Democrats’ Best Chance to Retake the House? 8 Types of G.O.P. Districts to Watch
Democrats have debated extensively over whether their path to power goes through the white-working-class Rust Belt states or the diverse, well-educated Sun Belt. In 2018, this debate is moot. The Democrats don’t have the luxury of choosing where to compete in House races. They’ll have to target all of these areas.
The problem for Democrats is simple: There just aren’t many great opportunities for them to pick up seats in Democratic-leaning areas. Instead, they’ll have to compete in a lot of districts where they’re competitive but not favored.
There are probably 70 or so districts where Democrats have a better than 10 percent chance to win if the national political environment is especially favorable to them. To retake the House, Democrats will try to put as many of these seats into play as possible, and hope to end up with the 24 they need.
To illustrate, we’ve divvied up Republican House districts into eight groups to keep an eye on. The groups aren’t strictly based on competitiveness: Within groups, some members are far more vulnerable than others. There are a few districts that don’t fit neatly into any of the groups, and there are a few that fit into several. But the kinds of opportunities and challenges facing Democrats or Republicans in each group are pretty similar.
The first five groups — 41 districts in all — are the likeliest to be competitive. They correspond pretty closely with the races rated as competitive by organizations like the Cook Political Report. It’s a diverse group of districts, ranging from well-entrenched Republicans in Democratic-leaning, well-educated suburbs to newly elected Republicans in white working-class areas.
In theory, Democrats could retake the House by winning a clear majority of these top districts. They might well do so, especially if aided by additional retirements. But Democrats will probably lose more of these districts than they win. To win the remaining seats, they’ll need to carry at least a few districts in places that don’t look obviously competitive today. This tends to happen in so-called wave elections, like 2006 or 2010.
The next three groups — another 41 districts in all — are among the likeliest to come into play in a strong Democratic year. Most of these districts will not prove to be especially competitive, and it is difficult to predict which incumbents will ultimately prove vulnerable. A few months ago, I certainly would not have guessed that South Carolina’s Fifth District or Kansas’ Fourth would be decided by three- and seven-point margins.
For now, all the Democrats can do is recruit good candidates in as many districts as possible and see which races become competitive in September or October 2018. Republicans, meanwhile, need to make sure that typically safe incumbents are prepared for the worst. In this spring’s special elections, national Republican groups spent millions to prop up candidates in Republican-leaning districts. Republican candidates probably can’t count on the same kind of assistance if the playing field expands to 70 or 80 districts.
Well-Educated Sun Belt
Well-educated Sun Belt suburbs have been reliably Republican for a generation. But President Trump struggled badly in these areas and now they’re among the top Democratic targets in 2018.
The possibility that these districts will be highly competitive is no longer merely theoretical. Several of these districts were surprisingly competitive in 2016, and the newest member — Karen Handel — won by only four percentage points in the most conservative district of the bunch.
The outcome in Georgia’s Sixth is a reminder that these places aren’t easy for the Democrats, even if they’re among their best targets. Hillary Clinton did well in these districts by luring many voters who don’t typically support Democratic candidates, and most of these Republican incumbents have represented their districts for a long time.
Diverse Sun Belt
On paper, the Democrats have an even better shot in five other Sun Belt districts where Mrs. Clinton won big in 2016 and where Barack Obama either won or nearly did in 2012.
There’s one catch: Hispanic voters make up at least 30 percent of eligible voters in all of these districts. These places might not be quite as Democratic-leaning in a midterm electorate, when Hispanic turnout often slumps considerably. The Republican incumbents here, often Hispanic themselves, are generally good fits for their districts as well.
Turnout will be a big challenge for the Democrats in the two heavily Hispanic districts in California’s Central Valley, which often posts some of the lowest turnout rates in the country.
Democrats often look at the seats where Mrs. Clinton won and assume those are the easiest seats to win in 2018. But any Democrat familiar with the names in this section knows it’s not so easy.
These battle-tested incumbents generally represent classic battleground districts, like the suburbs around Denver or Philadelphia. Yet they have consistently run far ahead of the national party’s performance in presidential elections.
These seats would instantly be among the top Democratic targets in the country — if the Republican incumbents retired. As it is, none of these incumbents will be easy for Democrats to defeat. A few, like Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey, might escape without a competitive race at all.
But most of these representatives will probably find themselves in highly competitive races. In a tough year for Republicans, several would probably lose. But many would probably survive, despite their district’s Democratic lean in presidential elections. Many of these representatives even survived the big Democratic waves in 2006 and 2008.
