When we last looked at different partisan outcomes resulting from split-ticket voting, the Senate was our focus. To yield a worthwhile R2 value we compared Republican vote share between Presidential and Senate candidates. (Analyzing margin alone can be deceiving) The mathematical conclusion derived from our findings was clear: top-line results have become more indicative of down ballot results since 2000. Most pundits agree that political polarization bears a majority of the blame for this new reality. You can read the full article here.
The House has been affected by the decline in split-ticket voting too. Crossover seats are the equivalent of Senate races yielding different partisan outcomes – districts that back candidates of opposing parties for House and President. As an astute observer might expect after studying our previous findings, the number of crossover House seats has also dwindled each cycle.
Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that the Presidential topline is currently the greatest predictor of House results. The R2 value comparing Republican vote share between candidates for House and President rose significantly from 2008 (0.72) to 2020 (0.97). There was also a well-defined decline in the amount of crossover seats between the cycles from 83 to just 16 in the same time frame.
Now that we have the general realities hammered out, let’s take a deeper look at each of 2020’s 16 crossover districts to see how the winners managed to overcome Presidential headwinds in districts across the country. A table is provided below for reader convenience.
CA-21 (R) David Valadao
California’s 21st is a heavily-Hispanic, Democratic-leaning seat in the San Joaquin Valley. Clinton carried it by roughly 16 points, though Biden’s margin dipped to just 11 in 2020. That slight rightward shift made electoral conditions easier for Republican David Valadao, a formidable candidate with an even more impressive 2016 victory.
T.J. Cox ran a well-funded, long-shot challenge to Valadao in the 2018 cycle. In a result that no pundits saw coming, Cox was able to springboard from an abysmal jungle primary performance to an 862 vote November win. The contest, which was originally projected incorrectly by the AP, took weeks to certify.
In 2020, many pundits assumed Cox would be able to squeak to a second term on the tail-end of strong, Biden-led Democratic environment. After all, national conditions were the primary stimulant behind his 2018 success. But those blanket assumptions proved short-sighted, and underestimated Valadao’s strength as a candidate.
Most of the Democratic votes in the 21st come from Kern County, home to Bakersfield. Assuming a respectable loss in Kern, a Republican can win this district by amassing strong margin in Kings County coupled with a competitive edge in Democratic-leaning Fresno County. Valadao received 7% more of the vote than Trump across all four county portions, allowing him to unseat Cox by about a point.
Valadao’s new district voted for Biden by 13 points, making it a bit bluer than his current abode. That change would make the renumbered 22nd difficult to hold in a neutral or Democratic year, even for Valadao. The incumbent will have a tough fight in a Republican environment too. This year he faces Rudy Salas, an Assemblyman that Democrats tried to recruit in 2018. That race is rated Tossup.
CA-25 (R) Mike Garcia
California’s 25th is a racially-diverse, Democratic-leaning district in Southern California. Its population is evenly divided between white and Hispanic residents, with significant black and Asian contingents as well. Unlike the northern 21st, this seat got observably bluer at the Presidential level in 2020; Biden carried it by 10 points, an improvement of 3 from Clinton’s 2016 mark.
The incumbent Republican is Mike Garcia, a U.S. Navy fighter pilot who won a 2020 special election amid a perfect electoral storm. To understand how he made his way into Congress, one must look back to Trump’s midterm.
That year, Congressman Steve Knight lost a lopsided reelection to Katie Hill. In many ways, the 2018 matchup represented a reckoning between the new and the old that was long in the making in So-Cal. Knight, a protégé of the legendary Buck McKeon, advocated sensible conservative stances that were well in line with this part of California before the advent of Trump. Hill, a bisexual millennial, seemed to encapsulate the budding Democratic momentum that swept the country’s House races that year. The new ultimately prevailed.
But Hill’s rising stardom was not long for the world. A sex scandal collapsed her career, forcing the young lawmaker to resign from Congress in the middle of her first term. Garcia seized the opportunity to run from the outside in an attempt to appeal to the traditions of the 25th district. The special election environment certainly helped him defeat Democrat Christy Smith by a bloated margin.
