History tells us that the President’s party almost always loses ground in midterm cycles. The size of congressional losses varies depending on just how unpopular a sitting President is, but gains for the party out of power generally increase as presidential approval falls.
Abrupt changes in political direction associated with midterms have an outsized impact on the House of Representatives, where the average loss for the President’s party since the Civil War has been around 30 seats according to Kyle Kondik at Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Even during abnormal cycles in which redistricting corresponded with a midterm, like 1982, the party occupying the White House has endured carnage.
Notable exceptions to the midterm trend are 1998 and 2002. It is difficult to draw data-based conclusions about why those two cycles bucked conventional wisdom, so pundit world has relied on more holistic explanations. In 1998, political scientists blame the backfired Clinton impeachment for GOP losses. Republican strength in 2002, meanwhile, is often chalked up to national unity around the Bush Administration following 9/11.
But those interesting examples are, at the end of the day, still outliers. Conventional wisdom suggests that President Biden and the Democrats will suffer double-digit losses in the House this fall. Data from 538 tracking Presidential approval currently show Biden at 42%, slightly below the 44% mark that Obama posted ahead of the Republican landslide in the 2010 midterms. The GOP has also taken a modest lead in 538‘s generic ballot average, suggesting a Republican national environment is in the works.
When it comes to the House, wave cycles can also produce unexpected results. These upsets tend to occur in sleeper seats, districts won or closely contested by the underdog party riding the national environment. To ensure that 2022’s potential anomalies do not seem surprising in hindsight, Split Ticket is starting early by examining how two heavily-Democratic districts could be more contested than usual this fall.
We favor Democrats to keep both of the districts discussed in this piece, and expect to continue to favor the incumbent party on election day. In that sense, the term sleeper seat only implies that Republicans can exceed expectations in these districts even if they come up short.
*Keep in mind that all of these seats have been redrawn following the decennial redistricting process.*
CA-26 (D) Julia Brownley
California’s 26th district is represented by Democrat Julia Brownley, first elected in 2012. Brownley’s first two elections were hotly contested because her district was only Obama +10 when it was drawn, but favorable Democratic trends have since granted the Congresswoman a series of easy reelections. The Ventura County-based seat shifted 15 points leftward between the 2012 and 2020 presidential contests, allowing President Biden a 25 point victory.
Redistricting actually softened the Democratic advantage in the 26th, bringing Biden’s 2020 vote share down from 61.4 to 58.9%. This feat was accomplished by removing the Simi Valley from Mike Garcia’s 27th district and adding it to Brownley’s 26th. The swap makes Garcia’s political life harder, considering the Simi Valley made his 333 vote 2020 reelection possible, but it also pushes the otherwise unnoticed 26th district onto the far edge of the GOP target board.
Despite auspicious boundary changes, the 26th is still a Biden +20 seat that has trended Democratic over the last decade. Even in a sizeable red wave, a district like that should not be on the radar. But there are a few unique considerations that bode poorly for Brownley, perhaps an indication that her reelection this year might not be smooth sailing. Split Ticket is keeping the 26th at Safe Democratic for now, but we will still examine why our readers should expect us to shift this seat onto the board over the summer.
Trends excepted, it is important to note that the 26th has long been more Republican down ballot. The new iteration of the seat would have been evenly split in the 2012 presidential contest and only backed Newsom 55-45 in California’s 2018 gubernatorial matchup.
A GOP national environment could buoy some of this residual Republicanism to abnormal levels, leaving a competitive race within the realm of possibility. Boosting GOP chances in the district even more is attorney Matt Jacobs, an NRCC Young Gun who has kept pace with the incumbent in the critical fundraising game.
VA-10 (D) Jennifer Wexton
Virginia’s 10th district is represented by Democrat Jennifer Wexton, first elected in 2018. Like Brownley’s 26th, the old 10th was significantly more Republican when it was drawn; Mitt Romney carried it 50-49 in 2012. But ongoing Democratic trends in Loudoun, Prince William, and Fairfax counties have shifted the seat leftward. These directional changes culminated in a 19 point Biden victory in 2020.
Until the Democratic wave in 2018, traditional Republicanism facilitated the ticket splitting necessary for Barbara Comstock to hold on to the seat long-represented by the legendary GOP Congressman Frank Wolf. Democratic successes in the 10th two years ago do indicate the continuing decline of down ballot Republicanism in NOVA, but close district-wide GOP margins in Virginia’s last two gubernatorial contests should give pundits pause before declaring residual strength extinct.
Redistricting did not alter the 10th’s federal partisanship much, but it did result in some important territorial shifts. Boundary changes dropped Biden’s 2020 vote share from 59 to 58%, but the overall district lean remains in the ballpark of Biden +20. The exchange of territory in Fairfax County for less Democratic turf in Prince William had a bigger impact on the 10th’s down ballot lean, a figure that may be a more accurate indication of partisanship amid a Republican national environment.
Just like in the 26th district, the GOP will be benefiting from more than just a favorable national environment. Glenn Youngkin lost the redrawn 10th by a slim 50.7-48.7% margin, suggesting that a congressional Republican could come within that ballpark if the environment is remotely similar to what it was last November.
That down ballot Republicanism will probably be accelerated by Jeanine Lawson, the leading GOP candidate for the seat’s firehouse primary. Caleb Max, the grandson of ex-Congressman Wolf, is another contender worth watching. If it isn’t clear yet, favorable environments produce quality candidates in typically-hostile districts. Split Ticket recently shifted VA-10 to Likely Democratic.
Split Ticket does not currently expect Republicans to flip either of these districts in the fall. The purpose of this piece is merely to shed some light on a handful of reach seats where 2020 Presidential lean could be a misleading gauge of election day competitivity.
Because the GOP already stands a good chance of retaking the House by flipping districts in the Tossup and Leans Democratic columns, it is not unreasonable that the NRCC has expanded its playing field to include seats in the Biden +15-20 range. After all, the Republicans are on offense this cycle and probably would not be able to compete for such reach seats in a less-accomodating environment.
Ultimately, this write-up just scratches the surface when it comes to analyzing reach seats that the GOP plans on contesting this year. We hope our readers find this piece insightful and impactful. For a full list of House races that Split Ticket is following this cycle, check out our ratings mastersheet here.
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