Sabato's Crystal Ball

House 2014: Calling the Toss-Ups, Take 1

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball October 30th, 2014


Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the House campaign are fretting.

The elephants worry that they have not clearly put away any single Democratic House incumbent — which is true — and that they are going to underperform, not just by a seat or two, the goal of winning 245 seats set by National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R, OR-2). A 245-seat House Republican majority would require the party to net 11 seats.

Meanwhile, the donkeys are alarmed at a gradually expanding map of vulnerable seats that require outside help — this is also true — and a deteriorating national environment that could see a larger-than-expected number of seats slip away. That means losses in the double digits and potentially the biggest House Republican majority since before the Great Depression (247 Republican seats, or a GOP gain of 13).

To be fair, there’s probably some expectations-setting going on by operatives on both sides: Given all the legitimate uncertainty, there’s a natural inclination to downplay one’s chances in order to more credibly claim that expectations have been beaten on Election Day.

Here’s what we know, or think we know: Democrats will not net seats this year. If they did, it would be only the fourth time in 39 midterms held since the Civil War that the party controlling the White House gained ground in the House. The only exceptions were President Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats in 1934, President Bill Clinton’s Democrats in 1998, and President George W. Bush’s Republicans in 2002: Those were special circumstances brought on by a Great Depression, a great economy and Republican overreach, and a reaction to Sept. 11 and impending war.

No such special factors exist this year. President Obama is unpopular and the electorate tilts red. Republicans lead on the House generic ballot nationally by about two or three points, a smaller lead than they enjoyed in 2010 (high single digits in averages) but still sufficient to provide them a national push to make gains.

How many? To determine that, one has to go seat by seat.

Unlike in Senate and gubernatorial races, there is not much credible public polling to go by, and because all House polling is inherently so unpredictable — sample sizes are small, voters are less familiar with the candidates, etc. — the party internals are far from perfect. These races can also break late, particularly in a year when one party has the advantage, as the Republicans do this year.

In many of the closest races, a flip of a coin might give a handicapper a better chance of being right than heeding the expert opinion of top operatives speaking candidly. That’s not an insult to the operatives, whose off-the-record comments have greatly informed our thinking on these races: Rather, it’s just a nod to how difficult it is to confidently and accurately predict individual House contests. For partisans, hope sometimes colors judgment.

With all that said — we’re going to try to pick them all, anyway.

This week, we’re removing all the Toss-ups from our House ratings. We will adjust these ratings over the weekend and offer our final, best guesses on Monday.

Last week, we had 15 Toss-ups. As befitting the Republican tint of this midterm, most of them — 11 — now Lean Republican. Between that and other tweaks, we’re setting Republican net House gains at nine, on the high end of the range of expected gains we’ve had for the past few weeks (six to nine). Take a look at the two tables below: The first highlights the 22 ratings changes we’re making this week, and the second shows the current ratings in all the seats we see as at least moderately competitive. This obviously does not include the 211 Republican and 166 Democratic seats we view as Safe. Readers who do not see their House district listed below can find ratings for all 435 House seats on the Crystal Ball website.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

Table 2: Crystal Ball House ratings

Note: Seats where we are projecting the incumbent party to lose are in bold.

In order to better explain these ratings, let’s split them into three categories: The Endangered, the Survivors, and the Favorites.

The Endangered

This list includes the 15 seats listed in bold in the table: These are the seats that we’re picking to change parties. We have three Republican seats going from red to blue, and 12 Democratic seats going from blue to red: That’s how we get the nine-seat GOP gain.

Let’s start with the shorter list, the Democratic gains.

Democrats have long considered CA-31, the seat of retiring Rep. Gary Miller (R) and the most Democratic district held by any Republican, their best pickup opportunity. The reason Republicans hold it is fluky: Miller and another Republican advanced to the state’s top-two primary in 2012, which meant voters couldn’t vote for a Democrat in the fall. The same fate almost befell Pete Aguilar (D) this spring, but he advanced to the general election and looks good on Tuesday.

Picking against any Republican incumbents in a year like this might be foolhardy, but we see two as being in deep trouble: Reps. Lee Terry (R, NE-2) and Steve Southerland (R, FL-2).

Terry’s problems are largely self-inflicted, Southerland’s just partially. Voters in Terry’s Omaha-based district might just be sick of him after so many years and so many gaffes, most recently his insistence on being paid during the shutdown. State Sen. Brad Ashford (D) could be the beneficiary; interestingly, the Democrats had a prized recruit who later backed out of the race, and they very well might win the seat anyway in a bad year for Democrats.

