Democrats start on defense but national environment will be key
February 16th, 2017,
At first blush, one might think that the Democrats have a decent chance of taking control of the Senate in the 2018 midterm. After all, midterms frequently break against the president’s party, which has lost an average of four seats in the 26 midterms conducted in the era of popular Senate elections (starting with the 1914 midterm). Democrats only need to win three net seats to flip their current 52-48 deficit into a 51-49 majority, a gain that would be in keeping with the average midterm performance. Additionally, midterm elections often end up becoming a negative referendum on the president, particularly if he is unpopular or the country is undergoing some sort of trauma, economic or otherwise. It’s too soon to say what the public will think of President Trump in November 2018: His early approval rating is historically weak for a new president, and there have been a record number of controversies for the first month of a modern presidency. Still, there’s no way of knowing what his standing will be and what will be on the mind of the electorate more than a year and a half from now.
However, as we noted in a Crystal Ball piece in December, the Democrats are far overextended on this Senate map, which may preclude them from making gains even if the national environment is poor for Republicans in November 2018. Map 1 shows the 34 Senate seats up for election next year.
Map 1: Current control of Senate seats up for election in 2018
Note: This includes the 33 Senate elections regularly scheduled for 2018 along with a special election in Alabama, which was necessitated by former Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-AL) recent confirmation as U.S. Attorney General. Gov. Robert Bentley (R-AL) appointed state Attorney General Luther Strange (R) to the seat. He will try to win the remainder of Sessions’ unexpired term in 2018 (and then, if he succeeds, presumably run for election to a full term in 2020).
Because independent Sens. Angus King (ME) and Bernie Sanders (VT) caucus with the Democrats, they are effectively defending 25 seats next year, while Republicans are only defending nine. Ten of the 25 Senate seats Democrats are defending are in states that voted for Donald Trump for president last year: Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Republicans are defending just one seat in a state that Hillary Clinton won (Nevada).
So there are conflicting forces at play in 2018. On one hand, the party that does not hold the White House often benefits from the midterm environment. History suggests that the Republicans’ dream of netting eight seats next year, thus creating a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority, is unlikely, even though they have many credible targets. On the other hand, the Senate map is so daunting for Democrats that just not losing any seats will require an enormous amount of effort and luck.
At the starting point, the three most vulnerable seats all belong to Democrats. Map 2 shows our initial Crystal Ball Senate ratings for the 2018 cycle
Map 2: 2018 Crystal Ball Senate ratings
Before getting into the specific ratings, it’s worth noting that no senator has retired as of yet (other than Sessions, who in any event was not up for reelection this cycle). This is important because four out of five senators who have sought reelection in the post-World War II period have won another term. The most obvious retirement possibilities heading into this cycle were Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), but both may end up running for reelection anyway. Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) is another potential retiree, but in either California or Delaware a Democrat would be heavily favored to hold an open seat (and a Republican would be heavily favored in Utah). There’s always the possibility of a surprise retirement or resignation shaking up the playing field, though.
Any discussion of 2018’s Senate races have to start with the five Democratic incumbents who hold seats in states that Trump won by at least 18 points apiece last year: Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jon Tester (D-MT), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), and Joe Manchin (D-WV). These are the five top targets for the Republicans next year, although we see some subtle differences among this quintet of red state Democrats that prompt us to split them into two groups.
While one could argue that all five should be Toss-ups, we’re giving two of the incumbents an early edge and starting them as Leans Democratic in our ratings: Manchin and Tester.
The once-dominant West Virginia Democratic Party is fading fast. As recently as 2010, the party held every statewide elected executive office, both chambers of the state legislature, two of three U.S. House seats, and both Senate seats. Since then, they’ve lost all of those except the governorship, state treasurer, and Manchin’s Senate seat. Yet Manchin has demonstrated significant crossover appeal — he won by 24 points in 2012 even as Barack Obama was losing statewide by 27 points — and Gov. Jim Justice’s (D) seven-point open-seat gubernatorial victory last year even as Trump was carrying the state by an astounding 42 points shows that Mountain State voters are still willing to split their tickets in some instances. Tester, meanwhile, has benefited from Trump’s nomination of Rep. Ryan Zinke (R) as secretary of the interior. Many viewed Zinke, who represents the Big Sky Country’s lone House seat, as Tester’s most formidable potential challenger. Tester, a two-term incumbent, has never gotten a majority of the vote but has been helped by Libertarian candidates pulling votes from his GOP opponents.
We see Donnelly, Heitkamp, and McCaskill as being on shakier ground. Donnelly and McCaskill lucked out in 2012 when each faced GOP opponents who submarined their campaigns with extremely controversial statements on abortion. Presumably the Democrats will face stronger opposition from more competent candidates this time. Heitkamp, meanwhile, only won by about a point in 2012 and appears to be in for another hard race. These contests all start as coin flips. At the same time, we should note that incumbency makes them even bets at the outset; without incumbency, keeping these seats would be much harder, although some Democrats might actually prefer Jason Kander (D) to McCaskill in Missouri. Kander lost a close race to Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) last year.
