House Seats You Think Can’t Flip But Might

Responses to the “generic ballot” poll question suggest a partisan electoral wave is building. But the fight for control of the House isn’t a single national election. It will be fought district by district, and national Democrats face challenges on the ground even with the generic ballot favoring them.

In Michigan, according to America Votes 2007-2008, the statewide congressional vote shifted noticeably from 2004 to 2006 — from 49 percent Republican and 48 percent Democratic to 53 percent Democratic and 44 percent Republican — but that popular vote surge for the Democrats didn’t translate to a shift of even a single House seat.

GOP strategists had done a good job drawing district lines to protect Republicans. Most political junkies look to past election results to see which incumbents and districts could be at risk in the next election. This year, the focus has been on 23 House Republicans sitting in districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

That’s certainly a good place to start, but it’s a bad place to stop, especially in an electoral wave. Where else should you look for vulnerable House Republicans?

Dramatic reversals

Incumbents who win with nearly 60 percent are often categorized as “safe,” but a quick glance at recent election results finds that Republicans who won by 20 points in 2004 weren’t slam dunks for re-election two years later during a Democratic electorate wave, especially if those House members had not faced a serious test in years.

Republican Sue W. Kelly, first elected to Congress in 1994, drew 70 percent of the vote in 2002 and won re-election with 67 percent two years later in New York’s 19th District.

President George W. Bush carried her district comfortably, 53 percent to 45 percent, when he was re-elected in 2004. Those percentages suggested Kelly would win in 2006, but she was upset by Democrat John Hall.

Hall initially was regarded as a songwriting political lightweight with little chance to win. But Kelly’s 67 percent showing in 2004 plummeted to 49 percent two years later — a drop of almost 18 points.

Her 33-point victory margin in 2004 turned into a 2-point deficit in 2006. And Kelly was not alone in feeling the impact of the electoral wave.

Nancy L. Johnson, an influential GOP moderate from Connecticut, drew 60 percent in 2004 but less than 44 percent in 2006.

Melissa A. Hart, an up-and-coming conservative Republican from western Pennsylvania, won with 65 percent in 2002 and 63 percent in 2004 but lost with only 48 percent two years later.

In the Philadelphia suburbs, Curt Weldon’s 59 percent showing in 2004 plunged to 44 percent in 2006.

California Republican Richard W. Pombo’s 61 percent showing in 2004 fell to 47 percent in 2006.

And Arizona’s J.D. Hayworth, a political bomb thrower who eventually challenged John McCain in the 2010 Arizona GOP Senate primary, coasted to re-election with around 60 percent of the vote in 2002 and 2004 but drew just 46 percent in 2006, when he was defeated by Democrat Harry E. Mitchell.

And there are others.

Florida’s E. Clay Shaw Jr., New Hampshire’s Jeb Bradley and Kentucky’s Anne M. Northup all won with over 60 percent of the vote in 2004 but lost two years later.

A wider playing field

The same thing is likely to happen this year.

Seats that looked safe before the wave will eventually be categorized as endangered.

Potentially vulnerable incumbents can initially appear entrenched because of their weak opponents or because the national environment favored their party or all incumbents. But a political wave creates an entirely different dynamic, exposing hidden weaknesses. The 1994 defeat of powerful House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, a Democrat, is all the proof you need of that.

So, some GOP incumbents who won comfortably in the past are at risk this year. I would certainly keep an eye on Trump districts that went for Barack Obama twice.

Those 11 districts include four in the Empire State — New York’s 1st (Lee Zeldin), 2nd (Peter T. King), 19th (John J. Faso) and 21st (Elise Stefanik) — and two in the Garden State: New Jersey’s 2nd (left open by retiring Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo) and 3rd (Tom MacArthur).

That list also includes two seats in Iowa — the 1st District (Rod Blum) and 3rd (David Young) — and one each in Illinois, Maine and Minnesota — Illinois’ 12th (Mike Bost), Maine’s 2nd (Bruce Poliquin) and Minnesota’s 2nd (Jason Lewis).

Beyond that are six districts that Obama carried once and Donald Trump won with less than 50 percent of the vote. That list includes two in Illinois — the 13th (Rodney Davis) and 14th (Randy Hultgren) — and one each in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Washington — Michigan’s 11th (left open by retiring Rep. Dave Trott), Nebraska’s 2nd (Don Bacon), Pennsylvania’s 8th (Brian Fitzpatrick) and Washington’s 3rd (Jaime Herrera Beutler).

