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House Races to Watch on Tuesday

House Races to Watch on Tuesday

By Adam O'Neal - November 3, 2014

During last year’s contentious government shutdown, Democratic Party-aligned Public Policy Polling released a batch of surveys suggesting Democrats could win control the House in 2014, thanks to GOP-directed backlash over the 16-day debacle. They needed a net gain of 17 seats to establish a majority, and “such a pickup would be well within reach,” according to the PPP’s Jim Williams.

Several analysts were bearish on that scenario early on, however, and Princeton professor Sam Wang cautioned that a lot could happen over the next year to change the state of play.

Indeed, the landscape has changed. Rather than bracing for losses, Republicans are set to pick up House seats tomorrow. The Rothenberg Political report, updated on Oct. 29, projects a Republican gain of between five and 12 seats. The next day, Larry Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” estimated Republicans will pick up nine seats. Earlier this month, the Cook Political report suggested four to 10 seats.

Should the GOP win 13 seats -- a plausible, though unlikely, scenario -- Republicans would have their biggest majority in the lower chamber since 1932. Picking up nine seats would give them their biggest majority since 1946.

RCP’s Battle for the House map shows Republicans projected to win 228 seats to Democrats’ 181 seats, with 26 races too close to call. Even if Democrats won every tossup race, they still couldn’t take the gavel from Speaker John Boehner’s hand.  

There are several explanations for the stability of Republican dominance in the House, which election analyst Nate Cohn called “the biggest paradox in American electoral politics.”

Democrats often place most of the blame on gerrymandering, as Republicans -- who won control of several key state legislatures in 2010 -- rewrote state congressional maps to tilt in their favor. The most pessimistic Democrats say they don’t have a chance at winning the House until at least the 2020s, when new census results will compel states to redraw their districts.

Republicans point to a poor national environment for their opponents. President Obama has seen his popularity dip amid shaky leadership in a series of crises. Republican voters are relatively fired up, while Democrats expect turnout to drop significantly from 2012. And history is on the GOP’s side: The president’s party tends to lose seats during second-term midterms.

Both explanations have merit, but neither one fully explains House electoral dynamics. Republicans would still most likely hold their majority if Obama were more popular (and if the redrawn districts in states like Ohio and North Carolina didn’t already strongly favor them).

The most significant factor for House Republican maintaining their majority derives from where Americans live. More than ever, cities and nearby suburbs clearly prefer Democrats. To a lesser extent, voters in distant suburbs and rural areas lean Republican. Democrats win big in the cities, driving up their overall vote counts. But the extra margins are essentially wasted, since Republicans manage to win more contests by smaller margins.

Although control of the House isn’t at stake, some races still matter. Republicans hope to pad their majority for Obama’s final two years and beyond. Conversely, Democrats need to cut their losses this cycle if they hope to retake the House eventually. And, as usual, some fascinating characters are trying to join the People’s House.

While there are dozens of interesting races, here are 11 especially intriguing contests.

Arizona’s 2nd District – Democratic Held, Rated a Tossup

2014 looks certain to be a good year for Republicans. If Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel, outs Rep. Ron Barber, then it could signal a great year.  Barber narrowly won a special election to take the seat once held by Gabrielle Giffords, and he beat McSally by less than one percentage point in 2012. A recent poll showed him leading by two points, but the race is still too close to call. If Barber and a few other moderate Democrats lose, the minority will shift even further to the left.

California’s 17th District – Democratic Held, Guaranteed Democratic

California is a reliably blue state during presidential elections where one party controls virtually every major political institution. But with one-party rule comes intra-party conflict. The race between 73-year-old Rep. Mike Honda and 38-year-old Rho Khanna, a former Obama administration official, specifically highlights this divide. (The two Democrats are running against each other in the general election because of California’s top-two open primary system.) The old guard -- Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein; Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; and Gov. Jerry Brown -- have more or less instructed younger Democrats to wait their turn. This race is a test of whether it’s wise to challenge that request.

California’s 52nd District – Democratic Held, Tossup

Carl DeMaio had a plan: As a relatively young and socially liberal Republican, he could recast the party as one rooted in economic opportunity. DeMaio, who is gay, called himself a New Republican, and his campaign message received national attention. His opponent, freshman Rep. Scott Peters, has run a generally solid campaign. The contest looked extremely close, but graphic sexual harassment allegations and embarrassing leaks have damaged DeMaio’s prospects. He could still win, but his New Republicanism won’t have the same luster it once did.

