Amidst polls showing the President stuck in the low (or lower) 40’s of approval, Democrats leading on the Congressional ballot by seven to ten points and scores of Democrats lining up to challenge Republicans, well, everywhere, it is easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Because, as it stands now, Republicans remain favorites to hold the House and gain at least one seat in the Senate next year (assuming Alabama does not flip).
Up until last month Democrats had found success in low-turnout special elections across the country. In the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial and legislative contests, Democrats victories were interpreted as bad news for the GOP next year. Democrats won all statewide offices in both states and gained numerous seats in Virginia and New Jersey. They also gained seats in blue Georgia legislative districts and captured some historically down-ballot Republican county level seats in the Philly suburbs.
But, going beyond a cursory analysis tells us Democratic victories in normal turnout off-year elections showed they gained little ground in the red-leaning areas they will need to win to retake the House next year. The few seats Democrats took in the New Jersey legislature were won by Clinton and in Virginia Democrats controlled a single Trump won legislative seat (out of 51). Despite the abysmal climate and a horrid candidate in Ed Gillespie, Trump voters showed up to ensure the state party held their legislative majorities (albeit narrowly). Similarly, it is hard to argue the State Senate seat Democrats won in WA State or GA was Republican (both clearly backed Clinton last year).
A total of 23 Republicans sit in Congressional districts Clinton won last year. Digging deeper, eight districts represented by Republicans voted for Obama twice and Clinton, and seven districts voted for Obama, then Romney, and Clinton. Obviously, these are the top targets of the party. But, a further 11 districts flipped from Obama to Trump and 11 Democrats sit in districts Trump won.
If we assume Democrats won all twenty-three Clinton districts they still would be a seat short and several Democratic seats are endangered in Pennsylvania and Minnesota. Of course, a number of swing seats that backed Trump are represented by Republicans and Democrats are sure to target these seats as well. Some of these seats are in California, others in Texas and Pennsylvania.
But, ultimately, these seats are Republican leaning. They are not seats that backed Clinton last year and they will not be fought in a non-midterm special election where lower turnout has fueled Democratic victories.
Indeed, the Virginia legislative elections, while vastly exceeding Democratic expectations, showed just how many problems the party has appealing to non-traditional Democratic voters. Democrats actually performed worse in Trump districts than their gubernatorial nominee did. That’s not good news for the party.
Perhaps worse, at least as it directly relates to midterm elections next year, is when Democrats dominated the midterm in 2006, few Republicans have yet to vacate their competitive seats. Yes, Ros Lehtinen in FL-27 is giving Democrats a sure-fire pick-up. But, in neighboring blue FL-26, Carlos Curbelo is digging in and not running.
Likewise, while Dave Trot in Michigan, David Reichart in WA State and Frank Libondo in New Jersey have said they are stepping down the majority of GOP retirements have either been due to running for higher office or in safe red or at least read leaning seats (see Texas).
This contrasts with the flurry of retirements we saw in GOP held districts in 2006 and 2008 that made Democratic pick-ups far easier. While it is certainly true even good incumbents can be knocked off in wave elections the opposition has to expend far more resources to get them out of office compared to an open seat. Democratic candidates are not lacking for cash but the number of candidates meaning with cash means they will expend it against each other in primaries. Meanwhile, Republican incumbents, at least if they are smart, will be stockpiling it for tough reelections.
The Congressional Generic Ballot has Democrats ahead by around seven to ten points. In a series of polls pitting Republican incumbents against generic Democrats the “generic” Democrat wins. But, of course, a generic anything means different things to different voters. When Democrats are named in several races (some overlapping with the generic Democrat) they trial their GOP opponents.
There is also the question mark of how higher level Senate and gubernatorial contests will shape down-ballot Congressional contests. For example, think of the likely upcoming high profile battle between Florida Senator Bill Nelson (D) and GOP Governor Rick Scott. The millions being spent by both candidates may drown out the individual narratives of down-ballot candidates.
At this point it is a given Democrats will gain seats next year. Midterms are toxic to the party in the White House and the Republican majority is exposed in the Trump era. That said, Democrats will probably lose a seat or two even if a wave forms. Combined with the variables listed above and the facts we are a year out and we don’t know how tax reform/repeal of the IM will play out and it is far from certain Democrats will retake the House.
7 Republicans in Obama Romney Clinton districts
11 districts that backed Obama but flipped to Trump
8 districts that backed Obama twice and voted for Clinton