Southerland, meanwhile, has also made some silly mistakes, but he faces a very strong challenger in Gwen Graham (D), daughter of former Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL).

Of the two, we think Terry is slightly likelier to lose than Southerland, and our sources on both sides of the aisle generally agree. Mitt Romney won both districts in 2012, though, so partisanship could save the incumbents.

On to the endangered Democratic seats.

NC-7, the seat now held by retiring Rep. Mike McIntyre (D), is a cinch for Republicans. So too, hypothetically, is UT-4, the seat held by retiring Rep. Jim Matheson (D). But something funny might be going on in Utah: Local pollsters are picking up signs that Mia Love (R), who barely lost to Matheson in 2012, is struggling. She’s still a heavy favorite to win, but we’re leaving a window cracked for Doug Owens (D) to pull off an absolute stunner. Another Democratic Owens, Rep. Bill, is retiring from NY-21, and Elise Stefanik (R) looks likely to win it. That could be just the start of a big night for Republicans in New York: Several Democratic incumbents are in trouble, and the one likeliest to lose is probably Rep. Tim Bishop (D, NY-1), who may finally falter in his bid to retain a quintessential swing seat on Long Island.

We have long said that Rep. Nick Rahall (D, WV-3) is in deep trouble, and we continue to believe that he is the most endangered Democratic House incumbent in the country. Right behind him is Rep. Bill Enyart (D, IL-12), whose southern Illinois seat is trending GOP.

It just goes to show what an odd House election this is that Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D, AZ-1) and Carol Shea-Porter (D, NH-1) are still very much alive. Both lost as incumbents in 2010 but then won in 2012, both occupy districts that are slightly more Republican than the nation as a whole, and both have long seemed like they’d be among the first Democratic incumbents to fall this year. And yet, some Republicans and Democrats we’ve talked to seem to believe they retain at least narrow leads in the polls. Both have been blessed by weak opposition: former Rep. Frank Guinta (R, NH-1) is unpopular from his previous stint in the House, and Arizona state House Speaker Andy Tobin (R) barely won his late primary.

That said, we still think that if Republicans are winning more than a half-dozen House seats nationally, they just have to end up winning these seats. But we don’t feel confident about it, and the incumbents are welcome to lord it over us if they hang on.

Republicans are targeting a number of House seats in California, where turnout will probably be poor because there is no Senate race and Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA) is saving his war chest as he coasts to an easy win. Outside GOP groups are spending all over the state, and they’ve dumped a boatload of money into the district of Rep. Ami Bera (D, CA-7). We think Republicans win at least one Democratic seat in the Golden State, and Bera’s seems the likeliest at this point.

Democrats hope that some ill-advised comments about Medicare and Social Security — Republicans really need to retire the term “Ponzi scheme” from their vocabulary — will sink Carlo Curbelo (R) in his challenge to Rep. Joe Garcia (D, FL-26), but Garcia has problems of his own.

Finally, Reps. Brad Schneider (D, IL-10) and Rick Nolan (D, MN-8) are perhaps the best bets to survive on this list, but strong challengers could very well do them in, even on Democratic turf.

The Survivors

This is a longer list: the competitive seats where we believe the incumbent party has a slight edge. Let’s start with the Republicans.

Despite a likely statewide sweep, Republicans are sweating two open seats in Arkansas: AR-2 and AR-4, held, respectively, by Reps. Tim Griffin (R) and Tom Cotton (R), both of whom are running for statewide office. Of the two, AR-2 is much likelier to flip.

AR-2 is similar to another quite close Republican-held open seat, WV-2, currently held by future Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R). Both are Republican at the presidential level, but Democrats have much better candidates in each, and both districts are much more open to backing Democratic House candidates than presidential ones. But, given Obama’s high negatives in these districts and states, we just have a really hard time picking any Democrat to win these districts. However, if we ultimately pick the Democrats to win any more Republican-held seats, these are probably the ones.

In the right year, Democrats will have a fair to good chance to win NJ-3, held by retiring Rep. Jon Runyan (R), and VA-10, held by retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R). But this just doesn’t seem like that year. Similarly, Rep. Mike Coffman (R, CO-6) will always have to fight hard for reelection, but he should be OK this time. In all these seats, check back in 2016.

And, finally, there’s indicted Rep. Michael Grimm (R, NY-11). We can’t believe we’re doing it, but we think he hangs on, a potentially embarrassing outcome for the Democratic outside groups who poured millions of largely unanswered dollars into the race — and for Republicans, if the indictment leads to a conviction. Staten Island just seems to love their guy, even if he eventually gets sent up the river.

