House Top 40: Flipping Control Still A Tough Task For Democrats

Oct 24, 2016
Originally published on October 24, 2016 12:55 pm

From the outset, Democrats needed a very big-wave election to get to the 30 seats they need to win back control of the House. Then, a video of Donald Trump surfaced showing the GOP nominee making lewd comments, and later multiple women accused him of groping them. That left some wondering if these scandals could trigger that wave.

But that simply hasn't happened.

Some races have shifted late in Democrats' favor, particularly in Republican-held suburban districts with high levels of voters with college degrees. Still, there has not been the wholesale move in polling that the party would need, even with Hillary Clinton's gains across the electoral map.

House Republicans were already going to have losses this year, having essentially maxed out their majority, hitting 247 seats after the 2014 midterms that gave them a majority the party hasn't seen since the Great Depression. And, in a presidential year when turnout leans left, Democrats were going to make gains.

However, Democrats' opportunities are limited, hampered by the unfavorable map that was handed to them post-2010 redistricting. Some mid-decade, court-ordered redistricting will give Democrats a slight boost to start off. They're favored to pick up one seat (maybe two) in Florida and one in Virginia, though Republicans are favored to gain one in Florida too.

From there, Democrats have 26 other seats held by Republicans that President Obama won in 2012. Those are among their prime targets, but even in those, they've left opportunities on the table. And much like some of their Senate colleagues fighting a much tougher fight to keep their majority, Republican incumbents in some of the toughest terrain have proven resilient.

Democrats, on the other hand, have just five districts they currently hold that Mitt Romney carried in 2012. One of those Republicans will win due to redistricting, and another looks like it could flip to the GOP side too. But in the three other districts, Democrats have the edge, and one of those (Collin Peterson in Minnesota) isn't seriously contested this year.

Republican leaders, like House Speaker Paul Ryan, knew there would be a growing urgency after Trump's downward spiral to shore up down-ballot races. Ryan shifted his focus to minimizing losses, and, all but acknowledging that Clinton will be the next president, he and party strategists began imploring GOP candidates to make a "check and balance" argument to voters — that with a Democratic president, there would need to be a GOP House to keep her legislative efforts in check. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, when asked if they'd rather have a GOP candidate who'd be a check and balance to Clinton or a Democratic candidate to help Clinton pass her agenda, it was 53 percent Republican, 40 percent Democratic.

Polling after the the Trump tape still had Republicans in a good position. NBC/WSJ and ABC/Washington Post polls gave Democrats a 3-point edge on the generic-ballot question: Would you rather have a Congress controlled by Democrats or Republicans? But, in context, those numbers were +15 and +13 for Democrats in 2006 and 2008, respectively, when they made big gains. And that was pre-2012 redistricting that curtailed the number of competitive seats.

Even if Clinton does come up with an electoral rout, flipping the House is still a huge long shot for Democrats. The biggest worry for Republicans, though, may be if reliable GOP voters, frustrated with their White House choices, may simply stay home. Such a scenario could further shift the map in Democrats' favor.

At the beginning of October, the most likely outcome seemed to be a gain of 10 to 15 seats for Democrats. Now, that number could rise to 20 seats, which would be a very good night for them, according to Democratic operatives.

Below we've ranked the top 40 House districts, in order of likelihood of flipping party control.

