Democracy at Work, Part I: House Races

New Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards
New Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards

In a presidential election year, it’s easy to forget that there are many other elections taking place down the ballot, which are just as important, if not more so, than the top of the ticket.  In an off year like 2015 was, it’s easier to forget that elections are even going on at all, as your friendly neighborhood Jam did.  The two most significant and surprising election results from last year happened in Louisiana and Kentucky.  Scandal-drenched Senator David Vitter (R) finally met his end when John Bel Edwards (D) scored a victory in the Bayou State gubernatorial race.  It seems many Republicans who voted for other Republican candidates in the initial all-party “jungle primary” crossed over and voted for Edwards in the runoff, allowing him to secure a comfortable 56%-44% victory.  Edwards wasted no time currying favor with progressives, signing an executive order banning discrimination against LGBT individuals in state agency jobs, as well as rescinding an order his Republican predecessor signed that protected businesses and nonprofits from being legally punished from holding anti-same sex marriage views.

In Kentucky, Matt Bevin (R) was often thought of as too conservative and polarizing to win the governorship, even in a red state.  But Kentucky has become one of the most anti-Obama states in the nation, and that partisan gravity proved to be enough to drag Bevin across the finish line.  After a razor-thin (83 votes!) victory in the Republican primary, Bevin scored a nine-point win over Democrat Jack Conway, who is probably gaining a Martha Coakley-like reputation for losing winnable elections in the state these days.  Bevin’s approval rating has fallen sharply since he dismantled Kentucky’s health insurance exchange established as part of the federal Affordable Care Act, as well as fights over the budget and minimum wage policies, among others.  In the only other gubernatorial election of 2015, Republican Phil Bryant coasted to victory in Mississippi.  Most other state-level offices in the three states above remained with the incumbent party.  Three special elections for the US House of Representatives also were held by the incumbent party.

New Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin
New Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin

I’d like to start off our 2016 coverage the same way I did in 2014, by taking a look at the country’s most interesting House races.  Right now, Republicans have a 247-186 edge, and Democrats need to win 32 seats to take the majority.  I’m going to take the same “big picture” approach that I took in that post, while zooming in on some races that look interesting for one reason or another.  First, there are a few more districts than normal this year where the opposing party is favored to take over.  Let’s start off by looking at those.

I’ll be making references throughout this post to districts’ Partisan Voting Index (PVI), which is a measure pundit Charlie Cook uses of how Democratic or Republican a district is compared to the country as a whole.  A PVI of R+5, for instance, shows that a district is five points more Republican than the country as a whole (* denotes incumbent).  A few of these districts have primaries still to be held, and where appropriate, I’ve inserted who I believe to be the likely winner in each one.

FL-02: TBA vs. TBA

FL-10: Val Demings (D) vs. Thuy Lowe (R)

VA-04: Donald McEachin (D) vs. Mike Wade (R)

FL-13: Charlie Crist (D) vs. David Jolly (R)*

IA-01: Monica Vernon (D) vs. Rod Blum (R)*

MN-02: Angie Craig (D) vs. Jason Lewis (R)

NH-01: Carol Shea-Porter (D) vs. Frank Giunta (R)

NV-03: Jacky Rosen (D) vs. Danny Tarkanian (R)

NV-04: Ruben Kihuen (D) vs. Cresent Hardy (R)*

If you think that this list looks longer than it should, you’re right.  Court-ordered redrawing of Congressional district maps in Florida and Virginia have added four seats to this list that might otherwise not be here.  In the first two seats in Florida, the territory became so unfavorable for their parties that incumbents Gwen Graham (D) and Daniel Webster (R), respectively chose to wave the white flag rather than run in what appeared to be an unwinnable election.  Those seats should flip easily.  Florida’s 13th District is a little more competitive.  After initially wanting to run for US Senate, Jolly withdrew in deference to incumbent Marco Rubio, who reentered the race on June 22 after saying he would not run.  Jolly will face Mark Bircher in the Republican primary, but his incumbency status should enable him to prevail despite Bircher having some name recognition for having run in the Republican primary for the seat in the 2014 special election.  If he wins there, he will face Democrat Charlie Crist, who narrowly failed to recapture the governor’s mansion in 2014.  Despite having an R+1 PVI, the district appears to have gotten a little more Democratic in redistricting, so Crist should have the edge.  But Crist backers should know not to count their chickens yet.  Crist has blown polling leads in his last two elections, when Rubio drove him from the Republican primary for Senate in 2010, and when he lost to unpopular incumbent Rick Scott in 2014.

