There has been plenty of chatter recently about the House possibly being “in play.” So it’s time to take a look.
But since I’m not sure what “in play” means, I’ll ask (and answer) a different, very straightforward question: What are the chances that Democrats win back the House in November?
That answer is clear: somewhere between slim and none.
Forget all of the talk that “if” Donald Trump implodes the House could flip, or even that Democrats are “playing in” more than the 30 (really 31) districts they need to win a House majority. That’s true — but it doesn’t matter right now.
With less than seven weeks until Election Day, any evaluation of Democratic prospects must begin and end with where House races stand today, not where they might be six weeks from now if this or that happens. That approach was reasonable in January or even April, but not now.
Democratic strategists say they are “watching” 50 or 60 races around the country, and they argue, quite reasonably, that Trump’s over-sized role in the election has improved their prospects in a handful of suburban districts that otherwise would not be competitive.
But Trump is not at this point the down-ballot disaster that some speculated he would be. National polls show him running only a few points behind Hillary Clinton, though he is doing worse in some states and with college-educated whites. Still, he isn’t Barry Goldwater or George McGovern – at least not now. Voters appear to be making a distinction between Trump and GOP down-ballot nominees.
A month ago, even Democrats admitted that Republican House members were running well in summer polls. They argued, however, that those numbers were misleading because they reflected the advantage of incumbency, which will change as races fully engage.
That’s possible, but it is still noteworthy that Republican incumbents have performed well in ballot tests even though the party’s brand stinks, Congress is held in low regard, the “wrong track” number remains high and Trump has spent a year insulting chunks of voters.
Where is the fight for the House now?
The two people I pay the most attention to when it comes to House races are Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report and David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report. (Full Disclosure: Nathan worked for and with me for over 13 years at the Rothenberg Political Report, but he has made the final decision on ratings since he acquired the company at the end of 2014.)
Gonzales currently identifies 217 GOP seats as “safe” – which puts Republicans just one seat shy of a majority. He has seven seats as “Republican favored” – a longshot Democratic category – and four more seats “leaning” Republican. He also has four seats that are toss-ups but “tilt” to the GOP slightly and 11 pure “Tossups.” Democrats would need to win all of the seats currently not safe for Republicans to reach a 218-seat majority – all 26 of them.
Wasserman lists 202 seats as “solid” for the Republicans and another 13 as “likely Republican,” a category which includes generally non-competitive contests such as Florida 2, Alaska at-large and Virginia 5. That totals 215 seats, just three seats short of a majority. Wasserman also identifies 12 more seats that “Lean Republican” and another 17 as “Tossup,” which are too-close-to-call. Democrats would need to win at least 27 of those 29 seats to win a House majority.
In other words, neither Gonzales nor Wasserman currently gives Democrats much of a chance to take back the House.
My own view, after talking with Democratic and Republican strategists and eyeballing the districts and races, is that Democratic gains are inevitable. I would not be surprised if they approached 15 or 20 seats.
The combination of Republican open seats (e.g., Minnesota 2, Nevada 3, New York 19 and 22, and Wisconsin 8), new redistricting opportunities for Democrats (in Virginia and Florida) and extremely weak Republican incumbents (e.g., Iowa 1, New Hampshire 1, and Nevada 4) gives Democrats plenty of opportunities for solid gains. And remember, there are currently 26 House Republicans sitting in districts Obama carried in 2012.
But gains of 15 to 20 House seats would still leave Democrats at least ten seats short of a majority. And while that might sound like a small number — it isn’t. Each additional seat Democrats would need to flip would be increasingly difficult for them.
Finally, it is worth noting that in 2012, during the last presidential contest, Barack Obama won reelection by almost 4 points but his party won only 201 House seats. That was a net gain of eight but still 17 seats short of a House majority.
If Democrats match that 2012 showing again in November, it would constitute a gain of 13 seats, well short of the 30 seats they need to retake the majority. Many of this year’s allegedly vulnerable Republicans survived the 2012 election, suggesting that they know how to win in a mediocre national environment and when the top of their ticket is losing.
Having said all this, much larger Democratic gains are possible if the overall national political environment were to shift dramatically. For now, however, a detailed look at individual races, the shape of the national partisan divide and the recent history of House flips in a presidential year offer no evidence that Republicans are now at risk of losing the House.
Check back again in a few weeks or so to see if that outlook has changed.
Stuart Rothenberg writes about the politics of the presidential and congressional races.