  1. Florida's 2nd District, Open (Democrat Gwen Graham retiring): Redistricting in Florida made this swing seat one of the most Republican in the country. The moderate Graham, who just narrowly won in 2014, decided she would forego re-election and instead look ahead to a possible governor's race in 2018, following in the footsteps of her father, former Sen. Bob Graham's. GOP physician Neal Dunn looks like he'll be the redrawn district's congressman.
  2. Florida's 10th District, Open (Republican Dan Webster running in open 11th District): When new district boundaries turned this seat into a strong Democratic one, Webster decided to run in the neighboring district to succeed the retiring Rep. Rich Nugent instead. So former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, a much-heralded candidate who unsuccessfully ran in 2012, will be the district's next congresswoman.
  3. Virginia's 4th District, Open (Republican Randy Forbes lost primary in 2nd District): When court-ordered redistricting created a new Democratic minority-majority district in the Tidewater region, Forbes figured he would run for neighboring retiring Rep. Scott Rigell's seat. But he lost in that primary anyway. In this new blue district, former Democratic state Sen. Donald McEachin is the overwhelming favorite to be the next representative.
  4. Florida's 13th District, Republican David Jolly: Jolly's district also got more Democratic after court-ordered redistricting, so he had initially decided to run for the Senate. But when Marco Rubio jumped back into the race, Jolly decided he'd take the uphill challenge against former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat. Jolly irked national Republicans when he participated in a 60 Minutes report blasting the party's fundraising practices. So it's no surprise Republicans weren't rushing to help him in this already tough district. Democrats have still had to spend to help boost Crist, who's far from a perfect candidate himself.
  5. New Hampshire's 1st District, Republican Frank Guinta: Republicans would have been much better off if Guinta had lost his GOP primary. But instead, after his narrow 1-point victory, they're stuck with the incumbent who was embroiled in a campaign-finance scandal. This seat has swung back and forth between Guinta and former Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter since 2010. Guinta still has a political pulse and is performing better than Republicans had initially expected, but this district still looks prime to swing back again.
  6. Nevada's 4th District, Republican Cresent Hardy: This is another Democratic, heavily Latino district that is much harder for the freshman Hardy in a presidential year. He's up against a tough opponent in Harry Reid protege Ruben Kihuen, who hopes he'll be able to ride the district's opposition to Trump and expected heavy Hispanic turnout to a victory in this district Obama carried by 10 points four years ago.
  7. Illinois' 10th District, Republican Bob Dold: This seat has twice flipped back and forth between Dold and former Democratic Rep. Brad Schneider. Dold has won in midterm years that are more favorable to Republicans, while Schneider has won in presidential years. The moderate Dold always runs strong campaigns and said early on that he would oppose Trump. But even that might not be enough for Dold, who represents the most Democratic district held by a Republican. Republicans and Democrats have different views of this district — GOP strategists say Dold is still running strong, but Democratic polling shows Schneider with a lead. In 2012, private polls never showed that before he won on Election Day.
  8. Florida's 7th District, Republican John Mica: This GOP incumbent has been in Congress for more than two decades and has never really had a competitive November race. But after his district was redrawn to become more Democratic and with about 40 percent new territory, that quickly changed. National Republicans privately grumble that Mica didn't take his new situation seriously enough early on, and maybe that was because Democrats were late in getting a recruit. But they landed a strong one in Stephanie Murphy, a Vietnamese-born college professor and national security consultant whose family escaped the country when she was young, fleeing by boat, and had to be rescued by the U.S. Navy. Her background has enabled her to talk about Trump's divisive comments about immigrants, and she has hit Mica for standing by him. Plus, this district has a growing Puerto Rican population, too. This is a top concern for Republicans now, and they're forced to start spending heavily to try to save him. But that may not be enough.
  9. Florida's 26th District, Republican Carlos Curbelo: The GOP incumbent, who is the son of Cuban exiles, has been vocal about his dislike for Trump. Democrats are stuck with controversial former Rep. Joe Garcia as their nominee, despite backing his primary opponent. The Democrat is volatile, and came under fire after being caught making sexist remarks about Hillary Clinton. Despite that, this is a tough district for Republicans. Even some national Democrats are surprised Garcia could win.
  10. Iowa's 1st District, Republican Rod Blum: Freshman Blum did himself no favors when he aligned himself with conservatives in the House who worked to take down John Boehner, despite the fact that the then-speaker had raised money for Blum in 2014. Democrats also got the nominee they wanted last time in Cedar Rapids Councilwoman Monica Vernon. Republicans say Blum's prospects have improved somewhat, and he has mended fences with the national party. Trump performs well in this mostly white district, but Blum is still in danger.
