KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— We are making 11 rating changes in the House this week, all in favor of Republicans.
— The bulk of these changes either move marginally competitive Republican-held seats to the Safe Republican category or move Democratic districts from Likely Democratic to the more competitive Leans Democratic column.
— Republicans remain strong favorites to win the House majority, and with redistricting nearly complete, we can now offer a more complete assessment of what our ratings suggest for the fall.
Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes
House rating changes
The release of 2022’s first quarter campaign finance reports, which came out a few days ago, provides a good opportunity to take stock of the overall House playing field. Our basic takeaway from those reports is that House Democratic incumbents continue to raise impressive amounts of money, but that there are plenty of Republican House incumbents and challengers who are also doing fine or better than fine on the money front. And ultimately, one key thing to remember about campaign finance is that research suggests it is more important to challengers than incumbents. Writing in The Politics of Congressional Elections, House election experts Gary Jacobson and Jamie Carson note that this is likely because “the money spent on nonincumbents’ campaigns buys the attention and recognition that incumbents already enjoy at the outset of the campaign.” The bottom line is that any candidate wants a money edge, but a bigger warchest guarantees nothing.
More important than money, at least to us, is the political environment, which continues to look promising for Republicans. President Joe Biden’s approval rating remains just a little over 40% in averages, with disapproval a bit over 50%. Polls of congressional voting sentiment, the House generic ballot, continue to be relatively close, with Republicans generally up just a few points in averages. But if Biden’s approval continues to be weak, we would expect the Republican advantage to grow in the coming months.
So our main question about the House continues to be not whether Republicans will flip the House — although we would not completely shut the door on Democrats’ retaining control if the political environment improves markedly — but rather how big the Republicans’ eventual majority will be.
Toward that end, we are making 11 House rating changes, all in favor of Republicans. Let’s go through them, and then we’ll take a look at the overall House picture.
(One quick housekeeping measure: From now on, we’re going to start using the district numbers where incumbents are competing as opposed to the districts they hold now.)
First of all, this is a cycle where we expect the Republicans to be playing a lot of offense and not much defense. So as we get closer to November, it may be that there are fewer and fewer Republican-held seats listed as competitive in our ratings. Moving from Likely Republican to Safe Republican this week are Reps. Bill Huizenga (R, MI-4), Richard Hudson (R, NC-9), Scott Perry (R, PA-10), and Tony Gonzales (R, TX-23).
Those Republicans all hold districts that Donald Trump won by single digits and that could be competitive in a presidential or Democratic-leaning midterm year, but they don’t seem to be this year. In fact, among these 4 states, Democrats will have enough of their own vulnerable seats that targeting Republican incumbents in Trump-won districts may seem like too much of a reach. Gonzales, for example, was a somewhat surprising victor in the frequently competitive TX-23 last cycle, which extends from El Paso to San Antonio. But Republican mapmakers helped him a bit, as did an apparent Republican turn among Latino voters that has endangered Democrats in South Texas. Our thinking is that if Democrats are in danger of losing 1 or more of the 3 districts that cover South Texas (TX-15, TX-28, and TX-34) — and they definitely are — then TX-23 doesn’t seem like it would go blue in this cycle.
The other big group of rating changes this week come in districts we’re moving from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic. In a Republican wave scenario, these are the kinds of districts that could get swept up: places where Biden won between 53%-55% of the vote that are clearly more Democratic than the nation as a whole, but not so much more Democratic that Republicans couldn’t win in a good environment. The 5 districts we’re moving are ones held by Reps. Greg Stanton (D, AZ-4), Sanford Bishop (D, GA-2), Frank Mrvan (D, IN-1), and Antonio Delgado (D, NY-19) as well as IL-13, an open seat that Democrats redrew to be inhospitable to Rep. Rodney Davis (R), who is now running in a more Republican-leaning district (IL-15). Republicans appear to have credible recruits in these districts that are raising enough money to be competitive.
Our new Toss-up in this update is NV-3, held by Rep. Susie Lee (D). Lee got help from the Democratic gerrymander of Nevada, in which state legislative Democrats sought to solidify the 3 districts they currently hold in the Silver State. These 3 districts — NV-1, NV-3, and NV-4 — all voted for Joe Biden by roughly 7-9 points, with NV-3 the most competitive of the trio. We think Democrats should be concerned about all 3 districts, and they are: House Majority PAC, a major Democratic House outside spending group, recently announced a flurry of bookings across the country, and they plopped down $11.6 million in Las Vegas. That media market covers all 3 of these competitive districts. We thought about moving all 3 to Toss-up, but we’re just going to start with NV-3 and keep the other 2 in Leans Democratic for now. National Republicans appear to have rallied around attorney April Becker (R), who nearly unseated the Democratic state Senate majority leader in 2020.
The final change comes in CA-26, defended by Rep. Julia Brownley (D). This Southern California district is one that Biden carried by 20 points, which at first blush seems to be too high to be a real Republican target (and that might be the case). But the district is less Democratic down the ballot and Brownley’s likeliest November challenger, former assistant U.S. attorney Matt Jacobs (R), outraised her in the first quarter (although Brownley still holds a considerable cash on hand advantage). Brownley, like some other Golden State Democrats, had some competitive races in the pre-Trump era, although California may just be bluer today than it was a decade ago. Still, this race moves from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic.
As of this writing, redistricting remains incomplete in Florida, Missouri, and New Hampshire. However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume the following: 1. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) gets his way, and Republican state legislators approve his recently proposed map, where we’d rate 20 districts at least leaning Republican and 8 at least leaning Democratic; 2. Missouri eventually adopts a map that preserves 6 Republican-leaning seats and 2 Democratic-leaning ones; and 3. New Hampshire passes a map with 1 Democratic-leaning seat and 1 Toss-up.
If that happens, and no other state maps change due to legal action, here would be our topline ratings: 210 seats would be rated Safe, Likely, or Leans Republican, 198 would be rated Safe, Likely, or Leans Democratic, and 27 would be rated as Toss-ups.
Given the political environment, we’d expect Republicans to do quite well among the Toss-up races. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, they win 20 of the 27. That would result in a 230-205 Republican House, or a net gain of 17 from what Republicans won in 2020.
To be honest, that seems a little light in terms of Republican gains. If we had to guess, today, what Republicans would net in the House, we’d probably pick a number in the 20s. So that means our ratings are probably at least a little bit friendlier to Democrats than perhaps they should be. However, we do have several more seats rated Leans Democratic (15) compared to Leans Republican (8), which is one way of indicating how the playing field could grow. On the other hand, our ratings also reflect the possibility of a Democratic comeback in which they limit Republican advances.
Still, don’t be surprised to see more House updates from us later this year in which all or nearly all of the changes are in favor of Republicans. It’s just that kind of cycle, at least for the time being.
Our full House ratings are available here.