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Is the competitive House battleground due to shrink?

Competition declined in cycles following redistricting in past two decades

The Nebraska district of Republican Rep. Don Bacon seems like a perennial part of the House battlefield.
The Nebraska district of Republican Rep. Don Bacon seems like a perennial part of the House battlefield. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Corrected 12:40 p.m. | ANALYSIS — Are there fewer competitive House races than usual? A review of 30 years of race ratings tells us no. But it’s too early to tell what the 2024 battlefield will look like. 

With Republicans clinging to a narrow House majority, there doesn’t have to be a large battlefield or political wave for Democrats to gain the five seats they need to reclaim control. But it’s fashionable to bemoan the dearth of competitive House districts. Typically gerrymandering and partisanship are to blame, even though an analysis of previous cycles shows there are slightly more competitive races than average. 

Looking back, the 2022 election cycle featured more competitive House races than the average going back to 1994, when The Rothenberg Political Report started releasing formal race ratings. The average number of competitive House races going back three decades was 74, and there were 83 competitive House races on Inside Elections’ final, preelection ratings in 2022

There is a broad spectrum of cycles represented in that 30-year span, including large House battlefields in 1994 (141 competitive races), 1996 (137) and 2010, when Democrats were defending 100 of 109 competitive seats. On the other end of the spectrum, there were just 38 competitive districts in 2004, 42 in 2014 and 40 in 2016

Competitive races are defined as any contest not rated as Solid Republican or Solid Democratic. 

Inside Elections has not yet released House race ratings for the 2024 cycle, but it’s not unreasonable to see an initial battlefield similar to the one at the end of last cycle. In 2022, Republicans won 18 districts Joe Biden would have carried in 2020 and 37 more districts that President Donald Trump won by 10 points or less. Democrats won five districts Trump won in 2020 and 25 more that Biden won by 10 points or less. In total, that would be 85 seats. 

Other outlets, such as the Brennan Center for Justice, define competitive as districts where Biden or Trump won by less than 8 points. There are 30 of those for each party, for a total of 60 competitive seats, which would be lower than average but very close to the median (64).  

If you remove the 1994 and 1996 ratings because of extreme political shifts — the House majority was in play for the first time in decades — and rating races was still a nascent art, that would pull down the average House battlefield to 64 races. 

Some of the discrepancy in the discussion about competitive House races is from a lack of clarity of definitions. There’s a difference between a swing district and a competitive race, even though the terms are often used interchangeably. It’s similar to the difference between a battleground state and a swing state. 

A swing district has relatively even partisan performance, while a competitive race happens when either Republicans or Democrats have a legitimate chance of winning the seat. Competitive races can take place in swing districts or solid districts because competitiveness takes into account candidate quality, fundraising, the national political environment and other factors beyond past election results.

No matter the definition, some seats, such as Nebraska’s 2nd District, look like perennial battleground terrain. GOP Rep. Don Bacon represents the Omaha-area seat that Biden won by 6 points in 2020, and the congressman won reelection to a fourth term by 2.6 points in 2022.

Other seats prove that presidential outcomes are not the only factor in measuring competitiveness. Biden won Pennsylvania’s 1st District by nearly 5 points, yet Democrats haven’t shown any ability to put a scare into GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. And Trump won Alaska by 10 points, yet Republicans will be hard-pressed to defeat Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola in 2024. 

Yes, the number of competitive House races is small as a percentage of the total House of Representatives. Only 10-20 percent of the 435 seats in the House are usually competitive on a cycle-by-cycle basis. But comparing the raw numbers of competitive races, there hasn’t been dramatic change in either direction. 

This cycle will test a potential trend. Two of the smallest House battlefields in recent history occurred in years that followed a redistricting cycle: 2004 (38 races) and 2014 (42). That’s certainly a small sample size, so the 2024 cycle will provide more evidence whether there’s an immediate post-redistricting shrinking of the battlefield before other electoral forces take over as the decade progresses.

Rep. Don Bacon‘s winning margin in November is corrected in this report.

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

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