  11. Minnesota's 2nd District, Open (Republican John Kline retiring): Republicans didn't get their preferred nominee here and are instead stuck with former talk radio host Jason Lewis, who has a history of provocative statements about women and slavery. And in the wake of Trump's comments, those have only been magnified and made it easier for Democrats to tie him to the GOP nominee. He's running against health care executive Angie Craig, a top Democratic recruit. Some polls a few weeks ago showed this was still close, and Republicans are even somewhat surprised they're still within striking distance, but this will probably break late toward Democrats.
  12. Maine's 2nd District, Republican Bruce Poliquin: This is a rematch between Poliquin and Democrat Emily Cain. Last time, an independent candidate (who has now endorsed Poliquin) got 11 percent of the vote. This is usually a tough district in a presidential year for Republicans, but Donald Trump isn't necessarily a drag here. Democrats have spent heavily, though, to make sure it's in play, and this could be a close one on election night.
  13. Texas's 23rd District, Republican Will Hurd: This is another rematch between the GOP incumbent and the man he beat two years ago, former Rep. Pete Gallego. Over 70 percent of this massive district along the U.S.-Mexican border is Hispanic, and Democrats hope that with Trump on the ballot, it will help boost turnout and, in turn, Gallego. Hurd, who is African-American, has said he won't vote for Trump and called on him to drop out after the Access Hollywood video surfaced. The Lone Star State overall has tightened, and this district especially is a tough one for Hurd given the GOP presidential nominee.
  14. Florida's 18th District, Open (Democrat Patrick Murphy running for Senate): Republicans usually carry this district in a presidential year, and they have a strong nominee in Army veteran Brian Mast, who lost both of his legs in Afghanistan and was awarded the Purple Heart. Republicans have attacked Democratic nominee Randy Perkins over some of his business deals from his disaster cleanup company. Many describe him as a volatile candidate, as evidenced by a contentious editorial board interview. Democrats don't feel great about this one, while Republicans increasingly do. This would be a pickup for them, and a possible bright spot on what could be a rough, long election night.
  15. New Jersey's 5th District, Republican Scott Garrett: This began as somewhat of a sleeper race, but the seven-term incumbent finds himself in deep electoral danger. Garrett made waves when he reportedly refused to pay dues to the National Republican Congressional Committee because it was supporting gay candidates, and that is hurting him in suburban New Jersey. His Democratic challenger, Josh Gottheimer, a former Microsoft executive and Bill Clinton speechwriter, has outraised Garrett while many of Garrett's Wall Street donors abandoned him over his views on gay marriage. Democratic polling shows Gottheimer winning.
  16. Nevada's 3rd District, Open (Republican Joe Heck running for Senate): GOP nominee Danny Tarkanian, son of famed UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, is a frequent candidate who managed to win the nomination this time over Republicans' preferred candidate, making keeping this seat that much harder for them. He's running against Jewish community activist Jacky Rosen, who probably has a slight edge. Nevada overall has moved more toward Clinton post-Trump's taped comments, and this district got even tougher for the GOP to hold onto as a result.
  17. Virginia's 10th District, Republican Barbara Comstock: Trump is not popular in the Northern Virginia exurbs that Comstock represents, but the former state legislator and longtime GOP aide has won because of ticket-splitting before. This is a year unlike any other, though, and Trump's performance — or some Republicans staying home — may be Comstock's undoing and give just enough of a boost to real-estate developer LuAnn Bennett. Both parties are spending heavily on the expensive D.C.-market airwaves, and Republicans acknowledge this is a new headache that even Comstock's strong campaign skills may not be able to overcome.
  18. New York's 22nd District, Open (Republican Richard Hanna retiring): This is a complicated three-way race that makes it difficult to predict the outcome. Hanna has already said he won't support the GOP nominee, Claudia Tenney, who challenged him in the 2014 primary, and she wasn't national Republicans' first pick either. That might give Democratic nominee Kim Myers the edge, if not for independent challenger Martin Babinec, who has said he would caucus with Republicans if elected and has the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A late September poll gave Tenney a slight edge, but that may have shifted post-Trump tape, though he's not fully a drag in this district. Democrats are hoping that Tenney and Babinec split the GOP vote to help Myers win.
  19. New York's 19th District, Open (Republican Chris Gibson retiring): Former state Assembly Minority Leader John Faso is facing off against Zephyr Teachout, a law school professor who had a surprisingly strong finish in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Late September independent polling showed this very close, and Faso is banking on years of running in the district to help him. Republicans are painting Teachout, who is backed strongly by Bernie Sanders, as too liberal. A late September poll showed this one in a virtual tie.