Colorado’s 6th District – Republican Held, Tossup

Redistricting helped Republicans, but not every GOP candidate came out ahead. Rep. Mike Coffman, perhaps more than anyone else in his party, will blame redistricting if he loses on Tuesday. He went from representing a district that gave Obama 46 percent of the vote to one that gave him 54 percent. He won by two points in 2012, but a challenge from former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff seems daunting. One sticking point has been Coffman’s shift from an immigration hawk to a pathway-to-citizenship moderate. Coffman should hang on, but Colorado Democrats have a history of outperforming polls.

Louisiana’s 6th District – Open, Safe GOP

Democrat Edwin Edwards is one of the most famous politicians in Louisiana history. At 87, he has served 16 years as governor, seven years as a congressman, nine years in prison, and two years of probation. Three wives (each successive one decades younger than her predecessor) came along for the ride. He’s now running to fill the seat of Rep. Bill Cassidy (who looks poised to claim Mary Landrieu’s Senate seat). Running in a deep red district, Edwards will probably win the open election Nov. 4, but he’ll almost certainly lose the Dec. 6 runoff once the GOP coalesces around its candidate.

Nebraska’s 2nd District – Republican Held, Tossup

The government shutdown didn’t spawn dozens of competitive House races, as Democrats had once hoped. But if any Republican loses because of his involvement with it, it will be Rep. Lee Terry. Asked during the shutdown if he would give up his paycheck, he responded, “I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it.” He’s still smarting from reaction to that tone-deaf answer. This race is too close to call, and he won by only two points in 2012.

Nevada’s 4th District – Democratic Held, Leans Democratic

This wasn’t supposed to be the close House race in Nevada. Democrats, with top-tier recruit Erin Bilbray, hoped to unseat Rep. Joe Heck in the state’s 3rd District. But Bilbray never found her footing, and Heck is now safer than Rep. Steven Horsford -- someone who didn’t even appear vulnerable a year ago. The Karl Rove-backed Crossroads GPS has spent more than $800,000 to defeat Horsford, and the DCCC responded by buying airtime to help the first-term Democrat. Horsford is still favored, but the fact that his party had to spend money and time on this race -- instead of on the other Nevada contest -- speaks volumes about how tough this year is for the blue team.

New York’s 11th District – Republican Held, Tossup

Rep. Michael Grimm started his year off with a bang, threatening on camera to throw a reporter off a balcony. A few months later, Grimm was indicted on several felony fraud counts. Yet, the Staten Island moderate -- who emerged as an early Republican critic of the shutdown -- has polled ahead of his opponent, former New York City Councilman Domenic Recchia, by as many as 19 points. A Grimm win might say more about Staten Island than it does the national mood.

New York’s 19th District – Republican Held, Likely GOP

Sean Eldridge -- first-time congressional candidate and husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes -- has provided political scientists with a textbook case of a theoretically strong campaign gone horribly awry. He moved to the swing district and quickly began investing in the area. His deep pockets and strong political connections -- Nancy Pelosi attended his wedding -- made him look like a viable candidate in a district that preferred Obama over Romney. But he has run a horrible campaign (Politico described it as a “catastrophe”), while Rep. Chris Gibson has run a flawless one. The Republican leads by more than 20 points.

Utah’s 4th District -- Democratic Held, Safe GOP

Not many small-town mayors get a prime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention. But Mia Love, the 38-year-old former mayor of Saratoga Springs gave one of the 2012 convention’s most anticipated speeches. She lost her challenge to Rep. Jim Matheson that year, but the GOP-star-in-waiting will probably prevail this time, as she doesn’t need to challenge an incumbent again. Young, charismatic, African-American, and female -- Love is exactly the type of messenger the GOP needs. Some polls have shown the race to be close, but Love has always led. Expect to see more of her.

West Virginia’s 3rd District – Democratic Held, Tossup

Rep. Nick Rahall has been in the House for decades, most of the time in a safe seat. But as West Virginia has turned red, especially at the federal level, his seat has become endangered. If he loses to Republican Evan Jenkins, it will matter. A Rahall loss, combined with Shelley Moore Capito’s expected Senate victory, would mark a clear end to Democratic dominance in West Virginia. The party will still hold power in state government for years, but this race could reasonably be seen as the beginning of the end for West Virginia’s Democrats. The race remains a pure tossup.

Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at aoneal@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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