The next tier of Republican targets is rated, like Montana and West Virginia, as Leans Democratic. Sens. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) all get the benefit of the doubt. Baldwin is probably the most vulnerable just because she’s only won statewide once (while Nelson and Brown have won several times) and because her political persona probably doesn’t fit the state quite as well as the other two. However, Nelson and Brown seem likely to face opponents with whom political watchers are familiar: Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) and state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R-OH). Both Scott and Mandel are term-limited in their current jobs and have been telegraphing Senate runs for some time (in fact, Mandel arguably never stopped running for Senate after losing to Brown in 2012). Each will assuredly be well-funded although they have question marks too: Scott’s two election victories were razor-thin, and he’s never been particularly popular, while Mandel underperformed Mitt Romney’s Ohio showing in 2012 and lagged a little bit behind the statewide ticket in his 2014 reelection (he still won easily). In any event, all of these races could be highly competitive next year. Also in this category, as Leans Independent, is Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who caucuses with the Democrats. There are many unknowns in the race: Will outgoing Gov. Paul LePage (R) challenge King? Will the Democrats nominate a credible candidate, potentially creating a true three-way race? And will the state’s new instant-runoff voting system actually be in place next year?
Republican challenges to Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Tim Kaine (D-VA) are probably longer shots. Trump won Michigan and Pennsylvania last year and came close in Minnesota, but the Senate incumbents in all three states each have won multiple statewide victories and ran ahead of Obama in 2012. Kaine’s vice-presidential campaign, while not making much of a ripple nationally, probably contributed to Clinton running slightly ahead of Obama’s 2012 margin in the Old Dominion. All four Democrats start as clear favorites at Likely Democratic. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) also starts in this category. New Jersey should be an easy hold for a Democratic incumbent, but Menendez is under federal indictment in a corruption case. Democrats probably would be better off if Menendez just called it quits, but at this point it appears that he will seek reelection and may not face any strong opposition in a primary.
The other Democratic-held seats — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington — all start as safe for the incumbent party. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) also starts in a very secure position.
Of the nine Republican-controlled seats, six start as Safe Republican: Alabama, Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee, Utah, and Wyoming. Most of these states haven’t elected a Democratic senator in decades: The Cornhusker State is the lone one that has been represented by a Democrat in the Senate this century. If Democrats make any of these seats competitive it likely will mean that Republicans are having an awful midterm.
Texas, where Sen. Ted Cruz (R) will be seeking a second* term, probably should also be listed as safe: The last Democrat to win a Senate race there was Lloyd Bentsen (D) way back in 1988 (he won reelection while also serving as Michael Dukakis’ vice-presidential nominee). But the sometimes abrasive Cruz is not a perfect candidate, and there’s a distant outside shot that Democrats could make the race competitive if the midterm environment is bad enough for Republicans, so we’ll call it Likely Republican to start. Clinton significantly improved on Obama’s 2012 margin in Texas, but she still lost the state by nine points.
Realistically, there are only two credible Democratic targets in the Senate — and that may be generous.
Arizona is another state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator this century — the last Democrat to win a Senate seat there was Dennis DeConcini, who won reelection in 1988. But the Grand Canyon State, like Texas, became more Democratic in 2016, and Clinton came within 3.5 points of carrying it. And Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who is running for a second term, has angered some Republicans with his criticism of President Trump. Flake might have primary trouble: Kelli Ward, a very conservative candidate who came within about a dozen points of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in a 2016 primary, is challenging Flake, and it’s possible a more prominent challenger will enter the race, too (which could benefit Flake assuming there are multiple challengers splitting the anti-incumbent vote). A credible Democrat might possibly be favored in Arizona if Flake doesn’t win renomination. If Flake is renominated, his vulnerability will be determined by the national environment and the degree of division within the state GOP.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) is a clearer Democratic target, but he starts as a narrow favorite while Silver State Democrats, who saw much of their bench wiped out in their disastrous 2014 midterm, cast about for a candidate. Nevertheless, expect Democrats to find someone who can plausibly make the race. And then they’ll throw everything they’ve got at Heller, with so few other targets nationally.
We did not dwell much on possible challengers to the incumbents listed above: There’s plenty of time for that as the cycle develops.