  20. Pennsylvania's 8th District, Open (Republican Mike Fitzpatrick retiring) Brian Fitzpatrick (R) is running to succeed his brother, and polls show he's benefiting from artificially high name ID for a non-incumbent. State Rep. Steve Santarsiero needs to cut into that, but the Democratic nominee could also be helped by Trump's struggles in the Philadelphia suburbs. This is a key district in the presidential contest and Senate race, and now Democrats are feeling better about this House race as Trump continues to crumble in the Keystone State.
  21. California's 25th District, Republican Steve Knight: The Latino population in this Northern Los Angeles district is growing, while the GOP registration advantage is dwindling. Democrats say Knight is too conservative for this district, particularly on social issues, and have hit him for not backing away from Trump until after his 2005 video comments surfaced. Meanwhile, President Obama has even cut an ad for attorney Bryan Caforio in this district he narrowly lost in 2014. This is Democrats' best shot to knock off a Republican in California.
  22. California's 10th District, Republican Jeff Denham: Initially, Republicans weren't too worried about Denham's rematch with beekeeper Michael Eggman, whom he beat by 12 points in 2014. But Trump has made life difficult for Republicans across the Golden State, including Denham. A recent internal poll from the Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC showed the race was a statistical tie. This is a 40 percent Hispanic district, but it also doesn't have a high percentage of college-educated voters, which means Trump isn't as big a drag as Democrats may hope.
  23. Colorado's 6th District, Republican Mike Coffman: Coffman has run a strong race against Democrat Morgan Carroll, working to separate himself from Trump. An ad back in August even touted that he would "stand up" to Trump, and now he claims he may just skip the presidential question atop his ballot. Democrats are trying to tie him to the GOP nominee nonetheless, and are now airing an ad quoting Coffman saying in 2012 that President Obama was "not an American." Still, Coffman remains in a good position even if the national dynamics have made this suburban Denver district closer than first expected.
  24. Iowa's 3rd District, Republican David Young: Democrat Jim Mowrer, who tried to unseat neighboring Rep. Steve King in 2014, is now challenging the first-term Young. Democrats released a poll that showed the Democrat within striking distance, and they're trying to tie Young to Trump in a district that has tightened after the tape was released and women came forward accusing the GOP nominee of groping them. Young probably still has an edge, but Republicans are newly sweating here.
  25. Wisconsin's 8th District, Open (Republican Reid Ribble retiring): Republican Mike Gallagher, a Marine Corps veteran and former aide to Scott Walker's presidential campaign, had a double-digit lead at the end of August here, but Democrats are doubling down on tying him to Trump. Democrat Tom Nelson's campaign was one of the first to use footage from the 2005 Access Hollywood tape in an ad against his rival, and Democrats have hit Gallagher for still standing by his party's nominee. But Trump isn't necessarily a drag here, a heavily white district with mostly non-college-educated voters.
  26. California's 49th District, Republican Darrell Issa: The former House Oversight Committee chairman made a name for himself in aggressively going after the Obama White House, so you know he's in a lot of trouble when the Republican came out with a mailer praising the president for working with him on a bill to provide sexual-assault protections within the criminal-justice system. Issa, the wealthiest member of Congress, has plenty of his own money to spend here, but national Republicans also worry he started late and didn't realize the drag Trump would be in his heavily educated Orange County district. Even Issa's own polling has shown a tight race with Democrat Doug Applegate, a retired Marine colonel. Applegate has been dogged by a messy divorce in which he was accused of threatening his ex-wife, but even those revelations didn't damage him as much as Republicans had hoped.
  27. Minnesota's 3rd District, Republican Erik Paulsen: This is another suburban district that Democrats hoped early on would be put in play by Trump, and they got a strong recruit in state Sen. Terri Bonoff. But recent independent polling has shown Paulsen still with a comfortable lead even as Clinton was ahead in the suburban Twin Cities district. Paulsen has said he isn't voting for Trump, and Democrats' efforts to tie him to his party's presidential nominee don't look like they've been successful so far.
  28. Michigan's 1st District, Open (Republican Dan Benishek retiring): Democrats had hoped this rural open seat might be easier for them to pick up in the age of Trump, but it hasn't exactly materialized yet. Trump is actually fairly popular still in this Northern Michigan district, so political newcomer Jack Bergman, a retired Marine lieutenant general, will likely keep this one in GOP hands. Democrats' nominee, Lon Johnson (who is married to Obama 2012 Deputy Campaign Manager Julianna Smoot), is a former state party chairman who has had trouble shaking his partisan past in this GOP-leaning district.
  29. New York's 24th District, Republican John Katko: Republicans say this freshman Republican's approval ratings remain strong, and recent independent polling has given him a large lead. Clinton is winning this district, but Katko's ads hitting Democratic nominee Colleen Deacon, a former aide to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, seem to have taken a toll.