If Washington’s Dave Reichert wins re-election, he will be the only Republican to have won in 2006 and 2008 in a district carried by Al Gore and John Kerry, and to win re-election in 2018 in a district carried by Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton.
Most have survived in part by amassing a moderate voting record to please their moderate constituents. True to form, six of them voted “no” on the Republican health care bill, including Mr. Reichert. The three who voted for the bill — Peter Roskam, Erik Paulsen and Rodney Frelinghuysen — might now find it harder to pitch themselves as moderate voices in Washington.
The suburban stragglers, on the other hand, haven’t run so far ahead of their party. Many of these representatives were elected for the first time last year or the cycle before. Others have been around for longer, like Leonard Lance of New Jersey, but didn’t outpace their party’s recent presidential performances by an impressive amount.
And then there’s Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, who brokered the House health care compromise. If he had stayed out of it, his 21-point victory in 2016 would have kept him out of this category.
The White Working Class
Democrats have understandably focused on how they might be able to win back white voters without college degrees since Mr. Trump’s surprising victory in November. But when it comes to control of the House, the Northern, white working-class voters who put Mr. Trump over the top can’t take center stage.
It’s not because Democrats can’t win those voters. It’s because there just aren’t many competitive districts in white working-class areas. That’s in no small part because states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan are so heavily gerrymandered that there aren’t many competitive districts at all.
Instead, most of the top Democratic white working-class opportunities are in states like Iowa and Maine, where the political geography doesn’t allow for a brutal gerrymander, or in states like New York and Illinois, where Democrats have more control. These districts will still be quite competitive, despite Mr. Trump’s gains, much as the Sun Belt districts will be tougher for Democrats than Mrs. Clinton’s results alone imply. Making matters a bit easier for the Democrats: Many of these representatives have been in office only since 2014 or 2016, and they did not run well ahead of Mr. Trump.
Weaker Than They Should Be
There might not be many top-tier Democratic opportunities in white working-class districts, but in a wave election the Democrats could become competitive in a broader set of those districts. One group that might come into play: the incumbents who seem to fare a little worse than they ought to.
Mr. Trump and Mitt Romney won these districts comfortably, but these representatives tended to run no better — or even worse — than the president. Even more concerning: Many of them, whatever the reason, have been underperforming their party for a while. Democrats might be slightly more optimistic about these seats than they would be about a typical Republican district.
The huge Democratic gains in well-educated areas have brought a whole new group of seats to the top of the battleground list. They have also brought another tier of seats to the brink of competitiveness.
Don’t be mistaken: These districts still lean Republican. Mr. Trump won them by a comfortable margin. But the big Democratic gains in well-educated areas create some odd dangers for the Republicans, especially in districts that continue to lean Republican by the margin of crafty gerrymanders.
Part of the danger: the possibility of a midterm turnout mismatch between the high-turnout, well-educated, now highly energized and increasingly Democratic-leaning parts of these districts (like Lansing, Mich., or Austin, Tex.) and the lower-turnout, perhaps deflated Republican countryside that’s supposed to overwhelm it.
Another danger: These districts are just Republican enough to look safe, which could catch one or two of these incumbents off guard. Most of these representatives haven’t fought a competitive race in years, if ever. Most of them didn’t post very impressive performances in 2016. Part of the reason is that several of these districts were recently redrawn by the courts.
My guess: A lot of these Republicans will find themselves in single-digit races come October 2018. Maybe one gets surprised on Election Day.
Perhaps Still Vulnerable?
These districts are sort of the reverse of the fragile gerrymanders and the underperforming incumbents. They’re held by Republicans who have run well in recent elections, usually in districts that have been trending Republican.
But if the Democrats can’t get the seats they need in the suburbs, these Republican-trending districts with fairly strong incumbents might be the backup plan.
In a sense, the backup plan is the old plan. These districts would have been very important to the Democratic path to a House majority in 2012 or 2014.
President Obama won these districts in 2008 and lost by only a narrow margin in 2012. Several of these districts were represented by Democrats in 2012, and others had extremely close races. A few of these places haven’t been especially competitive in presidential contests but have old Democratic traditions that might still help the right Democrat.
These districts aren’t so important to Democratic chances now, thanks to Mr. Trump’s gains among white working-class voters and the generally strong performances of these incumbents in recent elections.
But in a wave election, several of these seats would probably become competitive again.
Over all, there are a lot of districts where Democrats have a real chance but probably aren’t favored to win. They should expect a lot of close-but-no-cigar showings, just like this spring’s special elections. The question is whether they can cobble together the 24 seats they need to retake the House.