In November, Garcia’s path to victory was much smaller. Some pundits, like Sabato’s Crystal Ball, correctly predicted a narrow Republican win, but most handicappers foresaw a Smith rematch win on the tail-end of Biden’s Presidential sweep. Biden did end up winning the district, but Garcia was able to squeak by. How you might ask?
The primary contribution to Garcia’s mere 333 vote majority came from Ventura County. This segment of the seat is home to the Simi Valley, the reddest part of the 25th. Garcia ran about 5 points ahead of Trump there, capping off a respectable 6 point overperformance in Los Angeles County to deliver a slim GOP victory districtwide. Had the Ventura portion not been in the seat, Smith would currently be in Congress.
Garcia’s renumbered 27th district is more Democratic than the current iteration of his seat, a factor that has led some pundits to consider him the most vulnerable Republican incumbent seeking reelection next year.
The removal of the Simi Valley is responsible for the shift, which benefits Smith as she makes her third bid against Garcia. We consider the contest a Tossup, but maintain that the GOP can certainly hold the 27th if the environment is favorable enough.
CA-39 (R) Young Kim
California’s 39th is a marginal district based in an around the greater Los Angeles area. Although it was a Republican seat at the Presidential level when it was drawn, Democratic candidates have since made credible inroads. Biden carried the district by 10 last year, a slight improvement from Clinton’s numbers. Despite the national tidings, the right kind of Republican can win here by harkening back to the heritage of the well-populated Orange County portion.
For decades, most of this territory was represented by Ed Royce. The long-time Republican sensed impending difficulty in 2018, choosing retirement over a potentially-embarrassing end to a long career. Royce’s determination created one of the most-watched House contests in the nation.
Democrats ultimately turned to lottery-made millionaire Gil Cisneros, a start-up candidate who ironically finished ahead of a Democrat with a very similar background in the jungle primary. In November, Cisneros narrowly bested Young Kim. The Republican moderate far exceeded Trump’s 2016 performance in the district, particularly in the Orange County section, but still fell short in the end.
Given the national environment, and the close nature of her first race, Kim wisely decided to give Congress another shot. She challenged Cisneros again, this time performing admirably. While she did exceed the President’s floor throughout the district, her 6 point overperformance in Orange (60+% of population) sealed the deal.
Out of all the Republican incumbents in competitive So-Cal seats, Kim was most helped by the decennial redistricting process. One might reverse the expression “out of the frying pan and into the fire” to provide an accurate description of the Korean American Congresswoman’s present situation. This year she will be able to run in the Biden +2 40th, a far easier carry than her current 39th regardless of the national environment. Likely Republican is the most appropriate rating thus far.
CA-48 (R) Michelle Steel
California’s 48th is a very competitive coastal seat based entirely within Orange County. Out of all the districts mentioned so far, this one is the least Democratic at the Presidential level. Biden won the seat by a little under 2 points last year, a similar majority to Clinton’s four years prior.
On paper, the 48th should have been a fairly difficult target for the Democrats. Even in 2018, the bluest House year since 2006, districts like the 39th and 45th should have been easier to flip. These expectations did not pan out at all, proving once again that there is more under the hood of federal partisan lean – even in midterm cycles.
Part of the reason Democrats managed to win this coastal haven by a semi-large margin four years ago was the long-time Republican incumbent, a controversial politician with outspoken tendencies.
This man was Dana Rohrabacher, an undaunted fixture of So-Cal Republican politics before someone like Madison Cawthorn was even born. Let’s just say the incumbent put his foot in his mouth just enough to supplement an environmental storm well-tuned to bring about his defeat. (The 2020 Almanac of American Politics has also suggested that Rohrabacher did not sense his own vulnerability until it was too late)
Democratic candidate Harley Rouda, a relative moderate, was the other portion of his party’s victory formula. In an ever-changing county once exemplified by Reagan/Bush Republicanism, the Democratic message simply caught fire in 2018. Concluding a capital-rich campaign, Rouda won far more comfortably than both Cisneros and Porter.
In 2020, Trump actually set a relatively-high bar. Taking 48% of the vote, the President laid a solid foundation for Michelle Steel to achieve her Congressional dreams. Overperforming by just under 3 points, Steel did not have to overcome headwinds as strong as those facing Kim or Garcia. Nevertheless, she managed to oust Rouda.
