Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The State of the House

The Republicans are having a bad few months right now.  There are clear revolts against their nominee in the media, the populace, and now even amongst delegates trying to stage a coup versus Donald Trump.  Trump's losing by double digits in some polls against Hillary Clinton, and is in a worse position than John Kerry, John McCain, or Mitt Romney ever were in their campaigns (and as you can tell, none of them became president even with better numbers).  Antonin Scalia's open seat is looking more and more likely to go to a Democrat, probably one appointed by Hillary Clinton, but perhaps Merrick Garland if Republicans take Clarence Thomas' retirement rumors seriously (that would give the Democrats a 6-3 majority with potentially no swing voters, and Anthony Kennedy turns 80 next month so suddenly pragmatism may get the better of them with the moderate Garland).  Trump's poor polling numbers are a death knell for incumbent GOP senators in states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and (apparently) Florida, since he will surely bring down their voter turnout, potentially enough to push Mitch McConnell back to the minority after only two years at the top.  The only thing that has the GOP comforted is their thirty seat majority in the House-the Republicans have been told time-and-time again that while the Democrats will surely make gains, it won't be enough to take away their six-year-old majority.

Except even that seems to be on the table now.  Pundits from across the spectrum are saying that the GOP can't really handle the kinds of margins that Hillary Clinton is pulling in polling without taking a severe beating down-ballot, and that includes the U.S. House of Representatives.  As we haven't really looked at the House yet, I figured it was time to ask the question: what would it take for the Democrats to win back the House?  I parcel it out into five categories below.

1. The Easy Swaps

It's worth noting that in a rare moment this cycle, three seats seem like near certain swaps this cycle thanks to a rare case of mid-decade redistricting.  Both Virginia and Florida had to redraw their lines, which will surely leave the Democrats up one, as FL-10 and VA-4 will both flip to the Democrats while the Republicans will take FL-2.  None of the incumbents in these seats are running, and all of them are overwhelmingly drawn to favor a new party.  This should result in the Democrats only needing 29 seats to go.

Monica Vernon, candidate for Iowa's 1st district
2. The Likely Swaps

It's worth remembering that thanks to low turnout in 2014, the Democrats lost a handful of seats that would normally go their way, and almost surely will in 2016 thanks to the help of a presidential election, particularly as it appears to be an election the Democrats will win (not counting chickens, just reading the tea leaves).  By my count 5-6 seats would be ones currently held by the Republicans but were the election held today would go to the Democrats: FL-13, IA-1, NH-1, NV-4, NV-3, and MN-2.  All of these seats have either open seats that favor the Democrats due to a poor Republican bench (NV-3, MN-2) or are overwhelmingly Democratic on a presidential level, enough so that it should be able to take out the incumbent (the rest).  NH-1 and FL-13, it's worth noting, have candidates that have lost recently (Rep. Carol Shea-Porter and Gov. Charlie Crist, respectively), so it's not outside the realm of possibility that the Republicans don't take maybe one or two here, but if Trump is truly as bad on a national level as he's appearing right now (and he could get worse, let's not forget, since Clinton still doesn't have all of Sanders' support quite yet), it's hard not to see the Democrats sweeping these six seats.  Let's go with 23 seats to go.

Annette Taddeo, candidate for Florida's 26th district
3. The Republican-Held Tossups

The first two lines on this are what I'd consider to be relatively low-hanging fruit; the Republicans have largely given the Democrats a gift there, and they'll lose pretty much all of them.  The remainder of the list will require a little bit of work.  Right now I'd wager that roughly 15 seats are in this boat: CA-25, CO-6, FL-26, IL-10, IA-3, ME-2, MI-1, NY-1, NY-19, NY-22, NY-24, PA-8, TX-23, UT-4, and WI-8.  These seats are either open seats in a presidential election that could swing, or are incumbents that recently won (mostly in the 2014 wave) that could go to the Democrats if there's a strong enough top-of-the-ballot.  All of these are true tossups at this point-it's not clear whether or not the incumbent has a much stronger shot against the Democratic challenger.  In order to win back the House, the DCCC will have to run the table as much as is possible here-letting more than 2-3 of these seats falter will probably mean a good night for the Democrats, but not the majority.  Expect to see major buys by the DCCC here and considering several of these are in swing states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all jump out to me), a lot of coordination with Hillary Clinton, who knows how much more effective her first 100 Days will be if she can get a friendlier House (considering that Paul Ryan and John Boehner had to have Democratic cooperation even with gargantuan majorities, Nancy Pelosi would become that much more powerful with every seat she gains even if the House minority is traditionally a thankless position).  It's worth noting that most of these incumbents are the most liberal members of the GOP caucus, which should send a shiver down Paul Ryan's spine even if he stays in the majority-he'll have a much more conservative caucus to deal with.  Let's say they pick up 13 seats and have roughly ten to go.

Democratic Rep. Brad Ashford (NE-2)
4. Hold the Democratic Seats

Here's the second path where things could get tricky-the Democrats desperately need all of their incumbents to stay in power.  They've already lost Gwen Graham's seat in FL-2 up-top, but even though there are only a few seats that the Republicans didn't pick off in 2014, every seat matters (if they manage to win the thirty seats, they won't be getting much more).  A few seats that spring out as vulnerable include places like NE-2, CA-7, and MN-8, where the incumbents are either brand new or are relatively weak on-paper, or FL-18, AZ-1, and NY-3, where the first two incumbents are gunning for a promotion to the Senate while the third (Steve Israel) is retiring in a swing district.  A loss in any of these six seats would be a setback for the DCCC, and they probably can't afford more than 1-2.  I'm going to assume one of the open seats fall (probably Florida) and we're back to the Democrats needing 14 seats.

State Sen. Terri Bonoff, candidate in Minnesota's 3rd district
5. The Republican-Leaning Seats

Here's where the majority is won.  Conceivably, there are a few seats that lean Republican, but the Democrats have a relatively decent chance of doing well there thanks to stronger-than-expected recruitment: AZ-2, CA-21, MI-7, MN-3, NJ-5, and VA-10.  That's only six seats, bringing them to only eight seats short (or five seats short if they run the tables on Numbers 3 and 4).  That means they'd still need to win in seats that they are given currently only an outsider's shot at winning, places like AK-AL, CA-10, CA-49, CO-3, FL-7, IL-12, MT-AL, NY-21, PA-16, and VA-5.  Conceivably they could win these, though the incumbent party would have a decided advantage, and in some cases the Democrats have relatively unknown quantities in the races.

This is why this is a numbers game, though.  If the Democrats can do well enough to sweep most items 2-4 they would have a shot headed into this category, especially if they can get stronger turnout amongst Latinos and suburban women, while straight-ticket voting remains as consistently strong as it has in years past.  If the Democrats really want to win back the House, it's going to be a case where every seat matters, and we're not quite there yet.  The Republicans are not doing well, but thirty seats is a monumental task, and the Democrats are going to have to take out some incumbents that they haven't been able to overturn even in strong cycles for them like MN-3 or CA-10.  This is partially why you're hearing grumbling toward the DCCC, as they left seats that could be competitive in places like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New Jersey with no major candidates, so the Democrats can't capitalize on Trump.  As a result, thirty seats is tough, but  not impossible; it's a steep hill to climb, but thanks to Donald Trump, the Democrats can at least see the top.

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