Randy Forbes fled Virginia’s 4th Congressional District to run in the 2nd (in place of the retiring Scott Rigell) after the 4th became much more Democratic in redistricting, leaving the door open for Donald McEachin to take the seat.  McEachin has been in the spotlight before, having run for Attorney General in 2001 when he was a member of the House of Delegates.  After his loss, he won a Democratic primary against a state senator who had crossed party lines to endorse George Allen in his 2006 US Senate reelection contest, and he has served in the State Senate since 2008.  Henrico County Sheriff Mike Wade had originally wanted to challenge Dave Brat in the Republican primary in the 7th district, but instead chose to run for the open 4th district seat.  His chances wouldn’t have been great no matter where he chose to run, but they may be worse in the 4th.

Four of these districts are thought to be safe for the other party because the incumbents don’t fit their districts’ makeup.  In Iowa, Rod Blum won a surprising victory in a D+5 district and has taken very conservative positions as a Congressman (such as voting against John Boehner for Speaker), which probably won’t sit well with his constituents.  Cresent Hardy probably benefited from depressed Democratic turnout in Nevada’s 4th in 2014, winning his seat in a D+4 district.  Angie Craig’s advantage in Minnesota comes largely from her ability to tie Jason Lewis to the Trump-like statements he made while he was a radio host.  Danny Tarkanian is probably too conservative for the swing district he’s running in, and many Republicans probably wish the more mainstream Michael Roberson had won the primary.

Finally, New Hampshire’s 1st is leaning Democratic largely because of what year it is.  In presidential years, Democrat Carol Shea-Porter tends to hold the seat.  In off years, Republican Frank Giunta holds it.  It’s actually kind of weirdly fascinating how reliably this seat has changed hands over the last ten years or so.


Next, I want to break down some races that are true toss-ups, and if they do lean to one party or another, the lean is fairly slight.

Democratic-held seats

CA-07: Ami Bera (D)* vs. Scott Jones (R)

MN-08: Rick Nolan (D)* vs. Stewart Mills (R)

NE-02: Brad Ashford (D)* vs. Don Bacon (R)

AZ-01: TBA

FL-18: TBA

NY-03: Tom Suozzi (D) vs. TBA


Republican-held seats

CA-25: Bryan Caforio (D) vs. Stephen Knight (R)*

CO-06: Morgan Carroll (D) vs. Mike Coffman (R)*

FL-26: TBA vs. Carlos Curbelo (R)*

IL-10: Brad Schneider (D) vs. Bob Dold (R)*

IA-03: Jim Mowrer (D) vs. David Young (R)*

ME-02: Emily Ann Cain (D) vs. Bruce Poliquin (R)*

PA-08: Steve Santarsiero (D) vs. Brian Fitzpatrick (R)

TX-23: Pete Gallego (D) vs. Will Hurd (R)*

UT-04: Doug Owens (D) vs. Mia Love (R)*

NY-01: Anna Throne-Holst (D) vs. Lee Zeldin (R)*

NY-19: Zephyr Teachout (D) vs. John Faso (R)

NY-22: Kim Myers (D) vs. Claudia Tenney (R)

NY-24: Colleen Deacon (D) vs. John Katko (R)*

WI-08: Tom Nelson (D) vs. Mike Gallagher (R)

MI-01: Lon Johnson (D) vs. Jack Bergman (R)

MI-07: Gretchen Driskill (D) vs. Tim Walberg (R)*

AZ-02: TBA vs. Martha McSally (R)*

Several of these races are notable because they feature rematches.  In Texas, former Rep. Pete Gallego will try to win back his seat from Will Hurd, who won it in 2014.  Like the New Hampshire seat above, this is one that has traded back and forth between the Dems and Republicans depending on if the election is contested in a presidential year or not.  Though the district has a slight Republican tilt (R+3), so this is probably one of the few true toss-up races out there.  The African-American Hurd has, perhaps unsurprisingly, distanced himself from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.  In Utah, some conservatives were not happy when Congresswoman Mia Love questioned the 2013 government shutdown, and expressed libertarian views on some issues.  Also, Utah is projected to be much closer than usual in the presidential election, because many Mormons dislike Trump.  Despite being an R+14 district, Utah’s 4th is capable of electing Democrats; Jim Matheson won an election there and served in the 2nd District for five terms before that.  Depending on if Mormon voters decide to split their tickets, stay home, or even vote for Hillary Clinton, Democrat Doug Owens might have a real shot at winning the second time around.  A June poll showed him leading by 6 points, but take that with an appropriate grain of salt.