Unlike Kim, Steel was not blessed by the redistricting gods of California. She could survive this year if the environment holds up, but it will still be difficult. After all, the new 45th district is Biden +6 – much bluer than the current 48th. Even if she survives the fall, one must wonder whether Steel’s smaller overperformance is an indicator that her electoral prowess may not be as robust as someone like Kim’s. Tossup
NY-24 (R) John Katko
Along with Pennsylvania’s 1st, New York’s 24th is probably the last type of seat that anyone would expect to be represented by a Republican in this day and age. In its current form, the district is based around the markedly-Democratic city of Syracuse. Aside from that seemingly-prohibitive obstacle to Republican chances, the lesser-populated exterior of the upstate seat is far more favorable – though, as Armin Thomas has pointed out, Empire State Democrats still hold their own in heavily-white rural territory.
Since 2015, this land has been represented by John Katko. A conservative, but pragmatic in the general sense, he has survived numerous well-funded Democratic attempts to defeat him. And Given the fact that Obama, Clinton, and Biden have all carried the 24th comfortably under the current lines, Katko’s status as one of the party’s top targets is more than reasonable on its face.
His first triumph came in 2014, when low turnout joined with the unpopularity of President Obama to yield GOP gains in the House. That year, the Syracuse native ousted the serially-underperforming incumbent by almost 20 points – a blowout that few had seen coming.
Katko then beat Dana Balter on two occasions, of which the later victory occurred amid formidable Presidential headwinds. Numerous outside groups spent millions on Balter, hoping the incumbent’s ability to generate impressive ticket splitting would disappear with each passing dollar. It would not come to pass.
Balter faltered because Katko received 10% more of the vote than Trump in Onondaga County (Syracuse), a portion of the 24th accounting for more than 2/3rds of its population. Katko also exceeded the President in the three less-significant counties, amassing every last vote to foment a landslide reelection win.
Despite the auspicious signs facing Republicans in the fall, redistricting could deal Katko a death blow. Under both of the publicly-released New York state drafts, the incumbent’s district would take on new, heavily-Democratic Tompkins County. Home to Ithaca and Cornell University, there is no doubt that such territory would pose difficulties to Katko. He simply would not have Onondaga-level familiarity in Tompkins.
We are not counting him out, even in a potentially-Biden +17 seat. (Such a district would probably make him more vulnerable than Mike Garcia or Peter Meijer) Instead, our team is politely urging caution. If any Republican is going to win a Biden +17 seat in this region, Katko emboldened by a GOP environment is the best bet for it. Unfortunately, we really will not know whether the incumbent can engender the same amount of split-ticket voting in an expanded district until the election is over. Uncertain
PA-01 (R) Brian Fitzpatrick
Pennsylvania’s 1st is a competitive district based in the Philly-SEPA region. Once a bastion of collar county Republicanism, the seat’s ancestral party has eroded significantly over the last decade. The immediate region’s Presidential numbers encapsulate this change fairly well – from Romney country to Democratic haven. Biden carried the seat by 6 points, up from the slim 2 point margin Clinton would have carried the 2018 redraw of the district by in 2016.
The federal Democratic edge may be growing ever more persistent here, but it is by no means insurmountable for the right Republican. Katko in New York’s 24th is living proof that most district partisan leans are malleable enough to accommodate certain candidates. This section of Pennsylvania has found that candidate in Brian Fitzpatrick, a moderate who replaced his brother back in 2016. Fitzpatrick faced his toughest reelection fight in 2018, when Democrats ran a candidate against him who spent more than any Democrat in a House race anywhere in the country.
If Democrats tried again in 2020, Fitzpatrick did little more than embarrass them. He took an astounding 56.6% of the vote – a full 10 points greater than President Trump’s districtwide share. In both the Bucks and Montgomery portions of the seat, the incumbent outran the President by a similar margin. Given its population, the inflated Bucks margin was obviously the driver behind Fitzpatrick’s landslide.
Redistricting is still uncertain in the Keystone State as of this writing, but one can assume that Fitzpatrick will end up with a seat similar enough to the one he currently represents. In a Republican-leaning midterm, he should be able to romp to an easy victory assuming there are no major changes to his political abode.
