Skip to content

Roads to the House majority: Interstate 80

Coast-to-coast highway goes through nine competitive districts

California Republican Rep. Kevin Kiley, pictured at a news conference with Speaker Mike Johnson in December, is one of nine House members whose battleground districts include part of Interstate 80.
California Republican Rep. Kevin Kiley, pictured at a news conference with Speaker Mike Johnson in December, is one of nine House members whose battleground districts include part of Interstate 80. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Third in an occasional series

Democrats’ path to the House majority was challenging before President Joe Biden’s debate performance. But even with his struggles and the uncertainty at the top of the ticket, the House remains closely divided and control is on the line in November. 

Talking about a “path to the majority” is typical political parlance — it means adding up the seats each party would need to win to get to 218. But there are also a handful of literal roads that connect competitive congressional seats.

Over the past month, we’ve driven down Interstate 5, a stretch of 1,400 miles on the West Coast that includes a dozen competitive House races, and Interstate 95 along the East Coast, which stretches more than 1,900 miles from Miami to northern Maine and includes a half-dozen key seats. 

This week on “Roads to the Majority,” we’re traveling across Middle America along Interstate 80 to understand whether Republicans or Democrats will control the House next year. Interstate 80 stretches nearly 3,000 miles from San Francisco to New York City (well, 4 miles short in Teaneck, N.J.) and runs through nine districts rated as competitive by Inside Elections. 

Democrats currently control five of the seats (Illinois’ 17th District, Indiana’s 1st, Ohio’s 9th and 13th, and Pennsylvania’s 8th), while Republicans control four districts (California’s 3rd, Nebraska’s 2nd, and Iowa’s 1st and 3rd).

Considering the fight along Interstate 80 features the three most evenly divided seats in the country and some of Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents including Marcy Kaptur, Emilia Sykes and Matt Cartwright, the party might be happy to break even. But 80 also includes some of the most vulnerable Republicans, including Don Bacon and Mariannette Miller-Meeks, so netting a seat or two along the interstate would help boost the Democratic effort to gain four seats needed for a majority. 

So get some more snacks (maybe some fruit at this point), ask for your friend’s best playlist, download episodes of the Inside Elections podcast or Political Theater and buckle up. Here’s a breakdown of the races, separated by how the highway is known in that region.

California: 80

The first stop traveling from west to east is California’s 3rd District, nestled between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, on the way to Reno, Nev. Former President Donald Trump narrowly won the district with 49.7 percent in 2020, but Democrats have believed presidential turnout will help their nominee, Jessica Morse, knock off GOP Rep. Kevin Kiley.  

Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright gives an interview in his Rayburn Building office on March 1, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Morse has bolstered her campaign and improved her fundraising since a 2018 loss to GOP Rep. Tom McClintock, but Biden isn’t doing her any favors at the top of the ticket. If the national political environment was positive for Democrats, this would be an easier takeover target. But the race is currently rated Likely Republican. 

Nebraska: I-80

It’s quite a trek to the next competitive district, across Nevada, through Salt Lake City, southern Wyoming and most of Nebraska before arriving at Nebraska’s 2nd District. While Nebraska is often thought of as a rural Republican state, the Omaha-based 2nd District is suburban and competitive. According to Inside Elections’ Baseline, it’s one of the three most evenly divided districts in the country.

Bacon has been a perennial Democratic target since he was first elected in 2016. But the congressman has done a good job of cultivating a moderate image and overperforms typical GOP candidates in the district. Democratic state Sen. Tony Vargas lost to Bacon by 2.6 points in 2022 but is back for a rematch. Even though Biden is struggling to match his 2020 totals around the country, Democrats believe Trump is toxic in the district and Biden is still well-positioned to win the district’s Electoral College vote. The congressional race is rated Tilt Republican. 

Iowa and Illinois: 80

Not too far down the road is Iowa’s 3rd District, which is anchored by Des Moines but includes much of the rural southwest corner of the state. It’s a competitive district that Trump won narrowly with 49 percent in 2020 and is currently represented by GOP Rep. Zach Nunn, who defeated Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne in a very close race in 2022. 

Democrats are excited about their 2024 nominee, Army veteran and former Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture Lanon Baccam, and believe there are more votes available in the Des Moines area. But Nunn has avoided controversy in his first term, and there isn’t much evidence Democrats are poised to surge in Iowa this fall. The race is rated Tilt Republican. 

