With early voting in the first Congressional primary of the year already underway, the midterm campaign season is beginning to heat up in earnest. Due to President Biden’s sagging approval ratings, a strong Republican performance in the 2021 off-year elections, and entrenched historical precedent, general expectations for November point to a favorable national environment for the GOP.
Assuming this conventional wisdom holds up, Republicans will be heavy favorites to retake the House majority. Because of a stronger than expected downballot performance in 2020, the GOP needs a net gain of just 6 seats to flip the chamber. According to 538, Republicans have a small but consistent generic ballot lead. Because waves sometimes materialize later than expected, that advantage could increase before election day.
Either way, the real question for the lower chamber this fall is not whether the GOP will secure a majority, but rather how large its majority will be. There are some limits to majority-making imposed by polarization and recent Republican redistricting setbacks (which we argue could give the House a Democratic bias this decade) but the environmental prospects should be enough for the GOP to acquire somewhere between 225-235 districts.
In an effort to take an early look at the types of districts minority parties can compete in when the environment is on their side, we will be analyzing the results of the 2018 House elections. That year, Democrats capitalized on President Trump’s unpopularity to net 41 seats and reclaim the House for the first time since 2011.
There is a strong possibility that 2022 could be the Republican equivalent of the last Democratic wave, hence the validity of comparing the two cycles. So without further ado, let’s take a deep dive into the methodology behind seat categorization.
For this analysis, Split Ticket looked at the 77 closest House districts from 2018. To be considered competitive by this metric, a given seat’s final margin had to be 10% or less. For each seat on the list, we analyzed both vote share and margin from the 2016 Presidential race.
Since almost all of these districts were held by Republicans ahead of the midterm, this analysis revolved around determining the Presidential lean of seats that Democrats flipped, or competed seriously for, in an effort to shed some light on where inverted Republican expectations should be this fall.
A list of important averages stemming from the data is provided below. There are two separate categories: 1) averages for all 77 seats and 2) averages for the 34 seats out of this group of 77 that Democrats flipped. It is important to remember that this list only includes Democratic pickups decided by less than 10%.
This table shows us that out of these 77 districts, the mean House Democrat received about 5 points more of the vote than did Hillary Clinton (49-44). For the 34 seats on this list that successfully changed parties, that figure remains the same (52-46).
Comparing shifts in the average Presidential margin sheds light on another important reality: Democrats were able to make traditional reach seats competitive, but ultimately came up short in many such contests. Of the 77 aforementioned districts, the mean Presidential margin was R+7 – about 6 points more Republican than the average topline partisanship of the 34 flips on the table.
Wave environments tend to imbue one party with more enthusiasm than its counterpart. These feelings of hope and expectation often transfer into better recruitment and stronger fundraising, checking off the two most critical boxes on the list of prerequisites for winning competitive House contests. This does not mean the party on offense will win all of its stretch targets, but rather that it will put such normally-uncompetitive districts within reach when they otherwise would not be.
Why Vote Share Instead Of Margin?
As one can probably already tell, Split Ticket is not arguing against the usage of margin-based calculations altogether. We are proposing vote share-based analysis simply because it allows one to understand the depth of a given seat’s partisanship with greater clarity. In addition to increased specificity, using this metric provides a good control for the unpredictability of third party Presidential vote.
Noah Rudnick’s reliance on vote share allowed him to accurately predict Kendra Horn’s upset in Oklahoma’s 5th district, an outcome that none of the traditional pundits saw coming. Even though the 2016 margin in the 5th was Trump +13, the former President only received 53% of the districtwide vote. Given the strength of the national environment for Democrats, looking at the outcome in OK-05 through that lens makes it more understandable.
Districts Not Included
Since the 77-seat list only includes races decided by 10 points or less, only 34 Democratic pickups are listed. Democrats that flipped Republican-held districts by double-digits like Jennifer Wexton (VA-10) and Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11) are therefore not included. Nevertheless, the district picture still encompasses enough of the national political scene to substantiate meaningful conclusions.
Clinton Seat Republicans (Flips)
16 of the 34 (47%) Democratic pickups on our list occurred in Clinton-won districts. Democrats came up short in just 3 of these seats (TX-23, PA-01, and NY-24) posting a success rate of 86%. If one counts flips that were decided by more than 10 points, that Democratic percentage would increase even more. Let’s take a brief look under the hood at district partisanships.