TX-24 (R) Beth Van Duyne
Texas’s 24th is now a Democratic-leaning seat in the greater Dallas area. When the district was drawn, it backed Romney by double-digits. Even in 2016, Trump cruised to a six point win while clearing the 50% barrier. But Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 districtwide win showed that the writing was ultimately on the wall for Republicans, with Biden flipping the 24th by 5 points two years later. The highly-populated Dallas suburbs and exurbs excite Democrats much long-term.
Like many of the other districts on this list, the right Republican was able to defy Presidential headwinds just enough to win a close race. That GOP candidate was Beth Van Duyne, the party’s pick to succeed retiring incumbent Kenny Marchant. Van Duyne was considered an underdog in her race against Candace Valenzuela, with internal polls and evolving conventional wisdom expecting Trump to sink her on election day. The President may have sunk when the returns started coming in, but Van Duyne managed to outrun him enough to secure victory with a plurality of the vote. Although she only received about 2% more of the vote than Trump in each of the county portions, it proved enough to place her ahead districtwide.
Under the current lines, Van Duyne would be in for some tough reelection fights in the ensuing decade. But redistricting bailed her out, placing her in a Trump +12 seat. Given the ominous long-term trends in this part of the Lone Star State, the novel 24th could theoretically come back into contention for Democrats at the end of the decade. But trends rarely move in the same constant direction, so predicting is often futile. For now, Van Duyne appears Safe for a second term.
FL-27 (R) Maria Elvira Salazar
Florida’s 27th, along with the neighboring 26th, was a district lying at the heart of President Trump’s exemplary performance with Cuban-American voters in South Florida in 2020. Although the former President failed to win the 27th overall, his 48% was significantly higher than 38% he received in 2016. His stunningly-unexpected improvement in the seat once held by long-time Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was entirely the result of Trump’s Bush-level performance in Miami-Dade.
Maria Elvira Salazar was in many respects the perfect Republican candidate for the seat. (She was also one of a handful of hopefuls that successfully sought rematches after 2018 shortcomings) Two years before her victory, the former news anchor lost a competitive election to Donna Shalala. But the aged incumbent, unable to speak Spanish, faltered in 2020. Trump’s performance at the top of the ticket certainly did not help the Democrat’s chances. But there’s more under the surface, a reality evidenced by the fact that Salazar received 3% more of the vote than Trump. She is certainly to blame for her own overperformance.
Going into redistricting, Sunshine State Republicans entirely control the process. It is unclear if the powers at be will pursue an aggressive gerrymander, but it seems reasonable to expect an incumbent protection map at the minimum. Such a proposal should provide a seat winnable for Salazar in the long-term. Assuming Republicans do not lose ground with Cuban-Americans and other Hispanics here over the next decade, Salazar could be in a good position to begin a lengthy career in federal politics.
NE-02 (R) Don Bacon
Nebraska’s 2nd is a district that has rapidly left the Republican column in the last few years. Imbued with Democratic optimism from Douglas County (Omaha), the seat returned to the blue fold in 2020 for the first time since former President Obama won it under the old lines in 2008. After Trump won it by a 2 point plurality in 2016, Biden swept in from the east to reap a whopping 6 point majority. There seems to be little doubt about the direction of the political winds here.
The incumbent Republican is Don Bacon, an affable former General who managed to purloin the 2nd from the Democratic column in 2016. After a razor-thin reelection in 2018, progressive Democrat Kara Eastman tried again two years later. Given the topline result, her second loss now looks far more embarrassing. Bacon took 51.4% of the vote, a figure clocking in five points higher than Trump’s. The incumbent’s success was mostly driven by his brand, which appealed enough to swing voters in Douglas County for him to outrun the President by 5 points. Even though he still lost Douglas, he performed well enough to maintain a healthy districtwide lead. Bacon’s success in Sarpy certainly helped as well.
Redistricting leaves the 2nd Biden-won, but slightly more Republican than its predecessor. We do not have much reason to believe that Bacon will be at risk in a district that is redder than the one he won against Presidential headwinds in a nominally Democratic year, especially if Republicans maintain favorite status this fall from an environmental standpoint. Likely Republican
ME-02 (D) Jared Golden
Maine’s 2nd is not the type of district you would expect a Democrat to hold in 2021. Taking in sprawling swathes of land throughout the sparsely-populated northern part of the state, this district is the second most rural in the country after Kentucky’s 5th. Compared to other similar districts, Democrats still hold up well at the top of the ticket. But the growing Republican advantage cannot be denied, with Trump winning the 2nd twice by comfortable margins to conclude the Obama-era.
