Monday, July 07, 2014

The Battle for the House

Occasionally I feel like The Week is throwing mud on the wall with stories and seeing if it can stick, and that was the case this past week with Bill Scher, who wondered aloud if the Democrats could win the House but lose the Senate this year, defying every bit of conventional wisdom in politics that the House is out of play for Democrats and the only thing to focus on is the Senate.

Scher's article did get me to thinking though-what exactly is going to happen in the House.  I doubt very severely that immigration will be a catalyst in enough seats to put the House in play (I did discuss this possibility over here, however, in case you want my thoughts on the matter), but there are a couple of seats that could turn for the Democrats if the DCCC can make immigration an important issue in a few races.

That being said-where are we at with the House?  It seems almost certain that the Republicans will hold the House, and conventional wisdom states that they'll probably gain seats, but by how much and where?  That's what I figured it was time for me to really dive into right here, and so let's go!

1. The Seats That Are Already Gone

Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC)
Every cycle, usually thanks to scandal or a key retirement, several seats naturally realign.  With the increase in straight-ticket voting, more and more seats that historically would have gone against how a district would vote for president have slid over to the national trends of the district.

Two Democratic-held districts fall into this camp in a big way.  Reps. Mike McIntyre (NC-7) and Jim Matheson (UT-4) are the only two men that could possibly hold their particular seats, and with both retiring, the Democrats start off with a deficit of two seats.  I'd also say that at this point, though certainly not to the degree that McIntyre and Matheson have fallen, Rep. Nick Rahall (WV-3) has become DOA for November.  Rahall is running, and an incumbent running for reelection is never completely out-of-the-race (if his challenger gets the whiff of a scandal or something of that ilk, Rahall obviously has gotten the support of this district before and they may just hold their nose and vote for him again) but with West Virginia headed swiftly to the right during the Obama presidency and Shelley Moore Capito clobbering Natalie Tennant statewide, it's hard to see Rahall overcoming that margin.

On the flip side, though the Democrats have a pair of seats that could help balance out these wins a bit. In California's 31st district, Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar did what he couldn't do two years ago and (barely) made it through to the general (in 2012, thanks to California's new jungle primary system, two Republicans advanced in the district).  This is the most Democratic district held by a Republican in the House (it went 57% for President Obama) and while Aguilar has clearly proven to be a lackluster campaigner, that won't stop him from winning when he's one-on-one with a Republican in November.

The other seat the Democrats appear to have locked-up is New York's 11th.  This isn't wrapped up to the same degree as the 31st, but the 11th did vote for President Obama in 2012 (even though it remains fairly Republican locally) and incumbent Rep. Michael Grimm is in a series of scandals and skirmishes that have made him vulnerable to the point of likely losing, even if the Republicans would have a decent chance of winning back this seat in two years.

2. The Open Seat Paradox

Rep. Bill Owens (D-NY)
As a general rule in politics, when it comes to picking up seats, Democrats tend to do better against an incumbent and Republicans tend to do better in an open seat.  You can make any number of arguments why this happens, but the reality is that it most certainly does happen, so it's worth looking, particularly in a cycle that is likely to favor the Republicans, at the Democratic-held open seats that are quite marginal.

As a whole, the Democrats did a very good job at getting their incumbents to run for reelection, with the exception of McIntyre and Matheson up-top.  People like Collin Peterson and John Barrow stuck around for another cycle, and probably the biggest and only really major other open seat concern for the Democrats is New York's 21st district, where Bill Owens surprisingly got out of the game after only three terms.  Though the seat went for President Obama, the Republicans have a better candidate here than the Democrats (Aaron Woolf, a documentary filmmaker), and I would have to say that Elise Stefanik seems to have a clear edge, considering the national mood, in winning this seat.

Other seats, though, seem like the Democrats have gained the upper ground.  Carolyn McCarthy's Long Island district and Mike Michaud's seat in Maine both are theoretically competitive, but the Democrats got their top candidates for both seats and the Republicans don't seem interested in spending here.

A bigger question to be poised, though, is the Republican open seats.  The NRCC could not have timed better some of the retirements across their marginal seats: Tim Griffin (AR-2), Mike Rogers (MI-8), Jon Runyan (NJ-3), Tom Latham (IA-3), Jim Gerlach (PA-6) and Frank Wolf (VA-10) all represent districts than in a neutral or a Democratic year would be highly competitive (in 2006 or 2008, these open seats would have been easy pickings for the Democrats).  The fact that they chose this year, however, means the Republicans will likely win most if not all of these seats, and would head into 2016, when these seats would be more competitive, with a swath of newly-elected incumbents.

It's hard to tell, in fact, if any of these seats could go to the Democrats.  IA-3, NJ-3, and VA-10 (in that order) all represent the best chances the Democrats have as they got their number one candidates in all three races and all three candidates are running great races.  However, I cannot help but feel the ghost of Alex Sink here, as Sink's loss earlier this year in FL-13 (a district very similar to these three in terms of partisan makeup) proves that the Democrats cannot always take a seat even if they seem to have everything going for them.  If I absolutely had to guess if the Democrats would take any of these, I'd say Iowa goes and the other two stay, but I reserve the right to change that opinion as the races progress.