However, among the many candidates to watch are several members of the U.S. House. Possible Republican challengers to Democratic incumbents include Indiana Reps. Jim Banks, Luke Messer, and Todd Rokita; Michigan Rep. Fred Upton; Missouri Reps. Ann Wagner and Sam Graves; North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer; Ohio Rep. Pat Tiberi; Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock; West Virginia Rep. Evan Jenkins; Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy; and perhaps many others. On the Democratic side, Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema; Nevada Reps. Ruben Kihuen, Jacky Rosen, and Dina Titus; and Texas Reps. Joaquin Castro and Beto O’Rourke are also possibilities.
For the most part, these House members have safe seats. So if a number of House Republicans jump into Senate races, it may be a sign that the party is feeling good about the midterms (and vice versa for the Democrats), because for most of these members a Senate race is riskier than running for reelection. As National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar recently argued, the number of House Republicans who decide to step up in Senate races will be a good barometer of how the party feels about Trump’s standing. A few House members have already passed on trying for the Senate: Zinke opted for a Cabinet spot over a Senate run, and Reps. Susan Brooks of Indiana, Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania, and Dave Brat of Virginia also have said no.
The candidate recruiting season has probably a year or more to go: While it’s become common for Senate candidates to announce their bids relatively early in the off-year before an election, there are plenty of examples of late-entering candidates who nonetheless won recent elections, such as Sens. Ron Johnson (R-WI) in 2010 and Cory Gardner (R-CO) in 2014, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who made a last-minute decision to run for reelection last summer. Also, late retirements can change the landscape: then-Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R-ME) surprise decision to retire in 2012 opened the door to Angus King winning her Senate seat later that year.
Given the uncertainty about President Trump’s standing, there may be incentive for potential candidates to wait a little bit longer this time before taking the plunge, given how influential his approval rating is likely to be on the outcomes across the country next year.
Hard to believe, isn’t it? Everyone’s still exhausted from the 2016 election, not to mention the first tumultuous month — or has it been a year? — of the Trump Administration. Yet here we are with another campaign barely underground, soon to spring forth like May flowers. For better or worse, that’s the way our system works.
*Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of terms Ted Cruz has served in the Senate. He is in his first term and is seeking a second.
Assessing the districts where voters split their tickets, and also the Democrats’ odds of winning back the lower chamber
February 9th, 2017,
It’s become far less common in recent years for voters to vote for one party for president and another for their local U.S. House seat. While the number of “crossover” districts did go up from 2012 — there are 35 of them, as opposed to 26 after the 2012 election — the percentage of crossover seats, just 8% of the 435 districts, is low historically. To put that in perspective, 40 years ago during the 1976 presidential election — a race that, like this one, saw a national popular vote difference between the two candidates of just about two percentage points — 28.5% of the seats (124 of 435) voted differently for president and for House.
These crossover districts are important because they can be the best targets for the opposing party. If a party can win the district at the presidential level, it’s reasonable for that party to believe it can win the seat at the congressional level, too. But many of these 35 crossover districts may be more competitive on paper than in practice given that several have strong incumbents, and it’s also possible that their Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump vote is not really an accurate gauge of their true partisan lean. As we observed last week, there were significant changes in the presidential vote in nearly half of the nation’s congressional districts in 2016, but it’s unclear how much these changes will bleed down to House races.
According to congressional-level presidential results calculated by Daily Kos Elections, Donald Trump carried 230 congressional districts while Hillary Clinton carried 205. That’s not a whole lot different than 2012, when Mitt Romney carried 224 districts to Barack Obama’s 211 under the current district lines. Of the 35 crossover seats, Clinton won 23 districts that a Republican House candidate won, while Trump won 12 districts that a Democratic House candidate won.
Tables 1 and 2 show those districts.
Table 1: Democratic House members who hold seats that Donald Trump carried
Note: District presidential winner is in bold
Table 2: Republican House members who hold seats that Hillary Clinton carried
Note: District presidential winner is in bold; *Sessions did not have a Democratic opponent
Let’s take a look at the incumbents in these 35 seats, whose names are bolded below.
The 12 Democratic districts are mostly seats where Trump significantly improved on Mitt Romney’s 2012 performance. Barack Obama actually carried nine of these 12 seats in 2012, and in some cases by big margins. Several of them had among the biggest declines from Obama 2012 to Clinton 2016, which we measured in last week’s Crystal Ball piece. The districts with the most significant shifts include several of the remaining districts held by Democrats that are either whiter than the average district and/or have fewer college graduates than the average district.
Meanwhile, Clinton significantly outran Obama and/or Trump underperformed Romney in many of the 23 Republican districts that Clinton won. Romney actually carried the majority of these districts — 15 of 23 — in 2012, but in many cases they rejected Trump. These districts generally have higher-than-average numbers of college graduates and/or are more diverse than the average district.
Setting aside the two incumbents who did not face a major-party opponent — Reps. Ron Kind (D, WI-3) and Pete Sessions (R, TX-32) — the 11 remaining Democrats won, on average, more narrowly than the 22 remaining Republicans. The average margin of victory for the Democrats, excluding Kind, was about six points, while the average margin for the Republicans, excluding Sessions, was about 12 points. However, House performance can vary wildly from election to election, particularly if the overall environment swings one way or the other. As @xenocryptsite, a smart politics observer, recently noted, “The median House member is an R who won by 13. Which sounds safe until you remember 2009 median was D who won by 15.” Republicans, of course, netted 63 seats and the House majority in 2010 just two years after the Democrats had a sterling election in 2008.
Minnesota features a quarter of the 12 Democratic crossover seats, and Reps. Tim Walz (D, MN-1), Collin Peterson (D, MN-7), and Rick Nolan (D, MN-8) all won relatively narrow victories. Nolan’s close call was expected — his rematch with Stewart Mills (R) drew an outsized amount of national money and attention after Nolan’s tiny win in 2014 — but Trump’s massive improvement on Romney in all three districts gave all three incumbents headaches. If any of them retire or run for another office — Walz and Nolan are considering running for governor, while Peterson often ponders retirement — any of these seats could be a GOP pickup, and Republicans could heavily fund challengers to the incumbents. The same could be true for Reps. Dave Loebsack (D, IA-2), Cheri Bustos (D, IL-17), Matt Cartwright (D, PA-17), and Ron Kind, whose races were not as close as the Minnesota contests in 2016. Bustos is also reportedly considering a run for governor.
The other five seats are perennially competitive but did not move very dramatically at the presidential level. Reps. Carol Shea-Porter (D, NH-1) and Josh Gottheimer (D, NJ-5) defeated damaged Republican incumbents, while Reps. Tom O’Halleran (D, AZ-1), Jacky Rosen (D, NV-3), and Sean Patrick Maloney (D, NY-18) benefited from weak opponents. O’Halleran and Maloney posted decent-sized victories in 2016, while Rosen only won by a little more than a point.
In all likelihood at least some of these districts will be competitive and expensive. However, without Trump on the ballot, and with generic midterm forces that generally (not always) work in favor of the party that doesn’t hold the White House, the environment for all of these Democratic incumbents may be better in 2018 than it was in 2016.
Democrats are hoping that the midterm forces will break against the Republicans instead, which could put many of the 23 Clinton-Republican seats in play. In order to take the House, Democrats will have to win at least one seat that Trump carried (and almost certainly more), given that they need to net 24 seats to get to a majority and there are only 23 crossover districts for them to target. But any Democratic battle plan has to start with these districts.
So long as the incumbents run for reelection, several of these districts are held by some of the GOP’s most skilled incumbents who ran well ahead of Trump in their districts, like Reps. Mike Coffman (R, CO-6), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R, FL-27), Peter Roskam (R, IL-6), Barbara Comstock (R, VA-10), and Dave Reichert (R, WA-8). A very bad environment could cost any of them their seats, although it’s helpful to Republicans that Ros-Lehtinen, an incumbent who has easily won reelection in every cycle since her initial special election win in 1989, also happens to be the incumbent in the most Democratic-leaning seat any Republican holds. The second-most Democratic seat belongs to Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R, FL-26), another south Florida Republican. The two-term incumbent beat his weak opponent, scandal-tarred former Rep. Joe Garcia (D), by 12 points while Clinton won FL-26 by 16, a 28-point difference in margin.
Another two-term member, Rep. John Katko (R, NY-24), has hit 60% of the vote in each of his victories despite occupying a Democratic-leaning upstate seat. That the district got more Republican in 2016 — Clinton only won it by about 3.5 points while Obama won it by 16 — is helpful to the incumbent. The parts of New York not included in New York City’s five boroughs were much friendlier to Trump than to Mitt Romney: The president lost outside his home city by just 66,563 votes, compared to Romney’s 437,029 deficit. This likely gives a boost to other Republicans who occupy some usually swingy districts outside the five boroughs, such as first-term Reps. John Faso (R, NY-19) and Claudia Tenney (R, NY-22), as well as more veteran members like Reps. Lee Zeldin (R, NY-1), Elise Stefanik (R, NY-21), and Tom Reed (R, NY-23). Democrats have held versions of these seats within the last decade — prior to the 2010 GOP wave, Democrats held all but two seats in New York — but as of now the Democrats face uphill battles in all of these seats.
Any Democratic House comeback is predicated on squeezing several more seats out of California, where Democrats already hold an impressive 38-14 edge in the delegation (with one vacancy in a heavily Democratic seat).
Seven of the 23 Republican crossover seats are in the Golden State. Democrats went hard after Reps. Jeff Denham (R, CA-10), Steve Knight (R, CA-25), and Darrell Issa (R, CA-49) in 2016, but came up short. Issa only won by less than a point, and his Democratic opponent last year, Marine veteran Doug Applegate, is already running again. Issa probably starts 2018 as one of the most endangered House incumbents. Rep. David Valadao (R, CA-21) represents a majority Hispanic seat that Clinton won by 15 points, but Democrats have failed to produce a strong challenger against him (his three election victories have all been by double digits).