Jared Golden is tailor-made to represent this district as a Democrat. The all around moderate is a decorated combat veteran with state political experience, two qualifications that he used to craft his down to earth message in 2018. Though he finished behind incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin on election day, the Pine Tree State’s new RCV system allowed him to eke out a win after the fact. Since arriving in Washington, Golden stuck to his brand the best he could while navigating the Democratic caucus. He was never as conservative as Collin Peterson, the Ag. Chairman who represented an even more inhospitable district, but he had his moments.
Given his advantages in fundraising and polling, many pundits did not expect Golden’s reelection to be close at all. Some rated the race Safe Democratic. While this overconfidence certainly turned out to be ill-placed, the incumbent still put up a very impressive performance given the fundamentals. He received 8% more of the vote than Biden (53 vs 45) in 2020, outrunning him across the board. Besides his performances in Androscoggin and Penobscot (-/+ 37% population), Golden did better than many Democrats could ever hope for in red rurals like Aroostook.
Redistricting left the 2nd mostly unchanged, with modifications actually making it slightly more Democratic. Any shift to the left will undoubtedly make it easier for Golden to attract crossover support, but it is unclear how much his appeal will help amid a Republican environment this fall. After all, the seat is still Trump-won. Those districts should be among the first to fall on the party’s frontlines in November. Former Congressman Bruce Poliquin is challenging the two-term Congressman and stands a good chance of returning to the House. Tossup
PA-08 (D) Matt Cartwright
Pennsylvania’s 8th is a marginal district in the northeastern part of the state. It is centered around the Democratic-leaning communities of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, but takes in more Republican suburbs and rurals as well. Once reliable Democratic country during the Obama-era, this territory has since shifted right across the board. But Lackawanna still packs a Democratic punch, denuding Trump’s districtwide victory to just four points in 2020.
All the while, the 8th has been pretty consistently represented by Democrat Matt Cartwright. He is not the type of Democrat that one would expect to become electorally-reliable in this culturally-conservative district, but his social progressivism seems to be balanced out by his popular support for organized labor. In 2012, under the old lines, Cartwright successfully primary challenged long-time Congressman Tim Holden in a seat that was drawn to shore the incumbent up. Since then he has navigated reelection with some degree of ease.
In 2020, Cartwright comfortably defeated Republican Jim Bognet even as Trump carried the 8th by a similar margin. How did the Democrat do it? He received higher shares of the vote than Biden in Lackawanna (59 vs 54) and Luzerne (51 vs 45) – both of which account for 2/3rds of the district’s population when combined. In Monroe County, the third most populated portion of the seat, Cartwright received about 3% more of the vote than Biden.
But the incumbent did not just draw Trump voters in Biden’s ancestral homeland. He also performed exceptionally well in rural, outlying Pike and Wayne counties. Like many Democratic incumbents on this list, Cartwright was able to perform better than the fundamentals in lesser-populated red parts of his seat. These localities may not pack a large punch, but every extra vote counts. Districtwide, Cartwright received 4.5% more of the vote than Biden (52-47%).
NJ-03 (D) Andy Kim
New Jersey’s 3rd district straddles Burlington and Ocean, two counties with opposing political leans. When combined, the portions create one of the most marginal Congressional districts nationwide. Back in 2012, this territory favored Democrats like Barack Obama. But Trump managed to make inroads when flipping the 3rd in 2016. Even in 2020, the President held on – albeit narrowly.
Democrat Andy Kim is one of many talented members of his freshman class, ultimately defying initial expectations that he would lose after a single term. Kim is not a moderate in the sense of someone like Golden, but he is pragmatic enough to be appealing to his district. In 2018 he unseated Republican incumbent Tom MacArthur amid a favorable national environment. He focused his attacks on MacArthur’s votes in favor of the GOP tax plan and the earlier ACA repeal.