FL-27 was the bluest seat in this section, awarding Clinton a whopping 58.5% of the vote to solidify a victory by almost 20 points. NJ-07 was the reddest, giving Clinton only 48.6% for a 1 point win. The mean vote share improvement for Democrats among these 19 seats was roughly 2 points (52-50%).
Given the hostile partisan leans of those districts, it is no wonder that the Republicans representing them were at the top of the DCCC’s initial target list. Before the Trump-era, most of these incumbents were able to generate enough split-ticket voting to survive reelection relatively unscathed.
But increased polarization and the rise of straight-ticket voting proved too much for many Republicans to overcome in the face of a strong Democratic backlash to the President and the direction of the GOP. As mentioned previously, environmental expectations also helped Democrats recruit high-quality candidates prepared to run winning campaigns.
Where did Republicans fall?
Long-time members like Leonard Lance (NJ-07), Jeff Denham (CA-10), Kevin Yoder (KS-03), John Culberson (TX-07), Pete Sessions (TX-32), and Peter Roskam (IL-06) all ended up losing hotly-contested reelection battles in districts that had effectively been safe Republican when they were drawn in 2012.
Favorable Democratic trends in each of these seats were exaggerated by the national environment crashing up against the walls of the Trump White House, overwhelming the traditional electoral strengths of all of these lawmakers.
Candidate quality was also important, considering the Democratic nominees in all five of these seats outran Clinton. Colin Allred (TX-32) and Sharice Davids (KS-03) both come to mind as examples of the diverse, energetic Democratic freshman class that returned the Speaker’s gavel to Nancy Pelosi after a prolonged drought.
Some of these Republican losses also resulted from retirements, notably those of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), Martha McSally (AZ-02), and Dave Reichert (WA-08). Other Clinton-seat flips, like CA-21 and FL-26, were pure upsets. Republicans David Valadao and Carlos Curbelo easily outran the Republican topline in their districts, but ultimately could not trump the environment.
Both of those seats flipped back to the GOP in 2020. Other reverts included FL-27 (Shalala), CA-25 (special), CA-39 (Cisneros), and CA-48 (Rouda). All of these Democratic defeats had as much to do with incumbent weakness as they did challenger strength.
In districts like PA-01 and NY-24, incumbents Brian Fitzpatrick and John Katko were able to survive both 2018 and 2020 on the back of unusually-prolific split-ticket voting.
Trump Seat Republicans (Flips)
The remaining 53% of Democratic pickups included on our list came from Trump-won districts. Democrats managed to win 18 of the 58 (31%) Trump seats on the Split Ticket board, an impressive feat in any national environment. Let’s take a brief look under the hood at district partisanships.
NY-22 was the reddest seat in this category, yielding Trump nearly 55% of the vote to facilitate a 15.5 point win. Democratic-trending GA-06 was the bluest, giving the 45th President a slim 1.5 point victory. The mean vote share improvement for Democrats among these 18 seats was an impressive 8 points (51-43%).
In a wave year, the offensive party will always pick off the low-hanging fruit first (i.e. the Clinton-district Republicans). But flipping more seats becomes much harder after that because the party out of power must target seats with hostile partisan leans in order to secure a wide majority.
In a normal year this is difficult to accomplish, since Presidential lean has become the best indicator of House results (see Split Ticket’s past research). But it is also important to remember that having the national environment on one’s side, as Democrats did in 2018, opens up paths to victory in districts that might have at first seemed out of reach.
With credible, centrist candidates (often without political backgrounds) Democrats were able to replicate Rahm Emanuel’s successful 2006 majority-making strategy in Trump seats across the country. Because these Republican-leaning seats were in many cases not accustomed to voting Democratic, Split Ticket wagers that candidate quality mattered even more in such localities than it did in the aforementioned Clinton-won flips.
Where did Republicans fall?
Many of these pickups were bolstered by Republican retirements. These seats included MI-11 (Trott), NM-02 (Pearce), and NJ-02 (LoBiondo). In this situation, the national environment prevented Republican nominees like Lena Epstein and Yvette Herrell from defeating compelling Democratic challengers in seats where the GOP should have been favored. (Although Herrell did flip NM-02 back in 2020) LoBiondo’s replacement nominee, Seth Grossman, was a deeply-flawed candidate running against an electoral titan in veteran State Senator Jeff Van Drew.
Republicans also came up short in both Trump seats where incumbents had lost their primaries. In SC-01, Katie Arrington defeated Mark Sanford before narrowly losing to upstart Democrat Joe Cunningham. (Republicans retook that seat two years later) NC-09 was more interesting. Mark Harris won his rematch against Robert Pittenger and led Democrat Dan McCready on election night, but the election was ultimately declared fraudulent. (Republicans won the ensuing special election with Dan Bishop)
The remaining GOP losses came in modest Trump seats that had not been seriously contested in prior cycles. In many cases these districts already had somewhat favorable Democratic trends that were emboldened by the national environment. Examples included GA-06 (Handel), IL-14 (Hultgren), VA-02 (Taylor), VA-07 (Brat), and MI-08 (Bishop).
In nominally-Republican districts like NJ-03 (MacArthur), NY-22 (Tenney), UT-04 (Love), IA-01 (Blum), IA-03 (Young), and NY-11 (Donovan), the unique strength of Democratic challengers meshed with incumbent underperformance to generate victories in seats that definitely did not start out at the top of the DCCC’s target list.
Reach Targets & Partisanship Or Scandal (The Oddities)
As we have now repeatedly said, bad environments open up reach seats for the offensive party. The best way to analyze Democratic (over)performance in 2018 is to look at vote share improvement in these Trump-won seats that Republicans managed to hold.
Of the 40 districts that fall into this “stretch” category, the mean Trump vote share was 53.6% compared to just 41% for Clinton. Despite that 12.6 point marginal advantage, Democratic House candidates in these seats posted a mean vote share of 46.8% in 2018 – cutting the Republican margin to just 5.2 points.
In short, Democrats capitalized on national circumstances to run credible campaigns in districts across the board. While they ultimately did not win a majority of these hostile Trump seats, they put up strong enough fights to win 1/3rd of them while keeping the remainder on the board long enough to force Republicans to divert resources away from the frontlines.
Looking closely at these “reach” seats shows that Democrats were generally able to compete in districts with a partisan lean of Trump +15 or less. Close battles in much redder seats like PA-16 (Kelly), KS-02 (Open), MT-AL (Gianforte), IN-02 (Walorski), NY-27 (McMurray), and IA-04 (King) were mostly the fault of weak, controversial, or scandalous GOP candidates. In other words, special circumstances put these districts on the playing field when they should have been on the sidelines.
Looking at this analysis, Republicans will probably benefit from quite a few of the same underlying circumstances that undergirded Democrats four years ago. The national environment is already at the GOP’s back and President Biden is in an unpopular slump quite similar to the one that plagued the Trump Administration in 2018. Furthermore, despite recent redistricting setbacks, Republicans have the added advantage of only needing to net 6 seats to take back the majority – a result of a stronger than expected 2020 performance in downballot House contests.
Very much like the Clinton-district Republicans of 2018, we can expect the handful of remaining Trump-district Democrats (i.e. Golden, Axne, O’Halleran) to be at the top of the NRCC’s target list in the fall. As for Biden-won districts, the GOP will be attempting to capitalize on candidate quality and fundraising prowess to flip seats in the Biden +1-10 range. Districts in the 10+ point range are certainly not unwinnable in a wave environment, but will be difficult to actually flip regardless of the circumstances.
If Republicans are able to win 1/3rd of the competitive Biden-won House seats, as Democrats did with Trump-won districts in 2018, they will have a clear path to an impressive majority well within the 230-235 seat range. For all intents and purposes, it is too early to know for sure just how strong the national environment will be for the GOP. But we can be sure that mimicking the Democratic strategy on recruitment in seats of varying degrees of competitiveness will be the best way to maximize Republican midterm gains.
A special thanks to Daily Kos Elections for gathering and publishing the data used in this article. Please visit their website to find further Presidential numbers by Congressional district.
*Three North Carolina districts were excluded from this analysis because they conducted elections under defunct lines*
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or firstname.lastname@example.org