House Republicans Shouldn’t Get Too Comfortable in Majority

Number of competitive races could balloon before Election Day

Donald Trump is no Franklin Roosevelt, a president who encouraged a sense that Americans were bound together in common cause, Walter Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Donald Trump is no Franklin Roosevelt, a president who encouraged a sense that Americans were bound together in common cause, Walter Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 6, 2017 at 12:01am

Republican gerrymandering has put the House majority out of reach for Democrats, we’re told. But even though the initial playing field of competitive races is probably too small for the GOP to fall into the minority, Republicans shouldn’t get too comfortable. The playing field could expand dramatically over the next 20 months.

Inside Elections (formerly The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report) rated 43 House races as competitive in its initial 2018 ratings. That total includes 28 seats held by Republicans and 15 seats held by Democrats.

Democrats need to gain 24 seats to regain the House majority, which means they would need to win all but four of the competitive districts to get to 218. That’s possible, but not likely.

[Roll Call’s 2018 Election Guide: House Ratings | Senate Ratings]

What’s more likely is that the playing field could expand in reaction to a polarizing and unpopular President Donald Trump with more Republican seats becoming legitimate takeover targets for Democrats.

Favorable GOP congressional maps in Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida, for example, have limited Democratic takeover opportunities for most of the decade. But those maps were drawn to withstand political storms, not a tsunami.

The president’s party has lost House seats in 18 of the last 20 midterm elections, with an average loss of 33 House seats in those 18 cycles. And there is some precedent for a shifting playing field under the right conditions.

In January 2009, The Rothenberg Political Report listed 33 competitive seats (23 held by Democrats and 10 held by Republicans). Over the course of almost two years, the playing field ballooned to 107 competitive seats (98 Democratic seats and just 9 Republican seats) before Election Day, after the cycle spiraled out of control from President Barack Obama and his party. Democrats lost 63 House seats in 2010.

In February 2005, the Report listed 23 competitive races (16 Republican seats and 7 Democratic seats). By November 2006, the playing field expanded to 62 seats (57 Republican and 5 Democratic) and Republicans lost 30 seats.

The Report hadn’t yet started its traditional rating system for House races at the beginning of the 1994 cycle. But by Election Day, 141 House seats were rated as competitive, including 95 Democratic seats, 45 Republican seats, and one held by an independent. Democrats lost 54 seats that fall.

It’s not clear whether the 2016 presidential results represent a trend or an aberration in key districts. And there isn’t a guarantee that voters will blame congressional Republicans in the same way they typically hold the president’s party responsible for executive action (or inaction).

For now, Democrats are in for a district-by-district slog against a slate of tough GOP incumbents, even those who represent Clinton districts. But a combination of Democratic enthusiasm and Republican apathy could create a midterm wave against GOP candidates and a larger slate of competitive seats.