Sabato's Crystal Ball

Projection: Republicans Will Hold the House

Kyle Kondik, House Editor October 25th, 2012

While there will be major shifts in the House delegations of many states on Election Day, and while more than a handful of incumbents appear likely to lose, the total change in each party’s net total of House seats will probably not be large. That means it’s good to be the Republicans, who already hold a big edge in the House — an edge that we project them to keep. The Crystal Ball can now project that the Republicans will retain their House majority, although we suspect it will be at least a bit smaller than their current 25-seat edge.

While we have been saying the Republicans were heavy favorites in the House for months, this is the first time we’ve said definitively that they will keep the majority. Given the topsy-turvy presidential race, it appeared in mid-September that President Obama was building a lead that might actually, through his coattails, put the House in play. But after the presidential race returned to its achingly close state, it’s become clear that while individual races are fluctuating, there’s not a clear wave building for either side.

We will continue to update our ratings until the Monday before Election Day, and it remains possible that Democrats will add a handful of seats to their total, or that Republicans will further limit Democratic gains. A net Republican gain is not impossible, nor is a significant Democratic gain in the double digits.

Our modest projected gain for the Democrats is pretty similar to our first hard guess as to the net change in the House this cycle — on July 12, we said Democrats would pick up six seats; today, we’re saying Democrats plus five. If Democrats do in fact net five seats, that would make the House 237 Republican to 198 Democratic.

Tilting the toss-ups

The Crystal Ball calls every single race in the country before Election Day, so we are eliminating all of our House toss-ups in this update. By chance, we believe that these 14 races split exactly down the middle: Democrats are now favored in seven of the toss-ups, and Republicans are favored in seven.

Chart 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes

Some of these rating changes are bolstered by recent polling — for instance, Rep. Nan Hayworth (R, NY-18) was up seven points (49%-42%) in a recent Siena survey, which in addition to what we’re hearing about the race tells us that Hayworth is a small favorite over her opponent, former Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer aide Sean Patrick Maloney (D). Meanwhile, Rep. Chip Cravaack (R, MN-8) was down seven points (50%-43%) to ex-Rep. Rick Nolan (D) in a Minneapolis Star Tribune poll released earlier this week. Are these polls perfect? No. We don’t believe Nolan is up seven points, and neither does his campaign. But our hunch before the poll came out was that Nolan was leading in this ancestrally Democratic district, and the poll helped to reinforce that. A strong Obama tide in New York could wipe Hayworth away, while Nolan’s lack of money — Cravaack had more than double Nolan’s cash on hand in the most recent Federal Elections Commission reports — could prove problematic for the challenger.

New Hampshire’s schizophrenic politics makes deciphering elections there quite difficult, and the very close presidential and gubernatorial races are providing little top-of-the-ticket evidence of a partisan lean one way or the other in the Granite State. For most of the cycle, it has appeared that Rep. Charlie Bass (R, NH-2) was in worse shape than Rep. Frank Guinta (R, NH-1), and that in addition to the district fundamentals (Bass’s district is more Democratic than the first) is why we favor Bass to lose to Ann McLane Kuster (D) but Guinta to hang on against ex-Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D). We’re similarly splitting the baby in the Illinois 12th and 13th districts, two downstate open seats. Perhaps oddly, it appears that Democrats might have a small edge in the Republican-held seat (IL-13), while Republicans might have a similarly tiny lead in the Democrat-held seat (IL-12).

If there is one state where Republican House chances appear to be slipping, it’s in heavily Democratic California, which is why we’ve added Reps. Dan Lungren (R, CA-7) and Jeff Denham (R, CA-10) to Rep. Brian Bilbray (R, CA-52) in the “leans Democratic” column, meaning we believe all three incumbents are underdogs in their battles to return to Congress. The television air war in all three districts has been fierce; these districts occupy three of the top six slots on the list of total spending by outside groups according to the Los Angeles Times. By this time next week, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R, CA-36) might join them in the endangered column.

Our ratings have Democrats gaining four net seats out of California along with four out of Illinois. The state where Republicans should pick up the most net seats is North Carolina — the main question seems to be whether they gain three or four. For now, we say three. Rep. Mike McIntyre (D, NC-7) is, we believe, a slight favorite to hold on against state Sen. David Rouzer (R). McIntyre has run ads emphasizing his conservatism, and while the district is heavily Republican, his message seems to be getting through. This is another district with heavy outside spending — the eighth highest in the nation, with more than $5 million combined spent by Democratic and Republican groups.

Reps. Allen West (R, FL-18) and Mike Coffman (R, CO-6) have said some impolitic things this year — West has called some Democratic members of Congress “communists” and Coffman has made some birther comments — and they both reside in districts President Obama won in 2008. So they should both be goners, right? Well, not necessarily; the president’s weaknesses in both Colorado and Florida might be enough to push the incumbents over the finish line; they’ve also been helped by somewhat lackluster opponents. Patrick Murphy (D, FL-18) is a little green, and West socked him with a devastating ad about a bar fight Murphy got into when he was 19; meanwhile, it took Joe Miklosi (D, CO-6) awhile to get his fundraising going, and while he had a strong third quarter (July through September), he’s only got about $128,000 cash on hand, compared to Coffman’s more than $1.1 million. Forced to make choices in these districts, we’ll stick with the Republican incumbents.

In NY-27, there’s little question that 2011 special election winner Rep. Kathy Hochul (D) is a better candidate than ex-Erie County Executive Chris Collins (R). But this Western New York district is the most Republican in the state, and even though the race is tied — 47% to 47% in a recent Siena poll — it just seems like Collins, as the Republican, has a clearer path to victory, even though Hochul has a three-quarters of a million dollar cash-on-hand advantage over Collins and an appealing personal style. But sometimes the district fundamentals are just too tough, and this is territory where President Obama only got 44% of the vote in 2008.

The gigantic TX-23 is perhaps one of the hardest races to call in the country; dueling internal polls from September tell us very little — a Republican poll had incumbent Rep. Quico Canseco (R) up 10 points and a Democratic poll had challenger state Rep. Pete Gallego (D) up five. When push comes to shove, a few basic factors seem to argue in favor of the incumbent: one is that he is the incumbent (that counts for a lot, as we lay out below), and another is that he has much more cash on hand for the stretch run — nearly $1.1 million, compared to about $115,000 for Gallego (although both candidates are getting air cover from outside groups). Also salient is that Canseco is from San Antonio, while Gallego is from a more sparsely populated part of the district in the state’s Western Panhandle. Gallego overcame a geographic disadvantage in his runoff primary victory against ex-Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D), so he could do it against Canseco too, but barring new information, it makes more sense to go with the incumbent in this coin flip race.

Finally, OH-16 — another coin flip contest that has seen the third-most outside spending of any race in the country — is a member vs. member race pitting Rep. Jim Renacci (R) against Rep. Betty Sutton (D) in Republican-leaning turf. All the polls we’ve seen have shown the race as effectively a tie, but we’re hearing that Renacci is having some trouble in the new parts of this redrawn district, particularly in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland). If Obama wins Ohio, he might be able to help Sutton get across the finish line. Given that we currently still see Obama as a small favorite in the Buckeye State, it’s logical to consider Sutton a favorite too. If Sutton wins, it will be a minor embarrassment to Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Columbus Republicans, whose district remap was designed to guarantee a 12-4 Republican delegation in the Buckeye State; if Sutton wins, it will be 11-5 Republican. One interesting tea leaf: Renacci recently pulled his ads from broadcast television, opting instead for cable. Is that a sign of surrender (as Democrats argue), or just a strategic calculation (as Renacci’s camp argues)? Hard to say.

There are a few other rating changes. We believe Reps. Mike Fitzpatrick (R, PA-8) and Mike Grimm (R, NY-11) are moving out of harm’s way, and that libertarian Rep. Justin Amash (R, MI-3) might be in a tightening race against ex-state Rep. Steve Pestka (D). We also mentioned last week that ex-Rep. Nick Lampson (D) might be making some waves against state Rep. Randy Weber in TX-14 (Ron Paul is retiring), and now we’re adding the race to our ratings.

With those changes, here is our redesigned House ratings chart:

Chart 2: Updated Crystal Ball House ratings

We will continue to tweak our ratings up until the Monday before the election. In addition to the old “toss-up” races, there are some other races that remain highly competitive. On the Democratic side, Reps. Mark Critz (D, PA-12) and Ben Chandler (D, KY-6) occupy districts where Republicans are bullish about their chances, and there are a number of races, particularly in Arizona, California and Illinois, where our current calls may be too optimistic for Democrats. Meanwhile, Reps. John Barrow (D, GA-12) and Jim Matheson (D, UT-4)* could very well end up surviving, even though we list them as incumbent underdogs, and also keep an eye on the Colorado, Iowa and New York races listed in the leans Republican column. Overall, there are plenty of squishy seats for both parties in both leaning columns.

An anti-incumbent election? Not really

Note that in Chart 2 there is a smattering of light red in the Democratic column and light blue in the Republican column. Those are the seats where we favor a party takeover. While Democrats appear poised to knock off significantly more Republican incumbents — 14 — the GOP also will get its licks in and defeat at least a handful of Democratic incumbents (currently six).

If those numbers hold, it would be a relatively rare occurrence for at least six incumbents from each party to lose in a general election. Going back to 1954 — the furthest back Vital Statistics on American Politics goes on this subject — in only three of 29 elections did that many incumbents from both parties lose to challengers from the other party in the general. Perhaps this year will mirror 1992, which also was a redistricting year: 16 Democratic and eight Republican incumbents were defeated by the other party.

Using Roll Call’s handy “casualty list,” there are 50 House members who, for one reason or another — running for higher office, retirement, etc. — did not attempt to run for reelection to the House this year. Six were replaced in special elections; one of those special election victors — Rep. Bob Turner (R, NY-9) — opted not to run for reelection. That means that 390 incumbents sought reelection to the House in this year’s primary and general elections.

We currently project 20 incumbents to lose in competitive districts, and 13 were already defeated in primaries (eight of those members lost to other members of Congress); additionally, at least three other incumbents will lose because of intra-party battles on Election Day: the losers of the races in CA-30 (Democratic Reps. Howard Berman vs. Brad Sherman), CA-44 (Democratic Reps. Janice Hahn vs. Laura Richardson) and LA-3 (Republican Reps. Charles Boustany vs. Jeff Landry). Plus, there are three other California incumbents running against members of their own party in various degrees of danger: Reps. Joe Baca (D, CA-35), Gary Miller (R, CA-31) and Pete Stark (D, CA-15).

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that those three California representatives lose (it would be stunning if all three actually did; Stark is probably in the most trouble of the three): That would mean that 39 of 390 incumbents who sought reelection were defeated this cycle; put another way, 90% of incumbents seeking reelection would win. That’s slightly lower than the postwar norm — in the 33 elections since World War II, an average of 92.4% of incumbents seeking reelection to the House were reelected — but decennial redistricting, in addition to California’s new “top-two” primary that can pit two members of the same party against each other in a general election, can explain a lot of those incumbent losses in both the primary and the general. Overall, it doesn’t look like 2012 will be much of an “anti-incumbent” year in the House. Roughly nine in 10 members who wanted to return to the House probably will, and extenuating circumstances — not true anti-incumbent sentiments by voters — can explain many of the incumbent losses.

Conclusion

About a month ago, we said we wanted to see where the House generic ballot went in the election’s last month; the generic ballot is a national poll question that asks respondents whether they will vote for a Democrat or a Republican in their local House race, and if one party has a big edge it could be indicative of major gains. When we wrote that on Sept. 20, Democrats had a 2.2 percentage point edge on that question; as of Wednesday afternoon, Democrats held just a 0.2 point edge. At this point in 2010, Republicans were up 7.7 points on the generic ballot; in 2006 and 2008, Democrats were up a whopping 16.8 points and 9.5 points, respectively.

Democrats need a big wave to capture the House: If Democrats were to win all the races that at least lean to them and ALL the leans Republican seats, they would have 220 House seats, or two more than a bare majority. Democrats nearly sweeping all the leans Republican seats is possible, but not plausible, especially with no lift from the generic ballot — or, it appears, from the top of the ticket. There will be plenty of drama in individual House races across the country, and there are a range of potential outcomes. But we believe that Democratic control of the House is no longer one of them.

*In the interest of full disclosure, U.Va. Center for Politics director Larry Sabato does not rate races that involve members of the Matheson family; these ratings are left to other members of the Crystal Ball team. Sabato and the Mathesons have been close friends for 36 years, pre-dating the political careers of U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT) and 2004 gubernatorial candidate Scott Matheson (D), now a United States appellate judge. In his only federal political donations ever, Sabato gave $500 to Jim Matheson on May 21, 1999, and donated two separate $500 (total $1,000) gifts to Scott Matheson on Aug. 18, 2003 and Sept. 9, 2004. This disclosure is in accordance with Crystal Ball policy.