The state of Iowa transitions us from the Republican seats to the Democratic seats on this list. If Democrats are struggling to retain the open IA-1, held by Senate candidate Bruce Braley (D), and the seat of Rep. Dave Loebsack (D, IA-2), then how can they be expected to take over the open IA-3, held by retiring Rep. Tom Latham (R), which is less Democratic? Of the four seats in Iowa, we think Democrats are narrowly favored to hold their own seats, IA-1 and IA-2, but that Republicans are positioned to hold on to IA-3 (the other seat, IA-4, is held by Safe Republican Rep. Steve King). Of all these seats, we can most easily imagine switching IA-1 to the Republicans in our final update, which has become an out-and-out dogfight despite being several points more Democratic than the state as a whole.

After a very close shave against Martha McSally (R) in 2012, Rep. Ron Barber (D, AZ-2) looked like a sure goner in a 2014 rematch. But he’s been resilient, and he probably has a slightly better chance to hold on than Kirkpatrick, the other very vulnerable Arizona House incumbent.

As noted above, Republicans could have a very good night in California, but as it stands we see several Democratic incumbents hanging tough: Reps. Julia Brownley (CA-26), Scott Peters (CA-52), and Raul Ruiz (CA-36). Of these three, Ruiz is in by far the best position, but we list him here as a precaution in case turnout is very poor, which hypothetically could threaten him. The other two could easily lose, but Brownley is probably in a better position than Peters.

If they survive, veteran Reps. John Barrow (D, GA-12) and Collin Peterson (D, MN-7) might hold the two most Republican districts held by any Democrat in the next Congress. But if time runs out on either this year, Barrow likely falls before Peterson. And slightly likelier to lose than either of the veterans is freshman Rep. Pete Gallego (D, TX-23), another red district Democrat. If they all hold on, their reward is either retirement on their own terms or another tough race in two years.

Rep. Ann Kuster (D, NH-2) is not going to win by 23 points, as a Granite State poll showed this week. But she should be OK.

Democrats and Republicans disagree about the competitiveness of the open MA-6, where Seth Moulton (D) defeated Rep. John Tierney (D) in a primary for the right to face 2012 nominee Richard Tisei (R). A Republican win would register as a mild surprise nonetheless. The same would go for the open ME-2, now held by gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud (D). The NRCC recently waved the white flag and cut its spending in this district despite close public polls.

Speaking of surprises, it would be a shock to us if former Rep. Charles Djou (R) won back HI-1, being vacated by defeated Senate candidate Colleen Hanabusa (D), given the district’s Democratic leanings, but stranger things have happened and the district was less Democratic on paper before favorite son Barack Obama won the presidency. Less shocking would be a late GOP upset of Rep. Steven Horsford (D, NV-4): Turnout in the Silver State is absolutely dreadful for Democrats, which is putting this seat on the table. Here’s another seat where we can easily imagine flipping our pick depending on what we find out over the weekend.

Finally, we mentioned that Republicans could have a big night in the Empire State. Reps. Dan Maffei (D, NY-24) and Sean Patrick Maloney (D, NY-18) should hang on, but both races are very, very tight.

The Favorites

We’re not going to linger on this category. However, keep an eye on Rep. David Valadao’s (R, CA-21) margin Tuesday night: He should be fine, but he occupies one of the most Democratic districts held by any Republican, and he might be the top target of Democrats to start next cycle, assuming he wins this year. Also, coming on to the list is Rep. Don Young (R, AK-AL), who often makes outrageous comments but might have really struck a critical nerve with his jaw-dropping set of insensitive remarks to a high school audience recently. Alaska’s heated Senate and gubernatorial races will almost definitely be closer than Young’s race, but we just wanted to flag it.

On the Democratic side, the seat of Rep. Lois Capps (D, CA-24) is a potentially late-breaking seat to watch: If Capps or any of the other Democrats listed in the Likely Democratic column loses, look out.


As noted before, these picks are not completely final, and we’ll adjust some on Monday.

If we manage to pick all of these correctly, it isn’t skill, it’s luck: Many were pure coin flips, to tell you the complete truth.

That said, we think a Republican gain of nine seats is about in the ballpark of what will happen on Election Night. Such a gain would put the GOP at 243 seats, or one more than the 242-seat majority the party won in 2010. This would be Speaker John Boehner’s biggest caucus, which would aid a House leadership team that often struggles to find a bare majority of 218 votes. It would also create an extra buffer for House Republicans to hold on to a majority in future years when the national winds are not blowing as strongly in their direction.