In Illinois, redistricting has made a Democratic-leaning district even more so, but Bob Dold was still able to win in 2014.  In a presidential year where Democratic turnout will be higher, I expect Brad Schneider will recapture the seat he won in 2012 before losing to Dold.  Bruce Poliquin has been cagey about his support for Trump in Maine, often in awkward ways.  These leave him open to attack from 2014 challenger Emily Ann Cain, who pleased progressives as Maine Senate Minority Leader (the first woman to hold that post).  It will be interesting to see how the race plays out without independent Blaine Richardson, who got about 11% of the vote in 2014.  The conservative-leaning Richardson probably took more votes away from Poliquin, but increased Democratic turnout in a D+3 district may reshuffle the deck.  Ever since Chip Cravaack knocked off longtime Democratic Congressman James Oberstar in Minnesota’s 8th, the district has been competitive.  Rick Nolan will look to defend this D+1 seat against another challenge from Stewart Mills, who came within a point of unseating him in 2014.

Finally, in FL-26, Carlos Curbelo may face off against Joe Garcia, who represented the district in the 113th Congress.  Though he is far from a lock, as his primary opponent Annette Tadeo is receiving support from the DCCC’s Red to Blue program and has some name recognition from when she was Charlie Crist’s running mate in his aforementioned bid to retake the governorship.  Curbelo has openly declared that he will not support Donald Trump, which should play well in a district that is 69% Hispanic.

Will Hurd is Texas's first black Republican Congressman
Will Hurd is Texas’s first black Republican Congressman

A few of these races also have primaries that are still to be held and difficult to project.  In Arizona’s 1st district, former Republican state senator Tom O’Halleran has the backing of the DCCC and is the likely winner over his opponent, Miguel Olivas, who has run twice for Congress but has yet to finish a campaign.  The Republican field is much more divided.  Former Secretary of State Ken Bennett and businessman Gary Kiehne are the frontrunners, as they are members of the NRCC’s Young Guns program, which mentors challengers in open-seat races.  But Paul Babeu, the Pinal County Sheriff who dropped his bid for the seat in 2012 after a controversy which ended with him coming out of the closet, has the backing of former Governor Jan Brewer.  Should be a spirited race indeed.  Arizona’s 2nd District was so close last year that a recount was needed, but the district’s R+3 lean and incumbency advantage should help Martha McSally keep the seat, though state Representatives Victoria Steele and Matt Heinz may have something to say about it.  Florida’s 18th District, which tilts Republican at R+3, also has a large Republican field with no clear frontrunner, though 2014 candidate Carl Domino probably has the most name recognition.  Randy Perkins has the backing of the establishment and will likely be the Democratic nominee.

New York has quite a few competitive seats too.  Some may remember Professor (and Best Name Ever Award nominee) Zephyr Teachout from her quixotic bid to primary Gov. Andrew Cuomo.  She’s a Bernie Sanders-type candidate in a district that is 89.7% white, which could help her.  Teachout has also raised slightly more than her opponent, John Faso, though he has spent more.  NY-22 is home to Richard Hanna, the first sitting Republican Congressman to endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.  But Republican nominee Claudia Tenney has openly supported him.  In this upstate district, though, that might be the right play against Broome County legislator Kim Myers.  The 3rd District features some weird goings-on in the Republican primary, where Jack Martins tried to challenge Phillip Pidot’s petition signatures in an attempt to get him thrown off the June primary ballot.  Pidot was taken off the ballot, but later found to have had the required number of signatures.  Thus, a new primary will be scheduled for October 8.  Martins has taken legal action to try to postpone the general election into December after this development.  Tom Suozzi should benefit from this chaos, and is probably hoping that any divisions between the candidates will help him win the general election.  The 1st District probably leans Republican to start with, but many elected officials, such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer are getting behind Anna Throne-Holst’s campaign, so if the political winds shift badly for Republicans, she could win.

