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Ratings show GOP taking House control, but no red wave — yet

At this point, Democratic candidates overperforming Biden

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., right, and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., conduct a news conference about President Joe Biden's first year in office on Jan. 20.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., right, and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., conduct a news conference about President Joe Biden's first year in office on Jan. 20. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — If the election were held today, it looks as if Republicans would gain seven House seats, according to Inside Elections’ individual race ratings. While that would be enough for the majority, it certainly wouldn’t qualify as a red wave. 

Still, that doesn’t mean Democrats can rest easy, and GOP gains are likely to be higher. 

If you tally all the races rated as Solid Republican, Likely Republican, Lean Republican and Tilt Republican, and split the 18 Toss-up races evenly, Republicans would have 221 seats. That would be a net gain of seven seats. They need a net gain of only four for the majority. 

Of course, Republicans wouldn’t turn that down, but it would be a minuscule gain and a massive disappointment for the GOP because the expectations and current projections are high.

Over the past century, the president’s party has lost an average of 30 House seats in midterm elections. Midterm elections are typically performance reviews on the sitting president, and Joe Biden’s job rating is in rough shape. He’s at 39 percent approve and 56 percent disapprove, according to the latest FiveThirtyEight average, with no sign of a rebound. 

Seventy-five percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, compared with just 18 percent who believe the country is headed in the right direction, according to the RealClearPolitics average. That’s usually not good for the party in power, and Democrats control the executive and legislative branches of government.

When people are asked which party they want in control of Congress, Republicans have a 1.9-point lead, according to the averages on FiveThirtyEight and on RealClearPolitics. At least one model, from Emory University professor Alan Abramowitz, suggests that a generic ballot lead of that size should power Republicans to a 19-seat gain in the House. 

Candidates outperform Biden

All of that means Republicans should do very well this November. So why does the micro analysis lag behind the macro predictions of big GOP gains?

Many of the limited polls in individual races show Democratic candidates outperforming Biden’s job rating by a significant margin. For now, voters appear to be making a distinction between their disapproval of the president and their congressional vote. That makes it difficult to “bury” Democratic incumbents in the ratings — rate them as underdogs more than three months before Election Day — when they are running ahead of their GOP challengers. 

That’s also fueling Democratic hopes that their candidates have personal brands that can withstand the nationalization of congressional elections. While it’s possible that that dynamic continues, it’s more likely that the gap between Biden’s job rating and Democratic performance closes between now and November, and Democratic candidates are pulled down by the weight of their president. 

There’s already some evidence that Republicans are headed for significant gains. 

The House battleground is disproportionately Democratic territory. Redistricting can make it complicated to assign incumbency and specific seats to a party, but Democrats currently represent 55 districts rated as competitive, compared to Republicans, who represent just 23. If the cycle progresses as expected against the Democratic Party, that discrepancy will grow. 

In July 2010, The Rothenberg Political Report rated 76 Democratic-held seats and 12 Republican-held seats as competitive, with an overall projection of a 28- to 33-seat gain for Republicans, with possibly larger gains in excess of 40 seats.

By that November, the House battleground had shifted even more. The Rothenberg Report had 100 vulnerable Democratic seats and just nine vulnerable Republican seats and upped the overall projection to a GOP gain of 55 to 65 seats. Republicans gained 63 that year. 

In late August 2006, the House battleground was skewed against Republicans. The Rothenberg Report rated 46 GOP-held seats and 10 Democratic-held seats as competitive and projected a Democratic gain of 15 to 20 seats. 

By November, the House battleground has shifted even more. The Rothenberg Report had 57 vulnerable Republican seats, just five vulnerable Democratic seats and an overall projection of a Democratic gain of 34 to 40 seats. Democrats gained 31 House seats that cycle. 

The shape and size of the battleground might not shift as dramatically against Democrats this cycle because redistricting put a handful of GOP incumbents in a difficult position. But unless something dramatically changes the trajectory of the cycle, it’s more likely that some seats currently held by Republicans fall off the House battleground and are re-rated as Solid GOP, while some Democratic-held seats that were previously thought to be out of reach are re-rated as competitive and added to the House playing field. And it’s likely that Republicans win a disproportionately higher share of the Toss-up races. 

Republicans may have eaten into their potential 2022 gains by outperforming expectations and gaining a dozen House seats in 2020. But they’re still on track to do well and likely reach well into the double digits this fall.

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

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