An Early Assessment of the Midterm House Elections

The recent passage of the AHCA by the House has the loins of Democrats burning hot.  They view this action as the one that will tip the scales in the House back in their favor and usher in another two years of leadership by Nancy Pelosi.  Much as the passage of Obamacare created a political firestorm that flipped control of the House to the GOP in 2010 in dramatic and historical fashion, they believe this is the issue and individual votes on it are their ticket to control of the House.

They are wrong on two counts and the second one is the most important dynamic.  On the first count, given district alignments it is quite difficult to find truly neutral or moderate districts these days.  Of 435 Congressional districts, 76 are, according to the Cook PVI, either even or within 5 points for either party.

The PVI is determined by presidential vote margins of victory in each congressional district over the two most recent cycles.  Of these so-called swing districts, 50 are even/lean GOP and 26 are even/lean Democratic.  Of the 50 GOP districts, a Republican Congressman represents the district in 43 instances (86%).  In the 26 Democratic districts, there are 21 Democratic Congressmen (81%).

The problem with the Cook PVI is that it measures results from the presidential contests and makes an assumption this translates down to congressional results.  But in many instances we find that even though a district may trend Democratic over two cycles, there is a Republican representative who wins a race in double digits. {Note: My home district has voted Democratic over 7 presidential cycles but is represented by a Republican}   The Cook PVI is a good broad-based indicator of electoral outcomes, but it fails to take into account local facts.

If it were more reliable, then Democrats should be targeting and winning 43 GOP seats (and defending 7) and the GOP should be targeting and winning 21 Democratic seats (and defending 5).  Thus, in 2018 we should expect, according strictly to Cook PVI estimates, the Democrats picking up 22 seats in the House.

To illustrate how introducing the congressional margin of victory into the mix can affect things, it is good to look at retiring Congress members which number 11 to date.  They represent, for the GOP, FL-27, KS-2, OH-16, OK-1, SD-AL, TX-3 and UT-3.  For the Democrats, they are CO-7, MN-1, NM-1, TX-16.  These are how retirements affected these district ratings in a few examples:

FL-27 is rated +5 Democratic by Cook but is represented by a Republican- the retiring Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.  When you factor in her 2016 result, it becomes less Democratic at +2.6.  However, in an open race which would eliminate those 2016 Congressional election results, it becomes even more Democratic at +6.  Hence, we can expect a GOP loss here.

Conversely, let’s look at OK-1 and the retiring Jim Bridenstine, a Republican.  Cook rates it +17 Republican, but it becomes +24.3 when Bridenstine’s 2016 margin of victory is factored in.  Even in an open race, it reverts to 17.3 GOP making it likely a Republican will replace a Republican.  Other than FL-27 (which is Democratic-leaning anyway) is a retirement having a significant impact on the rating- the OH-16.  It is rated +8 GOP, but given GOP incumbent Jim Renacci’s 2016 margin of victory, it drops to 3.9.  With his retirement (to run for Governor), it actually reverts to 1.5 Democratic.  By my standards, anything even or within 2 is a toss-up.

But, the loss of FL-27 or potential loss in OH-16 is possibly offset by the Democratic retirement in MN-1 which is rated +5 GOP.  Factoring in Congressional results, it is +1.9 Democratic.  In an open race, it becomes +1.1 Republican.  Hence, another toss-up.

Hence, dynamics at the local level have a greater effect of flipping districts of which there are only a finite number to flip to begin with.  A vote on the AHCA may factor into that equation somewhat given those local dynamics.


Of course, we can expect the Democrats to take full advantage and use this vote as illustrative of Republican’s cold hearts and wishing to throw 24 million out of health care coverage.  Nancy Pelosi even said so on the floor of the House.  A big difference between 2010 and 2018 is that Obamacare became law after both houses of Congress approved it.  At this point, the AHCA is not yet law or signed by Trump.  Hence, it might be politically feasible for the Senate to drag the process out to minimize potential political fall out.

When we introduce recent Congressional level election results into the mix, we find that there are really only 49 swing districts in the country (of 435), not 76.  It is true that there are more swing districts currently held by Republicans (to be expected given the GOP numerical advantage in the House) thus we can conclude that Republican incumbents are more vulnerable than Democrats in 2018 whether they voted for or against the AHCA.  If we remember back to 2010, it was not just the Obamacare vote that the GOP rode into control of the House, but a series of actions- the stimulus, the auto bailout, an attempt at cap-and-trade, etc.  Obamacare was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The second and more serious concern for the GOP in the House is the man who sits in the White House.  In 2016, Trump won 229 Congressional districts, many with less than 50% of the total vote due to third party candidates.  In about half of those districts, he failed to improve on Romney’s 2012 margin of victory.  In fact, the GOP margin of victory fell dramatically in some districts with Trump at the top of the ticket, particularly in stalwart states like Texas, Utah, Mississippi, Arizona, and Georgia.

It is the success or non-success of Trump and the degree to which local voters link those non-successes to their representative that dictate electoral outcomes at the House level.  When you throw in historical facts such as the president’s party losing seats in the House in midterm elections coupled with the fact that Trump remains a relatively unpopular president, the potential for Republican losses increases.  There are two questions: (1) to what degree can one expect such losses to be?, and (2) what effect will incumbent’s vote on the AHCA have on voters?

Absent the AHCA vote, one can look at a worse case scenario for the GOP.  Democrats need to pick up a net total of 24 seats to win control of the House.  Using a worst case scenario system which this writer used for 2016 with 96% accuracy and applying that system to 2018, the GOP could expect to lose 17-19 seats in the House in 2018.  The big question now is whether the AHCA vote is enough to put an additional 5-7 Republicans in jeopardy of losing their seats in 2018?  For this writer, 5-7 votes is a razor thin margin.  And if this worst case scenario plays out, who wins or loses is important.  Are members of the Freedom Caucus tossed out making the GOP in the House “more moderate?”  Or are moderates the victims?

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