One legislator on this list has taken an interesting approach, openly attacking both Clinton and Trump in an early ad.  Mike Coffman is conservative by most measures, but has shown hints of libertarian leanings in the past, which probably helps him in a western state like Colorado.  The Democratic nominee, state senator Morgan Carroll, has focused largely on state and local issues in her campaign, and has carefully straddled the Clinton-Sanders divide in her state.

Iowa is a state where Donald Trump’s performance may actually help the Republican nominee in the third district.  Trump has polled better in the state than one might expect, and if he at least keeps it close, Republican David Young will probably pull out reelection.  He has hewed close to the center, appropriately in an even district, though Jim Mowrer’s status as an Iraq veteran could play well too.

In Pennsylvania, former FBI agent Brian is trying to keep the seat in Fitzpatrick hands after his brother Mike’s retirement.  He has largely avoided the media spotlight, giving few interviews and offering qualified support of Trump.  I’ve often said that the worst thing a candidate can do is anything that makes them look like they’re ignoring the voters, and Fitzpatrick runs the risk of appearing that way against State Representative Steve Santarsiero, who has pulled out close campaign wins before.

Nebraska & Wisconsin offer interesting cases as well.  Nebraska is one of two states that splits its electoral votes by congressional district as well as statewide.  Hillary Clinton is campaigning in the 2nd District with the hopes of plucking that extra electoral vote as President Obama did in 2008.  If she’s able to pull away from Trump in that Omaha-based district, she could propel Brad Ashford to reelection.  Ashford has voted as a centrist during his time in the House.  His Republican opponent, Don Bacon, has never been elected to anything, but served nearly thirty years in the Air Force, and will undoubtedly draw on that experience to boost his chances.  In Wisconsin, Mike Gallagher is running to succeed the Republican incumbent, Reid Ribble.  Gallagher most recently served as national foreign policy advisor to Gov. Scott Walker during his presidential campaign, which is notable since foreign policy was thought of as one of Walker’s major weaknesses during the campaign.  State assemblyman Tom Nelson will try to take advantage, though Gallagher probably starts out as a slight favorite.

Nebraska Congressman Brad Ashford (D)
Nebraska Congressman Brad Ashford (D)

Ami Bera seems to always find himself on the list of possible Republican pickups.  If he survived 2014, there’s little reason to think he won’t survive 2016 with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket in California’s 7th.  He defeated Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones 54%-46% in the all-party “jungle primary,” which mirrored the general election matchup since they were the only two candidates to file for the race.  Incumbent Republican Stephen Knight almost secured a majority of the vote with 48% in the 25th District, and that was with another Republican in the race.  One would think he’d be a favorite for reelection against attorney Bryan Caforio, who can rightly be called a little green politically, given that this is his first race.

Dan Benishek was another politician who knew a thing or two about how to win a close race.  Jack Bergman won the Republican primary to succeed him in Michigan’s 1st, and he has made national security a key component of his campaign, which may help him given that the district is R+4 and that Donald Trump has had a hawkish attitude on those issues.  Though Bernie Sanders won Michigan, Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson would be wise to tack to the center in order to win this race.  Michigan’s 7th District probably will only be captured by Democrats if a wave develops.  Democrat Mark Schauer was able to win the district in the 2008 elections, but Tim Walberg recaptured it in 2010 and has been able to hold onto it comfortably since.  Though since it is an R+3 district, it could go Democrats’ way if Donald Trump tanks badly.  Walberg will face State Representative Gretchen Driskill in the general election.  Driskill distinguished herself as the first female mayor of Saline, MI, serving for a whopping seven terms!

So, prediction time.  You may notice that I’ve talked a lot about candidates’ positions on Donald Trump.  The reason for that is that House races have become very nationalized in recent years, as local issues have been pushed to the background as the readership of local news sources have dropped.  Also, there’s been a steep drop in split-ticket voting as our elections become more polarized between the two parties.  Trump is a… let’s just say atypical candidate, and his performance could help or hurt many of these candidates by disproportionate margins.  The Republicans are also close to maxed-out in terms of the number of districts they have a shot to win, since they already have a 247-186 advantage.  Now, I ain’t Nate Silver, but my gut tells me that the Democrats will gain 9-11 seats in the House.  This number could go up or down depending on how the presidential race shakes out, but that’s where I feel like the race stands.

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