The other three California seats are mysteries: Reps. Ed Royce (R, CA-39), Mimi Walters (R, CA-45), and Dana Rohrabacher (R, CA-48) all represent parts of Orange County, the one-time conservative enclave that backed Clinton in 2016 (the first time it had gone Democratic since 1936). Are any of them actually vulnerable? It’s hard to say. Rohrabacher and Royce have rarely if ever faced real challenges in their combined more than half century in the House, while Walters has easily won two terms. Still, sometimes, long-term incumbents who haven’t faced real challengers can get caught napping. That contributed to former Rep. John Mica’s (R, FL-7) loss in Florida last cycle, but he also had to run in a district that became more Democratic after mid-decade redistricting. These California incumbents don’t have to deal with redistricting, although if the Clinton-Trump race really represented something of a realignment in a place like Orange County, then these incumbents might effectively be in changed districts even though the district lines haven’t moved.
The same mystery applies to Reps. John Culberson (R, TX-7) and Pete Sessions. Was Clinton winning these typically very Republican suburban Houston (Culberson) and Dallas (Sessions) seats just a fluke that has little meaning down the ballot? Or is something more happening? The other Clinton-Republican seat in Texas is clearly more competitive: Rep. Will Hurd (R, TX-23) won a narrow victory, vanquishing ex-Rep. Pete Gallego (D) for a second straight cycle. For the past few cycles, TX-23, which runs from El Paso to San Antonio, has been the only competitive district in the state. Will others, like TX-7 and TX-32, join it?
After losing and then winning two of the closest House races in recent memory, Rep. Martha McSally (R, AZ-2) easily won reelection in her swing district, as Democrats effectively gave her a pass by failing to field a strong challenger. Also getting breezy rides to reelection were two Philadelphia-area incumbents, Reps. Ryan Costello (R, PA-6) and Pat Meehan (R, PA-7). They all hold Romney-Clinton districts, and Democrats may try to push them harder in 2018.
Democrats thought that Trump could drag down incumbents like Reps. Erik Paulsen (R, MN-3) and Kevin Yoder (R, KS-3), and Trump did badly underperform Romney in each district. But that didn’t prevent either incumbent from posting double-digit wins. Finally, in recent years, Rep. Leonard Lance (R, NJ-7) has had more to worry about in primaries, where opponents have ran against him from the right, than in general elections, although his initial election in 2008 was a nationally-watched contest.
So much of what happens next year in the House will be determined by the national environment. But Republicans can take heart that as they go into a midterm under a Republican president, they are not nearly as overextended in the House as Democrats were going into 2010. In that election, Democrats were defending 48 seats that John McCain carried in 2008, and they ended up losing the House. Republicans today are only about half as overextended, and it’s an open question as to whether Democrats can legitimately contend for many of these Clinton-Republican seats. And Republicans should have at least a few appealing targets of their own, such as some of the Trump-Democratic districts.
Then again, going into the 2006 midterm, Democrats were defending 40 seats that George W. Bush won two years earlier, while Republicans were only defending 18 seats that John Kerry had won in 2004. So the Democrats were overextended based on the previous presidential results in these districts, but it didn’t stop them from taking control of the House. The national environment was very poor for Republicans in 2006, although Democrats also did an excellent job of tailoring their candidates to moderate and conservative districts, an effort led by former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel. But back then the Democrats also controlled many districts in places like the Deep South, Appalachia, and other places where the party is now on life support. Even before the Democrats won the House in 2006, they controlled the at-large seats in both of the Dakotas and a majority of seats in Arkansas, Tennessee, and West Virginia. These are places that don’t seem nearly as open to electing House Democrats as they used to be. This is why Democrats likely need to turn Trump’s weakness in Sun Belt suburbs against the Republican incumbents in those places, because some of the conservative districts Democrats used to represent are likely places where even a weakened Trump will remain quite popular.
History is on the Democrats’ side: The president’s party has lost ground in the House in 36 of 39 midterms since the Civil War. The average loss is 33 seats, a shift in seats that would flip the House next year. Unpopular presidents can galvanize the opposition — and Democrats already seem highly engaged in battling Trump — and President Trump’s approval rating is already underwater in some polls, meaning he hasn’t had much of a honeymoon. Of course, there’s plenty of time for that to change, both positively and negatively for the president.