Even more challenging districts already offer Democrats opportunities. Trump took just over 50 percent of the vote in Michigan’s 8th, and Obama carried the district only in 2008. But Republican Mike Bishop’s Democratic challenger this year, Elissa Slotkin, is receiving rave reviews because of her credentials — she has held posts at the White House, Defense Department, State Department and CIA — and her fundraising.

Additionally, Democratic challengers in Utah’s 4th (Mia Love), Kansas’ 2nd (left open by retiring Rep. Lynn Jenkins) and Kentucky’s 6th (Andy Barr) have put Republican districts in play.

Finally, make certain a handful of other GOP-held seats are on your watch list, given their past performance: Pennsylvania’s 15th (left open by retiring Rep. Charlie Dent) and 16th (Lloyd K. Smucker), Virginia’s 2nd (Scott Taylor), New York’s 22nd (Claudia Tenney) and 23rd (Tom Reed), Ohio’s 10th (Michael R. Turner) and even New Jersey’s 11th (Rodney Frelinghuysen).

When this cycle began, we repeatedly heard how few House districts were competitive and how difficult it would be for Democrats to make substantial net gains. But political waves tend to create a much wider playing field, and that is an increasingly dangerous development this year for GOP campaign strategists and House members.

This column was originally published by Roll Call on January 3, 2018.

Why You Should Focus on Independents from Now to the Midterms

In my last column, I wrote about Donald Trump’s job approval ratings among Republicans, Democrats and Independents, noting that his standing among all groups is important. But my primary focus for 2018 should be on Independents, who are likely to be the canary in the coal mine for the midterm elections.

How Independents vote, either on the presidential ballot or the national House ballot (depending on whether it’s a presidential year or not), turns out to be a pretty good indicator of the type of election we are going to have.

Since 2000, Independents have sometimes broken evenly between the two parties (2000, 2004, 2012 and 2016), sometimes given one party a clear advantage (2008 and 2014) and sometimes showed an overwhelming preference toward one party (2006 and 2010), according to exit polls.

When Independents break roughly evenly between the two parties, net House gains/losses are small. But when those voters overwhelmingly prefer one party over the other – as they did in 2006 when Independents heavily preferred Democrats and 2010 when they preferred Republicans – a partisan wave developed.

Since 2000 (and excluding 2002, when the exit poll was tainted), there have been four elections – all of them in presidential years – when Independents split roughly evenly.

Republicans had a narrow four-point advantage among Independents in 2016 (46%-42%), a five-point advantage in 2012 (50%-45%) and a two-point advantage in 2000 (48%-46%). Democrats had a mere one-point advantage in 2004 (49%-48%).

Not surprisingly, all four of those presidential contests were very close. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by just over two points, and Barack Obama carried it by just under four points. George W. Bush won by 2.4 points in 2004. Four years earlier, the presidential race was a virtual popular vote dead heat.

In other words, the tight contests among Independents reflected the tight races nationally.

Two elections, both midterms, were clear blow-outs.

In 2006, Democrats gained 31 House seats, in part because they carried Independents by a stunning 18-points (57%-39%), according to the national House exit poll.

Four years later, a Republican tsunami produced a GOP gain of 63 House seats. Independents preferred Republicans by 19 points (56%-37%).

Part of the reason for the two waves is that Independents acted more like partisans than they normally do. Their strong preference for one party or the other contributed to the wave but also reflected broader sentiment among the larger electorate.

Two elections, 2008 and 2014, were neither waves nor close contests.

Independents went Democratic by eight points in 2008 (52%-44%), which produced Democratic House gains of 21 seats. In 2014, Independents preferred Republicans by twelve points (54%- 42%), which resulted in a GOP gain of 13 seats.

So, how does all this history play in 2018?

Democrats need to net at least 24 House seats to take back the chamber, which means that they will need something approaching a partisan wave because of the way congressional districts were drawn at the beginning of this decade.

If you see Independents breaking narrowly toward Democrats (for example, in national generic ballot tests), you’ll know that it’s unlikely the House will flip. But if Independents are going heavily Democratic, in the 15- to 20-point range, the House is much more likely to switch party control.

Midterms have tended to produce much wider swings among Independents than have presidential contests, and that trend is likely to hold again in 2018. But we don’t yet know how big the Democratic wave will be.

Independent voters’ attitudes should be an early warning sign for both parties about the midterms. With any luck, a major media organization or two will conduct national polls with an oversample of Independents to help us track their preferences and intentions.