U.S. Senate in 2002 but lost reelection to current Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) in 2008. The youngest Sununu may have the edge in the GOP gubernatorial field, but others are considering the race, including ex-congressman and state Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley (R), state Rep. Frank Edelblut (R), and state Sen. Jeanie Forrester (R). There are numerous names being bandied about on the Democratic side, including at least one of Sununu’s colleagues on the state’s five-member Executive Council, Colin Van Ostern (D), who intends to announce his plans shortly. Other possibilities might be former state securities chief Mark Connolly, state Sen. Andrew Hosmer (D), and Portsmouth City Councilor Stefany Shaheen (Sen. Shaheen’s daughter), among many others.

Map 2: Crystal Ball 2015-2016 gubernatorial ratings

The 2016 election may still be over a year away, but as it stands New Hampshire is “toss-up central”: It holds this designation on our Electoral College map, as well as in its Senate and gubernatorial races. Additionally, the U.S. House election in NH-1 is also a toss-up. In that race, Rep. Frank Guinta (R) appears quite vulnerable in the wake of a fundraising scandal; if he wins renomination — which remains to be seen — he may face ex-Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D) in the general election for the fourth-straight time (Guinta defeated Shea-Porter in 2010, Shea-Porter won the rematch in 2012, and Guinta returned the favor in 2014).

All in all, it’s even safer than usual to assert that New Hampshire is at the epicenter of American politics in 2016.

Kentucky Governor: With a Month to Go, Bevin Has Squandered His Edge

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 1st, 2015


For months we’ve argued that Kentucky’s increasing lean toward the Republican Party and the state’s antipathy toward President Barack Obama gave businessman Matt Bevin, the Republican nominee, a generic edge in the open Kentucky gubernatorial race. While Bevin is not a strong candidate, we thought that ultimately those inherent advantages — advantages that have nothing to do with Bevin’s campaign — nonetheless made him a small favorite over state Attorney General Jack Conway (D).

We no longer feel that way. With five weeks to go the Kentucky gubernatorial race is now a pure Toss-up, instead of Leans Republican. Bevin is in real danger of blowing this race.

In fact, according to the Bluegrass Poll released Wednesday, Conway is leading by five points, 42%-37%, with 7% for independent Drew Curtis, the quirky founder of the website Conway recently said that his internal polls and those from the Democratic Governors Association also show him leading by five points.

This race is confounding. Kentucky is so anti-Obama that it ought to be relatively easy for a Republican to capture the governorship. However, Bevin is not just any Republican. He seemingly has done little to endear himself to his party after winning a surprising primary victory in May, made possible by the top two contenders turning radioactive in the weeks leading up to the contest. Bevin burned bridges with the state party establishment when he unsuccessfully primaried Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) last year. Curtis is a wild card: He’s probably more liberal than Conway, and the Bluegrass Poll showed more “very liberal” voters backing Curtis than “very conservative” voters. At the same time, nearly a fifth of very conservative voters are backing Conway, and we can imagine a fair number of Republicans who either vote for Conway because they dislike Bevin or vote for Curtis as a protest.

Bevin has engaged in bizarre behavior, like stopping by the Kentucky Democratic Party office to complain about a large billboard outside that says “We Still Can’t Trust Matt Bevin.” He has also alienated the Kentucky press corps, essentially refusing to speak with about half of them. Bevin strongly supported Kim Davis, a Kentucky clerk of courts who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses. That ought to have been good politics in a culturally conservative state, although the Bluegrass Poll suggested that Bevin’s moves probably haven’t helped him win any extra support (roughly equal numbers of voters said the Davis affair made them likelier to vote for Conway or Bevin).

This may be a classic case of when a candidate would have done better by just airing TV ads and physically relocating for the general election to, say, Bermuda.

But he’s not even running many ads. While Conway has spent at least $2 million on television, with the Democratic Governors Association also investing heavily, the wealthy Bevin has hardly spent anything to help himself in the general election. The Republican Governors Association has spent close to $3 million, but earlier this week the RGA said it was taking a break from the race, apparently leaving Bevin to fend for himself. The RGA indicated that it could resume spending for Bevin at any point — and that point might be after Bevin commits substantial sums to his own campaign, assuming he takes the hint. Reports surfaced Wednesday that Bevin has purchased nearly $1.1 million worth of television ad time for the last month of the election, but the RGA may be looking for more than that.

We have no way of knowing this, but could McConnell or his allies have told the RGA to pull the plug on his one-time rival Bevin, even though McConnell has endorsed him? It’s not impossible to imagine, and we have heard that some senior state Republicans are worried that Bevin could do long-term damage to the Kentucky GOP if he is elected and continues his practice of generating controversy. Bevin has done little to allay these fears, seemingly going out of his way to alienate his fellow Bluegrass State Republicans. On Wednesday, he effectively endorsed Ben Carson for president, a slap in the face to home-state Sen. Rand Paul, who is set to campaign with Bevin this weekend. Bevin quickly backtracked on Twitter.

At the same time, Jack Conway is — by almost all accounts — a poor campaigner. A shrewd source on the political scene in Kentucky described Conway’s visit to a lower-middle class, greasy-spoon breakfast joint to shake hands. Looking like he stepped out of a J.Crew catalog, Conway made his way around the diner, sipping his Starbucks latte. In a recent debate among the three candidates, a sweaty, flat Conway turned in a poor performance, and it was widely judged to be so. Kentucky political reporter Joe Gerth opened a column recapping the debate with a line we wish we had thought of: “If genius, as former Louisvillian Thomas Alva Edison once said, is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, then Attorney General Jack Conway is the smartest man in Kentucky.” Gerth added that after the debate “all people wanted to talk about was Conway’s sweat-filled performance where he glistened in the television lights. He seemed unsure of himself at times and his attempts at humor fell flat.” Oddly, Conway decided to do an intense workout just prior to the debate, not a wise TV prep if you’re inclined to perspire as much as Richard Nixon did in his first 1960 faceoff with John F. Kennedy.

Conway’s last big-time contest was a 2010 Senate race against another anti-establishment Republican, Rand Paul. He failed to impress and lost by double digits, although that was a difficult year to be a Democrat anywhere.

This contest reminds us somewhat of Virginia’s 2013 gubernatorial race. The Democratic nominee (now-Gov. Terry McAuliffe) was attached to a bag of question marks. The Republican nominee (then-state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli) turned off many members of his own party. And a third-party candidate (Libertarian Robert Sarvis) was there to take disaffected voters away from both parties. McAuliffe won that 2013 race, and Conway might as well, although Virginia is much more Democratic overall than Kentucky is. It’s also worth noting that while McAuliffe won, he only did so by about 2.5 points, far less than polls had suggested. McAuliffe’s victory broke a streak, going back to 1977, of Virginia voting against the president’s party in its gubernatorial contest. Kentucky often votes for Democratic governors, but a Conway victory would nonetheless represent an unlikely victory in a polarized age when red states typically vote against the president’s party up and down the ballot.

Ultimately, it’s that anti-Obama factor that could yet save Bevin. The Bluegrass Poll shows Obama’s approval at about 30% and his disapproval rating twice that, and there are a lot of undecideds in this survey, many of whom dislike the president. Also, the RGA could be back up on the air at a moment’s notice. There’s still a month to go, and either candidate can win, but the trend is moving in Conway’s favor at the moment. To reiterate, the Kentucky governors’ race is now a Toss-up, and we’ll lean it one way or the other before Election Day.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings change