Sabatos Crystal Ball

The House: Ratings Changes in the Aftermath of Another Nail-Biter Special Election

GOP likely holds on in OH-12, but narrow result and other developments Tuesday reinforce positive Democratic trends

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball August 9th, 2018

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— A likely GOP win in a suburban Columbus House seat still represents a significant underperformance compared to usual Republican performances there.

— Washington state’s top-two primary results so far should also be concerning to Republicans because they indicate three districts could be at risk in the fall.

— We are moving a handful of House races toward the Democrats, and we continue to see Democrats as “soft favorites” in the House.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

Member/District Old Rating New Rating
Kevin Yoder (R, KS-3) Leans Republican Toss-up
MI-11 Open (Trott, R) Toss-up Leans Democratic
NJ-11 Open (Frelinghuysen, R) Toss-up Leans Democratic
Chris Collins (R, NY-27) Safe Republican Likely Republican
Lamb vs. Rothfus (PA-17) Toss-up Leans Democratic
PA-7 Open (Dent, R) Toss-up Leans Democratic
J. Herrera Beutler (R, WA-3) Safe Republican Leans Republican
C. McMorris Rodgers (R, WA-5) Leans Republican Toss-up

Tuesday results consistent with what we’ve seen throughout the cycle

Is there such a thing as a moral victory in politics? Democrats hope so in OH-12.

While the race remains uncalled, it appears as though state Sen. Troy Balderson (R) will squeak by Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor (D) in a closely-watched special election in this traditionally Republican district that covers the northern Columbus suburbs and several more rural counties. President Trump won the affluent, highly-educated district by a shade under a dozen points. Balderson currently leads by a little under a full percentage point, a margin that likely will narrow a bit once provisional ballots and absentee votes are fully tallied. We do not expect Balderson will lose his lead.

The results are in keeping with the bulk of the other federal and state-level special elections this cycle: When it’s all said and done, O’Connor will have run roughly 10 points ahead of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 margin. Turnout was once again strong for a special election, with a little over 200,000 votes cast, just a little bit behind the roughly 220,000 votes cast in this district’s House race in 2014. Turnout should be higher in the fall, which might help Balderson in his rematch with O’Connor, given that Balderson’s more rural base didn’t vote at the rate that O’Connor’s more suburban/urban base did, as analyst Henry Olsen astutely noted Tuesday night. OH-12 was similar to the PA-18 special, which now-Rep. Conor Lamb (D) narrowly won in March, in that both Democrats were powered by very strong performances in the parts of their districts closest to their respective big cities (Pittsburgh for Lamb, Columbus for O’Connor). Lamb barely won, O’Connor (seemingly) barely lost, but the patterns are similar, as the New York Times’ maps from each election helpfully illustrate.

We’ll reassess our Toss-up rating of OH-12 once Balderson officially wins (assuming he does). Our plan before the election was to move OH-12 to Leans Republican if Balderson won, but the outcome is so close that it may be better rated as a Toss-up.

One important thing to remember about OH-12, and all specials, is that it is an open seat, and therefore there’s no incumbency advantage there. So it may not be fair to compare an open seat to one held by an incumbent, and the OH-12 result does not suggest that every Republican who holds a seat that Trump won by 11 or less is in a Toss-up race (many will be, though, in this kind of environment). Additionally, Democrats should gain ground in several open seats that are less Republican than OH-12.

One prime Democratic pickup opportunity is in Michigan, where former Obama administration auto bailout official Haley Stevens (D) will face businesswoman Lena Epstein (R) in an affluent, suburban, and traditionally Republican district that Trump won by about 4.5 points (slightly worse than Mitt Romney’s 2012 showing there). If Democrats can come extremely close in a district like OH-12, in this environment they probably are at least slightly favored in a less Republican open seat like MI-11. We’re moving MI-11 from Toss-up to Leans Democratic, although Stevens needs to improve her fundraising because Epstein can self-fund to some degree. Now that Stevens has emerged from a crowded field she should be able to do that. We’re doing the same in the open NJ-11, another affluent, highly educated seat that is traditionally Republican but Trump barely won. Former federal prosecutor and Navy helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill (D) has a major leg up on state Assemblyman Jay Webber (R) on the fundraising front, although a Monmouth University poll from late June showed the race as close.

We’re also making the Toss-up to Leans Democratic shift in another suburban seat, PA-17, where two incumbents, Lamb and Rep. Keith Rothfus (R), will face off after redistricting changed the Keystone State map earlier this year. This district only voted for Trump by a couple of points, making it far less Republican than the district Lamb won earlier this year, and Lamb comfortably led Rothfus in a recent poll from Monmouth. Staying in Pennsylvania, we’re moving PA-7, a new, open seat in the Lehigh Valley that Hillary Clinton narrowly carried, to Leans Democratic as well. Former Allentown Solicitor Susan Wild (D) has strongly outraised Lehigh County Commissioner Marty Nothstein (R), a former Olympic gold medalist, in the PA-7 race.

Democrats appeared to get a bit more encouraging news after many on the East Coast were already in bed. Like California, Washington state uses a top-two primary system, meaning that all candidates run together on the same ballot in the primary and the top two finishers advance to a runoff. The two-party results can offer a preview of the fall, and analysts such as Nate Cohn and Sean Trende have noted that the November results usually get a little more Democratic.

If that happens, three of the state’s four Republican members of Congress could be in trouble. While some votes remain to be tabulated, the bulk are already in (1.2 million counted and about 321,000 to go as of Wednesday night according to the most recent update from the Washington secretary of state, although that number of uncounted ballots could rise with more mail ballots trickling in), and the two-party vote totals, at least initially, suggest some openings for Democrats.

In WA-8, a Toss-up open seat Clinton narrowly carried in 2016, frequent candidate Dino Rossi (a Republican who has lost a few very competitive statewide races) and a few minor Republicans on the ballot combined for 48% of the two-party vote, meaning the Democrats won 52% so far. Kim Schrier (D), a physician, narrowly leads in the race to face Rossi. This was and is a Toss-up, but the experienced and well-funded Rossi looked to us like one of the best bets on the GOP side to hold a Clinton-won open seat. These results call that assessment into question.

In Eastern Washington, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R, WA-5) has seemed like a small favorite over former state Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D) in a Republican-leaning seat (Trump won it by a dozen points) that features two well-funded candidates. Yet the two-party vote, a close 52% to 48% spread in favor of McMorris Rodgers and a couple of minor Republicans, is more suggestive of a Toss-up, particularly if Democrats do indeed improve in the fall. We’re moving WA-5 from Leans Republican to Toss-up in what very well could be a marquee race. This is effectively the same district that then-House Speaker Tom Foley (D) lost to George Nethercutt (R) as part of the 1994 Republican Revolution. Republicans might argue that an independent running as a “Trump Populist” should be counted in the GOP share. If so, the two-party vote would be 53.2%-46.8%%. That’s still close enough, to us, to merit a Toss-up rating for now. The McMorris Rodgers camp also argues that the remaining votes favor Republicans and that the GOP two-party share will rise as the vote is finalized. If that happens, we may reassess this move.

Finally, in WA-3, Democratic and Republican vote totals were basically split down the middle in a district where Rep. Jamie Herrera Beutler (R) seemed safe. We’ll have to see how Carolyn Long (D), a political science professor, performs in the fall, but this race seems much more competitive than we previously thought. We’re going to shift our rating in WA-3 dramatically, from Safe Republican to Leans Republican, and Toss-up may be warranted eventually.

One key question: Did Democrats, because of their now-ravenous base, get their usual primary-to-general turnout bump now, or is there another coming in the fall? This is important for both California and Washington when assessing the all-party primary results, two states where Democrats would like to net multiple House seats (particularly California).

We have a couple of other shifts related to new developments. In KS-3, a suburban Kansas City seat that Clinton carried by a tiny margin, Democrats picked Sharice Davids, an attorney, as their nominee in a crowded primary over a Bernie Sanders-backed candidate, Brent Welder (D), whom the GOP seemed to want to face. Davids, who could be the first Native American woman elected to Congress, will face Rep. Kevin Yoder (R) in the fall. KS-3 moves from Leans Republican to Toss-up. Finally, the FBI arrested Rep. Chris Collins (R, NY-27) Wednesday morning on accusations of insider trading. His district is the most Republican in New York state — Trump carried it by 25 points — but Collins only narrowly won it in 2012 against now-Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), and his arrest introduces a potentially major complicating factor in his race. We’re moving NY-27 from Safe Republican to Likely Republican as we await further developments.

The Democrats now have 203 seats at least leaning to them, the Republicans have 198 at least leaning to them, and there are 34 Toss-ups. Based on our current ratings, the Democrats no longer have to win a majority of the Toss-ups to win the House — 15 of 34 would now do the trick — although Republicans hope that some of our Leans Democratic seats are rated too bearishly for their side. There is always a chance that something could happen to change the current dynamic, but nothing that happened Tuesday night suggested that the pro-Democratic trend we’ve seen throughout the cycle is eroding. The election is less than three months away now.