3. Assessing the Wave, Part 1: The Romney Districts

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ)
There's still a question mark over whether or not we're about to see a wave or whether the Republicans are just set for a night that favors them (there is a difference).  That's really the big question headed into November, because there are a handful of Romney-held districts that are up for reelection come this fall that could easily head to the Republicans if there's any sort of wave.

Chief amongst them are two seats in Arizona, the first and second district.  The incumbents (Ann Kirkpatrick and Ron Barber, respectively) certainly got a push from the President in terms of turnout two years ago, even if he wasn't winning the district.  A dampened Democratic turnout at the base would be curtains for both of these two, and after Nick Rahall, I'd argue they are the most vulnerable incumbent Democrats in the House, with Barber being slightly more so (his political skills have never rivaled that of his former boss Gabby Giffords).  I suspect that both of these two would go down if the election were held today, and unless the Democrats can figure out a way to increase turnout exponentially in November, it's very hard to see a way that Barber in particular holds on for another term.

Other Democrats in Romney seats are in slightly better shape.  One candidate I was certain would be a one-term wonder, Patrick Murphy (FL-18) has become a fundraising powerhouse and hasn't attracted a particularly impressive Republican challenger.  John Barrow (GA-12), Collin Peterson (MN-7), and Pete Gallego (TX-23) all have personal popularity in their districts, and the former two have an extensive history of winning red territory.  If the Republican wave happens, all four of these men would become incredibly vulnerable (in the way that John Spratt, Ike Skelton, and Gene Taylor all became vulnerable despite personal popularity in their districts in 2010), but at this point none of their elections have slipped away from them in a similar fashion to Nick Rahall.

4. Assessing the Wave, Part 2: The Obama Districts

Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA)
There's a lot of questions currently on how the President can help the Democrats across the country with their reelections.  On the surface, his probably best shot is to help save vulnerable Democrats in hyper-blue states for governor (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, and Illinois spring to mind as states that he could probably do some good in), but his GOTV machine would be most helpful in this particular bucket of seats.

That's because while there are relatively few Romney districts that seem extremely competitive (only about 5-9), there are a number of marginal Obama seats where the Democrats appear to be in some sort of trouble.  Reps. Kyrsten Sinema (AZ-9), Joe Garcia (FL-26), Scott Peters (CA-52), Carol Shea-Porter (NH-1), Ami Bera (CA-7), Raul Ruiz (CA-36), Brad Schneider (IL-10), Bill Enyart (IL-12), John Tierney (MA-6), and Tim Bishop (NY-1) all represent districts that President Obama carried in 2012, though in most cases by a small margin.  As a result of this, the President's operation would be integral to getting this group of incumbents elected.  Most of these incumbents (with the exceptions of Shea-Porter, Bishop, and Tierney) are first-termers who rode Obama's coattails in 2012 to take their seats-that means that they aren't particularly practiced incumbents and will need help.

This is also the group that will separate if the Democrats can take back the House in 2016.  While gerrymandering cut into the Democratic base deeply, if Hillary Clinton can expand the base somewhat (curb the number of blue-collar Democrats who have traditionally voted for the Democrats in the past from going to the GOP), the House could be in play two years from now for the Democrats.  However, if the bulk of these ten seats have slipped from the grasp of the Democrats come that time, there will be too much ground to make up against too many fresh incumbents.

5. Vulnerable Republican Incumbents

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO)
The list of vulnerable Republican incumbents is extremely small.  Thanks in part to the fact that President Obama ran well in 2012, most of the competitive seats that year went to the Democrats.  The DCCC's best shot to pickup seats is in places like CA-31, NY-11, and some of the above open seats that I listed, as the dynamics of those races have shifted from 2012 in a way that improves the Democrats' chances.

That being said, there are a small handful of seats that could be competitive for the Democrats, at the top of that list being Colorado's sixth district.  In a seat where the Democrats had an underwhelming challenger, incumbent Mike Coffman won by just two points and President Obama beat Mitt Romney by five points.  This year, the Democrats have a rock star candidate in House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who has run a very strong campaign and has solid name ID.  After Michael Grimm, Coffman is arguably the most vulnerable Republican in Congress.

Other seats could become factors, though none have the same likelihood at a pickup as Coffman's.  Reps. David Valadao (CA-21) and Jeff Denham (CA-10) are two incumbents that represent Obama districts that could be affected by the immigration debate, but the Democrats will need unusually high Latino turnout to make these more than a pipe dream.  Rep. Lee Terry (NE-2) has a conservative third party challenger in his race that could be a major factor given that his district only went to Mitt Romney by 6-points.  And then there are frequent targets like Reps. Steve Southerland (FL-2), Chris Gibson (NY-19), Dan Benishek (MI-1), Tim Walberg (MI-7), Tom Reed (NY-23), and Rodney Davis (IL-13), all of which have high profile challengers and could be vulnerable if the GOP fortunes were to start to change, but at this point should be helped tremendously by the President's low approval ratings.

And those are my thoughts on this year's House races.  At this point, I'd say the Republicans would pickup six, though a lot of these districts are still pretty tight.  What are your thoughts?  Is there a race I'm missing?  Is there an incumbent I am underestimating?  Share in the comments!

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