  30. New York's 1st District, Republican Lee Zeldin: This first-term incumbent has made many missteps in a district that voted narrowly for Obama in 2012 that might seem to hurt him: not just heavily embracing Trump but suggesting that Obama might be "playing for some other team." But this Long Island district is very pro-Trump, and Democrats admit their usual playbook won't work here. Democratic challenger Anna Throne-Holst has hit Zeldin over his opposition to gun control, and the party hopes that could have an effect in this district. But Democrats aren't optimistic here.
  31. Nebraska's 2nd District, Democrat Brad Ashford: This should be a prime pickup for Republicans, and retired Air Force Brigadier Gen. Don Bacon is a good candidate for Republicans. But Ashford has managed to hone the type of Blue Dog profile that works well here, and his internal numbers in late September showed him up double digits. Republicans have bigger worries in defending seats than trying to get this pickup.
  32. Indiana's 9th District, Open (Republican Todd Young running for Senate): This seat wouldn't even be a worry for Republicans if not for their nominee, Trey Hollingsworth, a wealthy businessman who moved into the district from Tennessee just before the filing deadline last fall. His father has also given to a superPAC that's working to boost his son. Democrats have tagged him as "Tennessee Trey," and polling shows that Democrat Shelli Yoder is within striking distance and is outperforming Democrats at the top of the ticket.
  33. California's 21st District, Republican David Valadao: For most of this cycle, Democrats didn't really believe they had a chance to knock off the popular Valadao, even in this Central Valley district that's nearly three-quarters Hispanic. And their once highly touted recruit, Emilio Huerta, son of famed labor leader Dolores Huerta, didn't live up to the hype after he just narrowly made it into the general. But Democratic polling has shown it's tightened, and House Majority PAC has started spending here, linking Valadao to Trump — even though he has disavowed his party's presidential nominee. Valadao has gone negative against Huerta, which indicates the race is closer than he'd like. But he still has a big financial edge over Huerta, and Democrats may not be able to put this one into play enough so late.
  34. California's 7th District, Democrat Ami Bera: This two-term Democrat came into the race with a big shadow over his head after his father was sent to prison for money laundering after he funneled money into Bera's past campaigns. Bera has said he had no knowledge of his father's actions, but Republicans sensed opportunity and were excited about their candidate, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. But Jones has been grappling with allegations he sexually abused a woman while in office — allegations he denies. This is a tough district for Republicans in a presidential year, and this one just doesn't look like it'll break their way.
  35. Minnesota's 8th District, Democrat Rick Nolan: Wealthy businessman Stewart Mills, a highly vaunted 2014 GOP recruit who didn't exactly live up to his billing, is back again after selling his family's outdoor goods store. Nolan is popular in this Iron Range district, though, and polling well, even if Clinton is not.
  36. Arizona's 1st District, Open (Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick running for Senate): GOP nominee Paul Babeu wasn't Republicans' first choice; he already had plenty of baggage that has only gotten worse, as allegations have come to light of neglect and abuse at a school he used to oversee for troubled youth. Tom O'Halleran, a former GOP legislator, is now Democrats' nominee and should have no trouble keeping this race in their column.
  37. Utah's 4th District, Republican Mia Love: Utah is one of the weirder states this election cycle, as the heavily Mormon state deeply dislikes Trump, giving Clinton, or even independent Evan McMullin, a chance of winning. Those troubles filter down to Love, the first African-American Republican woman ever elected to Congress. She has never seemed to have a firm grip on this district, and she has had to grapple with revelations that she had charged taxpayers for flights back to D.C. to attend the White House Correspondents Dinner. (She later paid back the money for the flights.) Still, even Democrat Doug Owens' own recent polling has shown her with a 10-point lead in a rematch of their 2014 contest.
  38. Kansas' 3rd District, Republican Kevin Yoder: This is a sleeper race that is surprisingly close in ruby-red Kansas. Democratic polling has their candidate, Jay Sidie, within striking distance, and the party thinks its attacks on Yoder, tying him to unpopular Gov. Sam Brownback and his education cuts that Yoder voted for in the state Legislature back in 2009, have worked. Keep an eye on this contest as a good bellwether for just how big GOP losses might be on election night.
  39. Colorado's 3rd District, Republican Scott Tipton: This is another district that Democrats believed Trump would put on the map for them. This expansive Western Slope district has some Republican and Democratic pockets, and Democratic nominee Gail Schwartz has outraised Tipton. Both Democratic and Republican superPACs are spending here, but Democrats acknowledge it's still an uphill climb.
  40. New York's 3rd District, Open (Democrat Steve Israel retiring): This was an early GOP target and would be a moral prize as well if it managed to flip the seat of the former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman. Republican Jack Martins says his polling shows him up, but independent surveys have given Democrat Tom Suozzi a double-digit lead, and national Republicans pulled their money from this district, too. Suozzi should win this one.
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