There is also a doomsday scenario for Democrats — well, two doomsday scenarios, actually. The first is that Trump rebounds and is popular during the midterm, leading to a rare instance where the president’s party actually gains seats in the House or only suffers minimal losses. The other is that Trump is unpopular and the Democrats still can’t make big gains because, for various reasons, they don’t make big enough inroads in targeted districts. The party may be too socially liberal to recapture the ground it lost in the heartland during the Obama years and too economically liberal to win seats in the affluent, educated suburbs, places that don’t like Trump but are used to sending Republicans to the House with regularity. This is why Democratic recruitment is so important: One size does not fit all in the House, although an optimal national environment can paper over candidate problems, at least for a cycle or two. The Republicans also have structural advantages in the House in part due to Republican control of redistricting after the 2010 census in many states: that both Trump and Romney won a clear majority of House districts despite receiving fewer votes nationally than their Democratic opponents is evidence enough of that GOP edge.
In other words, anything’s possible in the House next year. The Republicans have several built-in advantages, but there’s a path for Democrats if they can put many of the seats mentioned above — and others — in play.
Where the presidential vote changed the most in 2016 and what it might mean for 2018
February 2nd, 2017,
Election years are separate but also connected. Assuming he is confirmed by the Senate to be the next secretary of Health and Human Services, Rep. Tom Price (R, GA-6) will be vacating his suburban Atlanta seat sometime soon. He would be replaced by the winner of a special election, which could be held as soon as this spring. All candidates from all parties will compete in a single “jungle primary,” and barring anyone winning a majority of the vote, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff election.
Prior to 2016, there would have been no reason to think that both parties could compete for GA-6. Since being elected in 2004, Price has never won less than 60% in a general election, and Republican presidential candidates routinely won by lopsided margins there — John McCain carried the district by 19 points in 2008, and Mitt Romney followed that up with a 23-point victory in 2012.
But Donald Trump only carried it by a point and a half — 48.3% to 46.8% — in November. Of all 241 Republican-held districts, Hillary Clinton improved on Barack Obama’s 2012 performance more in GA-6 than she did in any other except for TX-7, held by Rep. John Culberson (R).
Big swings in the presidential results in congressional districts were common across the country. According to figures compiled by Daily Kos Elections, a left-leaning website that produces outstanding nonpartisan information on down-ballot races, close to half of the nation’s House seats (200 of the 435) saw at least a five-percentage point change from 2012 to 2016 in Democratic or Republican presidential performance (or both).
Last week in the Crystal Ball, Rhodes Cook analyzed how the presidential vote changed in different kinds of counties across the country. This week, as we look ahead to the 2018 midterm, we’re going to look at two different kinds of House districts that saw noteworthy changes in their presidential results:
- The first are ones like GA-6, the seat that Tom Price is likely to vacate soon. These are seats with Republican incumbents where Hillary Clinton performed at least five percentage points better than Obama in 2012, Donald Trump underperformed Mitt Romney’s 2012 share by at five points, or both. In other words, these are Republican-held seats that became significantly more Democratic at the presidential level in 2016.
- The second group includes seats where the opposite happened: These are seats held by Democrats that got significantly more Republican in 2016. In all of these seats, Clinton performed at least five points worse than Obama, Trump performed at least five points better than Romney, or both.
While these seats saw big changes at the presidential level, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be competitive in 2018. Many of these seats are simply very blue seats that got a little less blue or very red ones that got a little less red. And some of the districts that would appear to be the best targets for takeover by the other party feature strong incumbents who have considerable crossover appeal. But it’s also possible that some of these seats will be competitive in 2018 and that the big changes in the presidential results in them represent a warning to the incumbent party that the ground underneath their feet is moving away from them.
One reason to think that the changes we saw at the congressional district level in the presidential race may change these districts down the ballot is that in some ways 2016 reinforced differences that had already materialized. In an excellent analysis of the House landscape, The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein and Leah Askarinam found that the two party’s bases in both presidential and House races are coming into alignment:
From the presidency through lower-ballot races, Republicans rely on a preponderantly white coalition that is strongest among whites without a college degree and those living outside of major metropolitan areas. Democrats depend on a heavily urbanized (and often post-industrial) upstairs-downstairs coalition of minorities, many of them clustered in lower-income inner-city districts. They also rely on more affluent college-educated whites both in cities and inner suburbs.
Specifically, they found that Democrats control 87 of 108 districts that have higher-than-average percentages of white college graduates and racial minorities, while Republicans control 152 of 176 districts that have lower-than-average percentages of white college graduates and minorities. And as shown in Tables 1 and 2, the Republican-held districts where Clinton improved the most on Obama’s margin tended to have higher percentages of minorities and college graduates, while the Democratic-held ones where Trump improved the most on Romney’s tended to have lower percentages of those groups.
With that, let’s start with this first group: the Republican-held seats that moved the most toward the Democrats in 2016.
