Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Can the Democrats Win the House?

It's been the rumor for the past couple of weeks in light of the Trump tapes, and is starting to hit fever pitch as the DCCC and several major Super PAC's are running ads in places where Democrats weren't normally anticipated to do well: is the House in play?  I had resisted writing this article because I wanted to see what happened in the polls, and because everyone trots out this chestnut every two years just to (usually) watch it disappear behind a stack of gerrymandering and under-recruitment early in the cycle.  But this year...is it possible?  I think it is enough to write an article about it.  Let's approach this in four distinct steps.

Val Demings (D-FL), near certain future congresswoman
1. The Quick Exchange

It should be noted that, thanks to some mid-decade redistricting, the Democrats are actually already ahead before you even count any of the seats that are up for reelection.  That's because in Florida and Virginia, the Democrats will have a net gain of one thanks to favorable redistricting (with Florida an automatic wash exchanging the seats of Daniel Webster and Gwen Graham, while the Democrats pick up the 4th district in Virginia in the process).  That means the Democrats really only need to win 29 seats, not 30-a distinction hardly worth noting (one seat almost never makes the difference), except that the Democrats, were they to win, would only be winning the majority by the slimmest of margins.  As a result, every gain they can make could be crucial-I'd anticipate if Speaker Pelosi is holding the gavel, she won't have more than 222-223 seats (at most), meaning that seats like these will be vital.

Randy Perkins (D-FL)
2. The Vulnerable Democrats

Additionally, she can't really afford to lose any incumbents or Democratic-held seats, aside from Graham's which was inevitable.  Here she's actually looking in pretty good shape.  Reps. Ami Bera and Brad Ashford early on in the cycle looked more vulnerable than they actually are, and are sikudfor reelection.  In fact, the only Democratic congressman who could plausibly lose reelection is Rep. Rick Nolan in Minnesota's 8th, a district whose blue-collar roots (and predominantly white populace), makes it a prime candidate for Trump to over-perform.  Still, it's hard to imagine an incumbent (even one who is hardly what you'd consider a "great campaigner" like Nolan) losing in 2016, a year that should favor the Democrats, after making it through 2014, so I maintain that Nolan is the leader, albeit by a relatively slim margin.

The Democrats also lucked out in open seats, as most of the seats of their retiring incumbents have stayed pretty much in their hands.  Initially NY-3, CA-24, and AZ-1 all looked like they would be difficult holds, but thanks to a robust Democratic year, and in the case of the Arizona seat, the Republicans foolishly nominating a controversial challenger, all of these seem to be easy keeps.  The only seat that I see, truly, being a tossup race (even more than Nolan's) is FL-18.  Rep. Patrick Murphy is running for (an increasingly unlikely) promotion to the Senate, and has left his swing House seat in jeopardy, with the Democrats nominating a bombastic millionaire in Randy Perkins.  Perkins may win, but Florida Democrats could be setting themselves up for Alan Grayson, part two, if media reports are to be believed.  Still, in terms of raw numbers Pelosi needs to hold all of these, and even Perkins would have the slightest of edges if I was forced to choose.

Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), candidate in the 5th district
3. The Tossup Republican Seats

Here's where things move from very much in the Democratic corner to a bit against the tide-the Democrats, unlike 2006 or 2008, have not really shut down any incumbent Republicans-no incumbent Republican is DOA come November 8th.  About the closest they've come is Rep. David Jolly in FL-13, a seat they're still spending money upon, even though with redistricting it should be a slam dunk (in a move I'm still upset about, the Left nominated former Gov. Charlie Crist even though he's contributed to countless Democratic losses in winnable races).  Crist is probably going to win here, but it says something about how well the Republicans have protected their incumbent flank that they haven't even totally lost this seat, despite everything working against Jolly (including the NRCC).

By my count we have four races that should probably go to the Democrats (NH-1, FL-13, NV-4, and MN-2), along with 15 races that I would consider complete tossups, ones that could genuinely swing either way (CA-49, CO-6, FL-7, FL-26, IL-10, IA-1. MI-1, NJ-5, NV-3, NY-1, NY-19, NY-22, NY-24, PA-8, and TX-23).  These races run the gamut from strong Obama districts that have freshmen incumbents (IA-1, NY-24), to seats where a longtime incumbent Republican, thanks in part to being caught sleeping, could be in danger (Darrell Issa, John Mica, and Scott Garrett all being longtime fixtures on the Hill that could be headed home).

Jane Dittmar (D-VA), candidate in the 5th district
4. The Republican-Favored Seats

The point is, though, and why I've long been leery of proclaiming the Democrats likely victors, is that these still don't add up to the majority.  Even if the Democrats were to take every single swing district and hold all but Graham's district, they'd still just be +20.  I think if the Democrats were down by only 15-20 seats we'd probably be hearing alarm bells across the GOP as it would truly be a tossup, but even if the Democrats win all of those seats (a tall order-there's always a swing district or two that fights the tide), they still would need ten more seats to translate that into an actual majority.

This means that the Republicans would need to tap into the roughly 15 seats that lean Republican, but are theoretically within the grasp of the Democrats: AZ-2, CA-10, CA-21, CA-25, CO-3, IN-9, KS-3, ME-2, MI-7, MN-3, NY-23, UT-4, VA-5, VA-10, and WI-8.  Some of these are more attainable than others (Maine-2, in particular, I almost put in the tossups with Clinton rebounding, but I want to see a little bit stronger numbers on the presidential level there before I make the switch), and I can see situations where 2-3 of these transfer, but in order for the Democrats to win the bulk of these (what they'd need to do to win the House), they need something more that isn't in the recipe right now, or at least not that we know of: depressed Republican turnout or wildly increased Democratic turnout.

That's going to be really hard to predict until November 8th-this is when pretty much everyone assumes they'll vote (likely voter or registered voter models go out the window in mid-October), and it's why Democrats and Republicans everywhere are trying to get you to vote early if you're on their team, particularly Democrats who are more likely to skip Election Day if it isn't convenient.  The question has been, and is really critical to the Democrats taking back the House-will the GOP stay home?  It's a complicated question, because two different factions could be at play-there are the moderate/Chamber of Commerce-style conservatives who hate Trump's rhetoric, even if they hate Clinton seemingly equally, and then there are the die-hard Trump supporters who may stay home amidst allegations the election is rigged, or perhaps will skip people like Martha McSally or Erik Paulsen who refuse to endorse their candidate.  The thing is that these are not easy-to-poll, and so except for early voting/returned absentees, it's difficult to know this in advance.  This is why the House could in theory be in play...though as these numbers prove, it's far more likely that the Democrats have a good, but not phenomenal night in the lower chamber.

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