The 1st District next door includes much of southeast Iowa from east of Des Moines to the Illinois border. After a trio of congressional losses, Miller-Meeks finally prevailed in 2020 by six votes in the nation’s closest race of the cycle. 

Iowa Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference at the Capitol Hill Club on Jan. 30. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In 2022, she defeated former state Rep. Christina Bohannan by more than 6 points, but that hasn’t decreased Democratic enthusiasm about the race. Bohannan is back and better-funded (she actually matched the incumbent in fundraising through May 15) and Miller-Meeks posted an underwhelming primary victory against an underfunded challenger. But the congresswoman might end up being saved by the cycle and a strong top of the ticket. The race is rated Lean Republican.

Further east, the interstate nearly bisects Illinois’ 17th District and is the political dividing line in the state. Politicians from north of 80 are regarded as Chicago hacks, while those south of 80 are considered rubes by those on the other side of the freeway. 

Republicans believe that Democratic Rep. Eric Sorensen is out of step with the district in the north-central part of the state from Rockford to the Quad Cities area to Bloomington. The GOP nominated retired judge Joe McGraw, but outside groups have yet to invest in the race, a sign that optimism is limited. But if Biden falls significantly from his 53 percent showing in 2020, then this race could get some late attention. The race is rated Lean Democratic.

Indiana: Interstate 94

As 80 stretches across Illinois into Indiana, it runs concurrently with Interstate 94 in Indiana’s 1st District, outside of Chicago, including Gary in the northwest corner of the state. 

Even though Biden defeated Trump in the district with 53 percent in 2020, Republicans entered 2022 optimistic that the blue-collar district was moving in their direction. Democratic Rep. Frank Mrvan’s 53 percent reelection slowed the GOP enthusiasm a bit, but hope is renewed with trucking company owner Randy Niemeyer as the nominee this fall. Niemeyer has local roots in the district, but his fundraising has been modest and he will likely need help from the top of the ticket. The race is rated Likely Democratic.

The Ohio Turnpike

Interstate 90/80 stretches across Indiana and becomes the Ohio Turnpike, which runs across the length of Ohio’s 9th District across the northern half of the state. Representing a district that Trump won with 51 percent in 2020, Democrat Kaptur is one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country. 

She won reelection in 2022 against a flawed nominee, but Republicans navigated a complicated primary process this cycle and nominated a more conventional candidate in state Rep. Derek Merrin. With little help from the presidential race, this will be Kaptur’s toughest general election yet, but Republicans have to prove they can knock off the longtime incumbent in this Toledo-area seat. The race is rated Tilt Democratic.

Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur speaks to a reporter at the House steps on Sept. 30, 2022. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Further east and south of Cleveland, the Ohio Turnpike stretches across the northern part of Ohio’s 13th District. The seat is anchored by Akron and represented by Sykes. The Democrat was elected in 2022 with 53 percent in a district where Biden received 51 percent in 2020, and the 13th is considered one of the three most evenly divided districts in the country, according to Inside Elections’ Baseline.

The top of the ticket could be complicated. Trump could win it with Biden slumping across the board, but the district is critical to Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is up for reelection and won the 13th by 15 points in 2018. No matter what happens in those races, GOP strategists admit that former state Sen. Kevin Coughlin needs to raise more money. The race is rated Tilt Democratic. 

Pennsylvania: 80

And finally, the interstate runs across central Pennsylvania to the 8th District, including Scranton and Wilkes-Barre in the northeast part of the Keystone State. Cartwright is a rare Democrat who represents a district Trump carried in 2020, but he’s proved to be a difficult incumbent to oust. 

As a businessman who runs a unionized company, Republicans are excited about Kuharchik Construction CEO Robert Bresnahan. GOP strategists hope his background and personal wealth — he put $800,000 of his own money into the race through April 3 — will help them finally push Cartwright into retirement. Under the current political conditions, Trump looks likely to win the district again, and it remains to be seen whether Democratic Sen. Bob Casey can recreate his 6-point victory from 2018. The congressional race is rated Tilt Democratic.

Recent Stories

Fact-checking Day 3 of the Republican National Convention

Vance delivers populist message as he accepts VP nomination

Vance’s ascension solidifies isolationist faction of GOP

Biden tests positive for COVID, cancels event

Vance quietly tried to shape public health agenda in Congress

Schiff urging Biden to quit race shows issue is not going away