Table 1: Republican-held House seats that became significantly bluer in the 2016 presidential race
Note: District presidential winner is in bold
Source: Daily Kos Elections
These 37 seats are mostly located in suburban areas that either have higher percentages of residents over 25 with at least a four-year college degree than the national average (which is about 30%), or are more diverse than the nation as a whole (the nation is a little over 60% non-Hispanic white) or both.
The only exceptions are ID-2, UT-1, and UT-4, which Trump won comfortably but by far smaller margins than Mitt Romney did in 2012. This was mostly due to Trump bleeding votes to third-party candidates, particularly conservative Evan McMullin, who is Mormon (Utah is the most Mormon state in the country by far, and Idaho is second). That also helps explain Trump’s massive loss of vote share from Mitt Romney’s 2012 showing in all four Utah congressional districts: Trump still won the state handily, but his percentage of the vote dropped by at least 20 points in all four districts, by far his biggest fall-off from Romney of any districts in the country. Clinton, meanwhile, only improved marginally on Obama in the Utah districts. This makes sense, as these Republican districts went from arguably their ideal version of a GOP presidential candidate (Romney, who was Mormon himself) to their worst possible GOP candidate (the non-Mormon, rough-around-the-edges Trump). But, again, Trump still won all these districts, and the only one of these that might be a Democratic target is UT-4, where Rep. Mia Love (R) won reelection by 12.5 points, improving on her 2014 showing when she won her first election.
Nearly half of these seats (16 of 37) are from California or Texas in Republican suburban enclaves. Trump still won some of them comfortably, like Rep. Duncan Hunter’s (R) CA-50 or Rep. Sam Johnson’s (R) TX-3. Johnson is retiring, but there’s little reason to think a district that voted for Trump by about 14 points is truly vulnerable to a Democratic challenge.
Still, in 2012 Obama only won three of these 37 districts. Clinton won 15 of them. If there’s a backlash against Trump next year, some of these districts may be open to voting Democratic, but Democrats are also going to have to find credible candidates to run in these places: The party isn’t really used to running competitive campaigns in places like California’s Orange County, big-city Texas suburbs, and Greater Atlanta, but those are some of the places where opportunities might exist based on the changes we saw in last year’s election. Other members on this list have faced challenges before, but long ago: Rep. Peter Roskam (R, IL-6) defeated Tammy Duckworth (D) in a high-profile race in 2006, and he hasn’t had much trouble since. (Duckworth got elected to the House in her own right in 2012 and won a Senate seat in 2016.)
Democrats did heavily compete for several of the districts on this list, but some of those incumbents they targeted — such as Reps. Darrell Issa (R, CA-49), Steve Knight (R, CA-25), Mike Coffman (R, CO-6), Kevin Yoder (R, KS-3), and Barbara Comstock (R, VA-10) — all won reelection and ran several points ahead of Trump in their districts. Democrats are hoping that Trump will drag down these incumbents in a midterm year, when the president’s party historically does poorly, but it’s far too soon to know what Trump’s standing and the strength of the Democratic challengers will be.
Table 2: Democratic-held House seats that became significantly redder in 2016
Note: District presidential winner is in bold
Source: Daily Kos Elections
For years, Rep. Tim Ryan (D, OH-13) has been the candidate of the Democrats’ future in Ohio — and perhaps he always will be. The long-serving (first elected in 2002) but still young (he’s just 43) congressman has long been mentioned as a potential statewide candidate in Ohio, but so far he’s always taken a pass. But Ryan appears to be considering a gubernatorial run in 2018; if anything, he’s raised his profile in recent months by unsuccessfully challenging House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for the leadership of the Democratic caucus (about a third of the caucus supported him — not bad for a longshot challenge). He also might decide to go statewide because his safe Democratic district, which stretches from Youngstown to Akron, is suddenly not quite as safe as it used to be.
While Hillary Clinton still won OH-13, her 6.5-point margin was more than 20 points weaker that Barack Obama’s 27.5-point edge just four years prior. Ryan still won easily, as he always does, but if the major shifts we saw across the white, blue collar small cities and rural areas of the Frost Belt — an area stretching from Minnesota to western New York that one could rename the “Trump Belt” based on the past election results — persist and bleed down the ballot, Democratic House members like Ryan could increasingly be an endangered species.