In 2020 he was reelected easily against Republican David Richter, though his performance can be just as much attributed to his personal strengths as it can be to the weaknesses of his opponent. To win, Kim received 3% more of the vote than Biden in the Burlington portion (56% of the population). Ocean is less significant, especially for a Democratic candidate, but he actually ran further ahead of Biden here than in Burlington – taking nearly 42% of the vote. All told, Kim received 4% more of the vote districtwide than his Presidential standard-bearer (53 vs 49%).
Redistricting has shored up Kim considerably, making him less vulnerable to a Republican environment this fall. His new 3rd backed Biden by double-digits and no longer includes blood red segments of Ocean County to the east. If the national picture for Democrats is bad enough Kim could have a somewhat competitive race, but his chances of losing given the favorable changes and lacking GOP recruitment are minimal. Likely Democratic
WI-03 (D) Ron Kind
Wisconsin’s 3rd is a marginal seat based in the Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin. Like Pennsylvania’s 8th or Illinois’s 17th, the 3rd began its life as considerably Democratic Obama country – the 44th President won it by 11 during his reelection bid. But the advent of Trump on the nation’s electoral scene shook things up in this heavily-white, somewhat-working class seat. The Republican enigma proceeded to win the 3rd comfortably on two occasions.
Apart from 2010, long-time incumbent Democrat Ron Kind has generally been reelected easily. (He did not have an opponent in 2016, when Trump first won the 3rd) In 2020, though, Presidential headwinds finally put Kind to the test. He managed to win reelection over Derrick Van Orden with 51.3% of the vote, but clearly won by less than the pundit world had expected. Despite prior expectations, Kind’s performance was very impressive across the board given fundamentals. So how did the incumbent end up receiving 4.5% more of the vote than Biden (51 vs 47%)?
First Kind outran Biden in the three most populated counties in the district: La Crosse, Eau Claire, and Portage. He generally received 3-4% more of the vote than Biden in these population centers. But Kind’s largest overperformances mimicked Golden, mostly coming from redder rural parts of the district. Considering the Democratic floor with non-college whites and rural Democrats has been dropping in the Badger State, Kind’s strong overperformances are very impressive.
After decades of Congressional service, the incumbent is retiring next year. His seat is expected to become more Republican in redistricting, likely benefitting Derrick Van Orden as he makes another run for the nation’s lower chamber. Wisconsin is a state with poor political geography for Democrats, a reality that makes truly-balanced Congressional maps hard to draw even when Democratic candidates win statewide.
IL-17 (D) Cheri Bustos
Illinois’s 17th is a marginal district based along the Land of Lincoln’s northwestern border. Following the Mississippi southward, the 17th is in some respects the southern political extension of Wisconsin’s neighboring 3rd district. The 17th’s northernmost extent is also technically part of the Driftless Area. Like other seats in the region, this district comfortably backed President Obama in 2012. Trump narrowly flipped it in 2016 before winning it again in 2020.
Like Ron Kind, the 17th has found its own relatively-popular incumbent. She is Cheri Bustos, a long-time friend of Senator Dick Durbin who managed to flip the seat to the Democrats in 2012. Since then, Bustos has been able to outrun the top of the ticket consistently. She accomplished landslide reelections over weak challengers in 2016 and 2018, which seemed to convince pundits that she would not be particularly vulnerable in 2020.
Facing Republican Esther Joy King, one of the party’s newest candidates, Bustos ended up with a competitive reelection victory. Like Wisconsin’s 3rd, an objective analysis requires one to put pundit expectations aside while looking at the fundamentals. The incumbent’s overperformance in highly-populated county portions like Rock Island, Winnebago, and Peoria was very important to her success. But most of the counties where Bustos received a markedly-higher share of the vote than Biden were rural. Districtwide she received just 4% more of the vote than her Presidential standard-bearer (52 vs 48).
Much like Kind, Bustos will be retiring this year. Her new seat is gerrymandered to be Biden +8, significantly bluer than the current iteration of the 17th. But the changes are not enough to make the new district unwinnable for a candidate like King in a Republican environment. Long-term the 17th should break for the Democrats more consistently, but we rate it as a Tossup for this cycle.
