Sabato's Crystal Ball

House Update: Handful of Races Move Toward Democrats

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball August 11th, 2016

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In a recent meeting, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R, WI-1) warned donors that the GOP’s House majority might not be safe. Now, politicians don’t like to project overconfidence — just check your email for campaign fundraising pitches with subject lines like “the sky is falling” — but Ryan, who romped to victory in his primary on Tuesday, is also offering an accurate assessment. Republicans continue to be favored to hold the House, but there are signs that Democrats could make significant gains and even challenge for the majority itself.

This week we’re moving four House race ratings toward the Democrats (descriptions of those changes are below). That brings the overall House tally to 226 Safe/Likely/Leaning Republican seats, 193 Safe/Likely/Leaning Democratic seats, and 16 Toss-ups (14 of which are held by Republicans). The House is currently 247-188 Republican, so if one splits the Toss-ups eight apiece, the House would be 234-201 Republican, giving Democrats a net gain of 13 seats (and matching the makeup of the House following the 2012 election).

That squares with our current projection: a 10-15 seat Democratic gain, which even at the high end would still be just half of the 30 seats the Democrats need to win the House.

But Hillary Clinton’s big post-convention lead in the presidential race should concern House Republicans, because we’re starting to see Democrats creep up on the House generic ballot, the national polls that ask voters which party they are supporting in their local House race. For instance, the McClatchy-Marist national poll found Democrats up eight points on the question (in a national poll that also found Clinton leading by a probably-too-high 15 points). NBC News/Wall Street Journal had Clinton up nine and Democrats up four on their generic, although they ask the question differently — to paraphrase, “Which party do you want to control Congress?” instead of “Which party are you voting for in your district?” — two different questions that might not be directly comparable. Democrats actually lead by about seven points in the HuffPost Pollster generic ballot average, although only by three in the RealClearPolitics average (the former uses more polls, particularly online polls, than the latter). Democrats probably need to get to around +10 in these averages for the House to truly be in play.

Part of whether that happens is if Trump rebounds in the presidential race, or if he continues to stagnate. As it stands now, Clinton is polling better than Barack Obama did in 2012, and is up by about eight points in the national polling averages. Obama won by four nationally four years ago. A few months ago, we suggested that if Clinton improved by two points on Obama’s share of the two-party vote in every district — going from Obama’s 2012 52%-48% victory to something around 54%-46% over Trump nationally — Clinton would carry somewhere around 235 of the 435 House districts after Obama only won 211 under the current lines in 2012. That could give a lift to Democrats in some marginal districts, although Republicans will argue that many of their candidates should be able to outperform Trump.

One of the districts that Obama narrowly carried in 2012 where Clinton could easily improve upon his performance is MN-2, a suburban Twin Cities district. This district, held by retiring Rep. John Kline (R), has an above-average median income and number of college graduates, two indicators that the district might be a bit more resistant to Trump than districts with lower levels of income and education (Trump performs better amongst white non-college graduates). On Tuesday night, Republicans nominated Jason Lewis, a former talk radio host, as their nominee. Kline, as well as national Republicans, preferred the more establishment-oriented businesswoman Darlene Miller, but Lewis had more local support and won the primary easily. In person, Lewis does not come off as a brash radio host, but he has made a lot of controversial statements over the years that Democrats will use against him. Perhaps more importantly, he starts with a deep financial disadvantage against wealthy former health care executive Angie Craig (D), who has $1.8 million cash on hand compared with only about $110,000 for Lewis. Lewis argues that now that the primary is over, donors will flock to him, but we’ll see. The National Republican Congressional Committee was notably cool toward Lewis in a statement it released after his primary win, focusing instead on its argument that Craig is too liberal for the district.

Craig’s war chest, and Trump’s likely underperformance in MN-2, prompts us to push this district from Toss-up to Leans Democratic as the general election begins.

The presidential race could also provide a bit of a lift to Rep. Brad Ashford (D, NE-2). While Mitt Romney carried the district by seven points in 2012, Obama narrowly won it in 2008, and he got an electoral vote there for his troubles: Nebraska, like Maine, awards some of its electoral votes by congressional district. The Clinton campaign is focusing on the district, and while it’s unclear whether Clinton can win it, she should be able to do better than Obama did in 2012 (the district, like MN-2, is wealthier and better-educated than the national average, though the difference is less pronounced than in the Twin Cities seat). Ashford, who has carved out a moderate profile and is a rare Democrat endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, should be able to attract enough crossover support to run ahead of Clinton in NE-2.  So we’re moving this race from Toss-up to Leans Democratic as well.

Finally, there are two other seats we think merit some attention.

Trump should win IN-9, an open seat in south-central Indiana that Romney carried 57%-41% in 2012. But the region has a history, albeit a fading one, of supporting Democrats, and the Democrats’ gubernatorial and Senate candidates (John Gregg and Evan Bayh) should be more competitive in this district than Clinton. That could help 2012 nominee Shelli Yoder (D) against wealthy businessman Trey Hollingsworth (R), who parachuted into Indiana from Tennessee in the hopes of getting a House seat. Meanwhile, Democrats also are hopeful that businessman Jay Sidie (D) can push Rep. Kevin Yoder (R, KS-3) in a wealthy, educated metropolitan Kansas City seat. Trump may underperform in Kansas, and the Republican brand in Kansas is somewhat tarnished thanks to unpopular Gov. Sam Brownback (R) — a number of Brownback allies lost state legislative primaries last week as the state’s moderate GOP wing flexed its muscles (Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a conservative Republican, also lost his primary to a more moderate candidate in KS-1).

Both IN-9 and KS-3 move from Safe Republican to Likely Republican. If Democrats can truly compete in districts like these that might be a sign that the playing field is expanding and that the GOP majority is in real jeopardy. To be clear, we’re not there yet, but there’s still three months to go.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes