KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Tuesday’s episode of real-life Law and Order involving two figures close to the president, Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, may not directly hurt the GOP in the midterm. But given their current position, the Republicans need a little help, and Tuesday didn’t provide it.
— We are making 12 ratings changes; 10 in favor of Democrats, two in favor of Republicans.
Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings changes
Cohen, Manafort, and the dwindling electoral clock
Tuesday’s bombshell developments — the conviction of President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, followed in swift succession by a guilty plea from the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, that seemed to implicate the president in a scheme to skirt campaign finance laws — may very well not move the president’s approval rating. Previous developments related to Robert Mueller’s investigation of the 2016 campaign and Russian involvement really haven’t. But it would be wrong to look at what happened earlier this week and argue that the Cohen/Manafort news doesn’t mean anything to the battle for the House.
To us, it does. Not because this news changes the current trajectory of the House race, but because it doesn’t.
Previous negative stories about Trump related to the Mueller investigation haven’t moved the needle much because, in all likelihood, opinions about the president are so hardened. But they are hardened in a way that is poor for the president, and for his fellow Republicans. The president’s approval rating is stuck in the low-to-mid 40s. If one assumes that the president’s approval rating is perilously low for a party playing defense in a midterm — and we do — then consider these questions: Will Tuesday’s developments cause Trump’s approval rating to rise? Will these developments help Republican candidates focus on the issues they want to emphasize in their campaigns right now? Our sense is that the answer to both questions is no.
Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking toward Election Day. A month ago, when we installed the Democrats as favorites in the House, we noted how the electoral environment — Trump’s consistently weak approval rating, the usual midterm drag on the president’s party, and House generic ballot polling showing a Democratic lead in the mid-to-high single digits — has been largely stable throughout the cycle. Do Tuesday’s developments upset the enthusiasm advantage that Democrats appear to have and have demonstrated in most of the elections we’ve seen since the 2016 presidential election? We suppose it’s possible that the threat of impeachment could rally Trump’s core supporters, but a bigger problem for Trump and the Republicans than a motivation problem with their core supporters is a persuasion problem with soft Republicans in the suburbs who don’t like the president much and probably aren’t going to dislike him less after seeing key figures close to him on the wrong side of the law.
In other words, if one believes the Democrats are favored in the race for the House — and we do, although we don’t think the result is locked in concrete — then something in the political environment needs to change, in a positive way, for Republicans to regain the advantage. The Cohen/Manafort news was not that.
We have a number of House ratings changes to announce this week, although they don’t really change our overall assessment: We’d rather be the Democrats than the Republicans in the race for the House, but the overall picture is murky enough that it wouldn’t be shocking if Republicans held on to the majority, albeit with significantly reduced numbers.
We’ll get to those ratings changes below, but first let’s update the national state of play. After today’s changes, there are 205 seats rated Safe/Likely/Leans Democratic, 198 Safe/Likely/Leans Republican, and 32 Toss-ups, of which 30 are currently controlled by Republicans and two are currently controlled by Democrats.
In 2016, the Republicans won 241 House seats and the Democrats won 194. With 205 seats now at least leaning to the Democrats, that essentially means the floor for Democratic gains this year would be 11, and that’s assuming Republicans win every Toss-up, which we’re reasonably confident won’t happen. Realistically, a seat loss of between 15 to 20 seats would be a fabulous outcome for Republicans, because it would mean they would have kept the majority, which most observers see as at least somewhat unlikely at this point.
Let’s start with the three biggest moves, which push Toss-up races into the Leans column.
Despite voting for Trump by a dozen points, the open NC-9 has long looked like an attractive Democratic target. The district, which covers some of the Charlotte suburbs and extends east into more rural territory, has a weak incumbent, Rep. Robert Pittenger (R), who lost his primary to Mark Harris (R), a former pastor with a history of controversial comments, such as expressing the belief that wives should “submit” to their husbands. In a time where college-educated, suburban women are already revolting against Trump and Republicans, Harris seems like a poor fit for a suburban district with an above-average share of residents with a four-year college degree (a metric that is often a good shorthand for a district’s reticence about the president). Meanwhile, Democrats have a strong recruit in Marine veteran Dan McCready (D), who holds a huge six-to-one cash on hand advantage against Harris. We like McCready’s chances, so we’re moving this race from Toss-up to Leans Democratic.
In Washington state, we’re making two changes, one benefiting Republicans, the other Democrats.
A couple of weeks ago, we moved Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R, WA-5), the fourth-ranking member of House GOP leadership, from Leans Republican to Toss-up on account of top-two primary results that looked promising for former state Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D), McMorris’ very credible challenger. We noted at the time that Republicans said the numbers should improve for McMorris Rodgers and that, if they did, we would revisit. Well, they did, and we are. The top-two primary in Washington state can be predictive for the fall, and Democrats often do a little bit better in November. That said, the final two-party tally in WA-5 if one includes Brown, the only Democrat, plus McMorris Rodgers and a few other Republicans (including one candidate running as a “Trump Populist”) was 54.6%-45.4% Republican. Brown could make up that gap in the fall, but it would be a fairly large improvement in a district that is clearly right of center (Trump won it by 13 points) and that features a well-heeled incumbent.
Democrats argue that McMorris Rodgers has already thrown the kitchen sink at Brown, having so far outspent the Democratic challenger by a ratio approaching two to one. But McMorris Rodgers also has more cash on hand than Brown, and outside Republican groups will prioritize McMorris Rodgers if she is indeed in trouble because she’s in leadership. This is not to say Brown can’t win, but we were hasty in making this a Toss-up. We’re moving it back to Leans Republican.
Elsewhere in Washington state, the picture is brighter for Democrats. In the open WA-8, a district Hillary Clinton carried by three points, physician Kim Schrier (D) emerged from a crowded field to face Dino Rossi (R), who has lost three competitive statewide bids. Rossi is one of the best candidates Republicans have in an open seat, but seats like WA-8 — an open seat held by the presidential party that the other party’s presidential nominee carried two years earlier — have often flipped to the non-presidential party in recent midterms. The last such seat that didn’t was IA-2 all the way back in 1990, which voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988 and then narrowly elected a Republican in an open-seat race, according to Crystal Ball friend Scott Crass. The two-party vote in WA-8 was 51.7%-48.3% in favor of Democrats; is any Republican going to be able to improve on that enough to win in an open seat in an environment like this? Rossi certainly could, and he starts the general election with a significant resource advantage, but it’s hard to feel bullish about his chances at this point. WA-8 goes from Toss-up to Leans Democratic.
These moves clarify the overall battle for Washington state’s House delegation. Democrats hold a 6-4 edge and none of their current seats are in trouble. We now favor them in WA-8, and they have a shot at Leans Republican races in WA-5 and in WA-3, a Trump-won seat held by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R) where the two-party vote in the primary was a very competitive 50.9%-49.1% Republican.
A commonality between NC-9 and WA-8, the two seats we’re moving from Toss-up to Leans Democratic, is that they are open seats. Incumbency may not matter the way it used to — see Noah Rudnick’s piece in this week’s Crystal Ball for more on that — but open seats are still often the most vulnerable seats for both sides. As our ratings stand now, we favor Democrats outright in 13 Republican-held House seats, and all of them are open seats except for VA-10, where Rep. Barbara Comstock (R) is trying to hold on in a district Clinton won by 10 points, and PA-17, a newly-drawn district where Reps. Conor Lamb (D) and Keith Rothfus (R) are running against each other. The best GOP targets are also open seats: They are huge favorites to win PA-14, a more Republican-dominated version of the seat Lamb won in a close special election in March, and they have even odds in two Trump-won open seats held by Democrats, MN-1 and MN-8. Those who think we’re going overboard moving NC-9 to Leans Democratic — and maybe we are — should still consider that this cycle’s special elections, where Democrats have on average been running 11 points or so ahead of Clinton’s 2016 margin, are more comparable to open seats in November as opposed to ones defended by incumbents. If the NC-9 general election contest featured a GOP incumbent, we probably wouldn’t move it to Leans Democratic. But because it’s open, we are moving it, under the assumption that double-digit Trump-won open seats are not unwinnable for Democrats, particularly when the Democratic candidate benefits from a massive resource advantage and the Republican candidate has some liabilities he will need to overcome. If a seat like PA-18 can flip in a special election, a less Republican seat like NC-9 can flip in the fall, too.
We have nine other changes. In CA-50, Republicans are not defending an open seat, but they probably wish they were. Easy to miss amongst the Cohen/Manafort drama Tuesday was the indictment of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R, CA-50); he and his wife are accused of using campaign funds for personal use (and rather brazenly so, at least according to the indictment). CA-50 is a very Republican district — Trump won it by 15 points, and other Republicans have won it by a lot more in recent years — but based on California law it does not appear that Hunter can get off the ballot. National Democrats preferred former Navy SEAL Josh Butner (D) in the top-two primary, but former Obama administration official Ammar Campa-Najjar (D) advanced to the general election instead. Earlier this year, Campa-Najjar addressed a part of his family history: His grandfather was a Palestinian involved in the terrorist group Black September, which murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Campa-Najjar’s grandfather was killed by the Israelis in 1973 as part of a response to Munich, long before Campa-Najjar was born. We bring this up not because we think Campa-Najjar is responsible for his grandfather’s actions — he’s not — but because we’ve observed enough campaigns to know that this may come up in this race. Even under indictment, Hunter remains favored, but CA-50 moves from Safe Republican to Leans Republican. Republicans combined for more than 60% of the total vote in the June top-two primary, which shows what an uphill climb this district is for a Democrat, but the Hunter indictment puts into play a district that is otherwise a place where one would not expect Democrats to truly compete.