MI-08 (D) Elissa Slotkin
Michigan’s 8th is one of the most competitive seats in the Wolverine State under the current lines. It has been marginally Republican since it was drawn, though Trump’s one point win here in 2020 was smaller than his party’s margins in both previous Presidential elections. As it now stands, the 8th is spans a stretch of south central Michigan from Ingham County (Lansing) to Oakland County (Detroit suburbs).
Despite its federal lean, the 8th was malleable enough to elect a Democratic Congresswoman in the 2018 wave. That candidate was Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA operative with an outsider appeal that defined many successful first time House nominees that cycle. Prior to her comfortable victory, the 8th was held by Republican Congressman Mike Bishop.
In 2020, Slotkin had an impressive victory. She took nearly 51% of the vote districtwide, a full 2 points more than Biden could muster while losing the 8th to Trump. Slotkin accomplished this by outrunning her party’s Presidential nominee in all three of the district’s well-populated county portions. Most of the Democratic vote comes from Ingham, but she held her own in more Republican Livingston and Oakland too.
Redistricting places her in the renumbered 7th district, which narrowly backed Biden. On paper, the changes boost her chances slightly. After all, every vulnerable incumbent likes getting a more hospitable seat. But she will still face an incredibly tough reelection challenge this fall against state Senator Tom Barrett. A strong Republican environment could be enough to unseat her in a race we consider a Tossup.
IA-03 (D) Cindy Axne
Iowa’s 3rd is one of the most competitive districts in the country, and the last addition to the list of crossover seats. Located in the southwestern-most corner of the Hawkeye State, it backed Trump by the smallest margin of the Iowa Congressional seats. The 3rd is actually trending Democratic overall, a phenomenon precipitated by declining Republican strength in Polk County (Des Moines) and its surroundings.
Incumbent Democrat Cindy Axne first won the seat in 2018, mobilizing Polk to disrupt sitting Republican David Young after Theresa Greenfield, the Democrats’ first choice, dropped out earlier in the cycle. She faced Young in a rematch in 2020, but ended up winning again. To a great extent, the 3rd’s status as a crossover seat is less of a case of Axne outrunning Biden as it is a case of Young underperforming Trump. Axne actually received less of the vote districtwide than Biden did (48.9 vs 49%).
She could not outrun Biden significantly because she did not have measured overperformances in populated Polk and Dallas counties, the two most important portions of the 3rd for any Democrat. (Polk alone accounts for 56% of the vote) Dallas County was especially damaging for Axne, where she received 2% less of the vote than Biden. Perhaps Young was able to mobilize a small, but significant amount of suburban Biden-Republicans to aid his cause. It is not unthinkable.
Where did Axne perform well? In the parts of the seat that matter the least to Democratic electoral victory: the rurals. The forgotten portions of the 3rd saw Axne receive anywhere from 2-6% more of the vote than Biden. These counties may be relatively small, but every vote still counts when it comes to the overall total. There is little doubt that Axne made up for her shortcomings in Polk and Dallas in the hinterlands of her seat.
Redistricting keeps Axne in a similar Polk County-based seat. Under the current lines, the new 3rd still voted narrowly for Trump. Given the environmental expectations for the fall, Axne is at great risk. Her opponent will probably be State Senator Zach Nunn, a native of Polk County. If Nunn can resurrect some Republican support in and around Des Moines, Axne will be in big trouble. For now, the race is a Tossup.
As a result of this polarization-propelled trend, we predict that split-ticket voting in House and Senate contests during in Presidential years will continue to atrophy. Should the data-based conclusions pan out, the reduction in the number of such crossover seats will probably accelerate. (Both graphs are provided below)
Another result of these trends has been succinctly noted by my colleague Lakshya Jain. He points out that the increasing importance of the topline in determining House outcomes will make the 435-seat chamber a Tossup in Presidential years. In 2012 and 2016, the House evaded the Democratic grasp despite generally-favorable conditions at the Presidential level. (Democrats won the popular vote in both elections)
If our new hypothesis is accurate, the national environment will define the direction of House results. 2024 will put the theory into practice regardless of which party takes the White House. Republicans are heavily favored to flip the House this November on the headwinds of a negative midterm reaction to President Biden. But Democrats may have a better chance at taking the chamber back in 2024 than they did in 2012, even if the national environment is neutral or Republican-leaning.
Data generously gathered from Daily Kos and Our Campaigns