Of the 32 House districts held by Democrats where Clinton either declined by five points or more from Obama 2012, or where Trump did at least five points better than Mitt Romney 2012, Obama carried all but one of them in 2012. The exception was Rep. Collin Peterson’s (D) MN-7, which was and still is the most Republican district held by any Democrat. However, MN-7 went from a district Romney won by about 10 points to one Trump carried by more than 30. All told, Trump flipped several of these districts, with the biggest change coming in Rep. Matt Cartwright’s (D) PA-17: Obama’s 12-point win turned into a sizable 10-point victory for Trump. Two other Minnesota districts with Democratic incumbents, MN-8 (Rick Nolan) and MN-1 (Tim Walz), also swung heavily to Trump, and both Nolan and Walz only barely won reelection. In Nolan’s case, that wasn’t a shock — both parties heavily targeted his seat — but Walz’s close call was surprising. Nolan and Walz are both reportedly considering entering the already-crowded Democratic primary for governor. If either of them jump, or if Peterson retires after flirting with the idea the past few cycles, their districts very well could be relatively easy pickups for the Republicans. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D, IL-17) is also a possible gubernatorial candidate, and her district would be another tantalizing option for Republicans if it was open. Former Rep. Bobby Schilling (R) used to hold the seat, but Bustos, with an assist from redistricting, beat him in both 2012 and 2014. But when Illinois Democrats drew the seat at the start of the decade, they probably didn’t think a GOP presidential candidate would be able to win it in 2016, but that’s exactly what happened, even though Bustos won reelection easily.
Redistricting is not always foolproof. A court-ordered remap of Florida, conducted in advance of last year’s election, made the Tampa Bay-area FL-13 seem significantly more Democratic. Obama won the district 55%-44%, whereas he had only won it by a point under the old map. After the new maps came out, incumbent David Jolly (R), who had won a much-watched special election in early 2014, decided to run for Senate. Jolly later returned to the House race after Sen. Marco Rubio (R) made a last-second decision to run for reelection, but party-switching former Gov. Charlie Crist (D) seemed like a clear favorite, and Republican outside groups (who had a preexisting poor relationship with Jolly for many reasons) largely left Jolly to fend for himself. Crist ended up winning, but only by about four points, similar to Clinton’s underwhelming three-point win in the district. In other words, the district was not as Democratic as it seemed, and Jolly is considering a rematch with Crist.
One other district that really stands out on this list is Rep. Ron Kind’s (D) WI-3. Kind was unopposed last year even though his southwest Wisconsin district moved from Obama to Trump, similarly to the other “Trump Belt” districts mentioned above. He is another incumbent who could face a real challenge next year after coasting the past few cycles.
Overall, demographics help explain why these districts moved toward Trump in 2016: All but two of the districts on this list either have lower-than-average minority populations or lower-than-average numbers of college graduates — the exceptions were HI-1 (Colleen Hanabusa) and NJ-6 (Frank Pallone). The absence of favorite son Barack Obama from the Democratic ticket probably explains Clinton’s big drop-offs in both Hawaii districts (she still easily won both districts and the state as a whole). Trump’s improvement on Romney in Pallone’s affluent, diverse, and highly-educated district is a little harder to explain — Democratic performance there might have been overinflated in 2012 because some of the district’s Republican areas were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy just prior to that election — although Clinton’s overall 16-point win doesn’t indicate the district really is in play. Another fluky “district” on this list is Vermont’s statewide at-large seat, held by Rep. Peter Welch (D). Clinton ran 10 points behind Obama in lily white and highly-educated Vermont, but Trump also did slightly worse than Romney — the rest of the votes went to third-party candidates, including home-state Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won 6% of the state’s votes as a write-in.
Ultimately, Republicans might pick a handful of these districts to run well-funded challenges in 2018, particularly the ones in the Trump Belt that the president carried last year. If they could pick off one or more of them — and if any of the incumbents retire from a Trump-won district, that becomes a very real possibility — it would insulate them from potential losses elsewhere.
Just because the presidential results swung so wildly in so many congressional districts does not necessarily mean that the incumbents in those seats will truly be vulnerable in 2018 or beyond. Incumbency is still quite helpful in winning elections, and the 2016 election — which featured two unpopular presidential candidates and a Republican, in President Trump, who was massively different, at least in terms of style, from previous GOP nominees — might be something of an outlier that doesn’t truly translate down the ballot.
But as the two parties sort out their targets for 2018, they’ll be intently studying many of the districts on the two lists above, and also the districts where their party’s presidential candidate won but the other party holds the seat.
Earlier this week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a preliminary list of targeted districts, and 17 of the 37 districts listed in Table 1 were included. Some of them were districts where the Democrats spent a lot of money in 2016 and would obviously try again in 2018, like CA-49, CO-6, VA-10, and others. But some of the other targets are districts that Democrats haven’t paid much attention to in recent cycles, like CA-39, CA-45, TX-7, TX-32 and — yes — GA-6, where there could be a special election if Price is confirmed as secretary of Health and Human Services.
We’re a long way away from knowing which districts will get the most attention in 2018, but if the DCCC’s early list is any indication, the changes in the presidential results are prompting Democrats to consider new places to play offense. And we suspect the National Republican Congressional Committee will be targeting some new turf in 2018, too, spurred on by the shifting politics in many districts across the country.