In New Jersey, a state where Republicans are already playing a lot of defense, we’ve been resistant to moving Rep. Tom MacArthur (R, NJ-3) from Leans Republican to Toss-up, but we’re going to go ahead and do it. A recent Monmouth University poll showed an effective tie in the race between MacArthur and former Obama administration official Andy Kim (D). Two things continue to work in MacArthur’s favor: 1.) NJ-3 was modified in such a way in the last round of redistricting that made it more Republican (Trump won it by about half a dozen points), and 2.) MacArthur is personally wealthy and can considerably self-fund (although Kim has been a dynamite fundraiser himself). On the other hand, MacArthur played a key role in getting the Republican Affordable Care Act alternative through the House (it died in the Senate), and Democrats will use that against him.
Illinois may end up being a rough state for Republicans this year given that businessman J.B. Pritzker (D) appears to hold a decent-sized lead over incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner (R), which could have consequences down the ballot. NBC News/Marist recently found Democrats up 14 points in a statewide House generic ballot. That’s hard to translate to individual races in a state where Democrats already control 11 of 18 seats, but Rep. Peter Roskam (R, IL-6) is already in a Toss-up race, and Reps. Rodney Davis (R, IL-13) and Randy Hultgren (R, IL-14) have credible opponents and should have challenging races. IL-13 and IL-14 move from Likely Republican to Leans Republican. Also moving from Likely Republican to Leans Republican is Rep. Dave Joyce (R, OH-14), who has avoided hard races after Rep. Steve LaTourette (R) left the ballot relatively late in the 2012 campaign, giving Joyce an easy path to Congress (he survived primary challenges from the right in 2014 and 2016; there are some conservative activists in the district who did not like the late LaTourette and do not like Joyce). Joyce, like LaTourette, resides closer to the political center than most of his Republican brethren, and he voted against the Republicans’ ACA alternative last year. He’s using that vote to demonstrate his independence from his party, releasing an ad that drew national attention. A potential suburban revolt against Trump in this district is a challenge for Joyce. His opponent is Betsy Rader (D), an attorney who has been a decent fundraiser (although Joyce has outraised her). Joyce is still favored but, like the Illinois seats, we’re moving this race from Likely Republican to Leans Republican.
A few more: After winning the most expensive House election in U.S. history last year, Rep. Karen Handel (R, GA-6) appears to be in decent shape, and we’re upgrading her from Leans Republican to Likely Republican. It’s possible that the better Democratic target in the Atlanta area is Rep. Rob Woodall (R, GA-7); Woodall’s challenger, ex-Georgia Senate budget office director Carolyn Bourdeaux (D), recently released an internal poll showing her leading Woodall 46%-44%. Partisan surveys should always be taken with a grain of salt, but keep this one (and GA-6, still) on your radar as sleeper Democratic targets. Two other sleepers in typically Republican suburban districts where Trump underperformed are two affluent, highly-educated Houston-area districts where Trump ran well behind Mitt Romney’s 2012 showing but still won: TX-2, an open seat, and TX-22, held by Rep. Pete Olson (R). The latter district is former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s (R) old seat. We’re moving both from Safe Republican to Likely Republican as a precaution in case Republicans get absolutely swamped in traditionally Republican suburban/exurban areas.
Finally, Rep. Don Young (R, AK-AL) returns to our ratings, moving from Safe Republican to Likely Republican. He’s been in the House for more than four decades now — he was first elected in a 1973 special election — but he sometimes has close races, and he has drawn a spirited challenge from Alyse Galvin, an education advocate who is running as an independent but was just nominated in the Democratic primary. Young should be fine but here’s one more race on the competitive periphery that merits inclusion as something other than “Safe” in our ratings.
This coming Tuesday features some of the last major primaries of the season, with Arizona and Florida picking nominees. For the House, perhaps the most intriguing and impactful primary comes in AZ-2, an open seat that Rep. Martha McSally (R) is leaving to run for Senate (McSally is the favorite in the GOP Senate primary, although there is some possibility that she could get upset by former state Sen. Kelli Ward). Former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D, AZ-1) is now running in AZ-2, but she is locked in what appears to be a competitive race for the nomination against former state Rep. Matt Heinz (D), who was the Democratic nominee in 2016. Either might be favored in the fall against Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Lea Márquez-Peterson (R), although national Democrats clearly prefer Kirkpatrick. We currently rate this race as Leans Democratic — like the aforementioned WA-8, it’s a Clinton-won open seat, so the Republicans are up against history in this seat, too. But the primary introduces some drama and potentially provides Márquez-Peterson an opening depending how it goes.
Election Day is less than 11 weeks away.