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Ratings update: Democrats more likely to boost majority than lose it

Battlefield shrinking, as some who flipped Trump districts now look safer

ANALYSIS — The battlefield for control of the House is shrinking and divided, and that’s bad news for Republicans. Indeed, Democrats at this point in the cycle look more likely to gain seats than to lose their majority.

The latest round of rating changes by Inside Elections saw seven races shift to Solid and off the list of the most competitive contests (viewed as seats where either party has a significant chance of winning). The dropped districts currently held by Democrats are California’s 10th (Josh Harder) and 45th (Katie Porter), and New York’s 19th (Antonio Delgado). The four districts that shifted from Likely Republican to Solid Republican are North Carolina’s 9th (Dan Bishop), Ohio’s 12th (Troy Balderson), and Texas’ 2nd (Daniel Crenshaw) and 31st (John Carter). 

With those changes, the House battlefield consists of 31 districts currently represented by Democrats, 28 districts currently held by Republicans, and the open seat being vacated by Michigan Libertarian Justin Amash, who is not seeking reelection. Republicans need to gain 17 seats in November to retake the House. 

With that battlefield and President Donald Trump struggling to reach his 2016 marks in key districts, the most likely outcome for the House is close to the status quo. The most likely range is a Republican gain of five seats to a Democratic gain of five seats, or something in between. 

The size and composition of the battlefield can foreshadow the election to come.

In the May 2018 ratings, the fight for the House was being played out on GOP territory. Republicans were defending 68 vulnerable seats compared with just 10 for Democrats, who gained a net of 40 seats later that November. 

In May 2016, the House battlefield was more narrow, with Democrats defending seven vulnerable seats compared with 25 vulnerable Republican ones. Democrats netted a modest six seats that fall. 

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At this stage, Republicans’ best-case scenario might be a replay of 2014, when the May House battlefield was nearly evenly divided (24 Democratic and 27 GOP vulnerable seats) and Republicans gained 13 seats in November. That would still leave Republicans four short of a majority this cycle.

In 2008, when Democrats gained 20 House seats, which is close to the number Republicans need this year, the House battlefield was already tilting in their favor in May. Democrats were defending 37 vulnerable districts compared with 25 held by Republicans. House Democrats today don’t mind the comparison to 2008 because they’re trying to replicate the 2006-2008 combination with gains in 2018 and 2020. 

Trump underperforming

Republicans’ bigger challenge is that Trump is underperforming his own results from 2016. The most common statistic cited in the GOP’s path to the majority is the 30 House Democrats who represent seats Trump carried four years ago. 

A handful of those races, however, are not even rated as competitive because of the lack of a credible GOP challenger, and there’s no guarantee Trump will carry those districts again. If Trump falters by just 3 points and Biden runs ahead of Hillary Clinton by 3 points, the president would carry just 13 of the 30 districts again. Even if Republicans win all of those 13 (which they won’t), that would still leave them short of a majority. 

Even within the batch of the most vulnerable Democrats, Republicans are struggling to put those races away. Banking easy races early frees up resources to win the second tier of takeover targets, which are necessary for a majority. 

Vulnerable Democrats in better shape for reelection include Lauren Underwood (Illinois’ 14th, Tilt Democratic to Lean Democratic), Andy Kim (New Jersey’s 3rd, Tilt Democratic to Lean Democratic), Anthony Brindisi (New York’s 22nd, Toss-up to Tilt Democratic), and Ben McAdams (Utah’s 4th, Toss-up to Tilt Democratic). 

Republican Rep. Mike Garcia took back a California seat earlier this month that the Democrats flipped in 2018, but his reelection race in November is rated Tilts Democratic. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Democratic chances also improved in Nevada’s 3rd District, represented by Democrat Susie Lee, where the race moved from Lean Democratic to Likely Democratic, and Texas’ 21st, where GOP Rep. Chip Roy is facing a well-financed fight from Democrat Wendy Davis, and the contest shifted from Likely Republican to Lean Republican. And the race for Montana’s at-large district was added to the battlefield from Solid Republican to Likely Republican with a strong early showing by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in the Senate race at the top of the ballot. 

Republican Mike Garcia’s victory in the recent special election in California’s 25th District is certainly a GOP bright spot. His candidacy and margin of victory improves the party’s chances of holding the seat in November, when approximately 100,000 more residents will cast a ballot compared with the May election. The November rating of Likely Democratic in California’s 25th shifted to Tilt Democratic. 

While Garcia could win reelection, Republicans need Trump to improve his standing in competitive districts to boost GOP challengers in down-ballot contests who will be outspent by well-financed Democratic incumbents. That’s because, right now, Republicans can’t cherry-pick their way to a majority.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.

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