One of the fundamental truths of American politics states that out-parties tend to gain seats in midterm elections. Historical causes include voter anger, changing electoral compositions, and economic concerns. This midterm axiom has been remarkably steady over the decades, with 1998 and 2002 constituting the only recent divergences.
Historical data also suggest that wave midterms, those yielding double-digit turnover in the House, are normal occurrences. In 2006, for instance, Democrats flipped 31 seats, without losing a single seat of their own. Four years later, Republicans gained 63 seats over Democrats. Most recently, in 2018, Democrats capitalized on dissatisfaction with the Trump Administration to net 41 seats.
The easiest targets for out-parties in wave elections are crossover seats, otherwise known as districts that simultaneously voted for different parties at the presidential and congressional levels. Historically prolific, the number of crossover seats has recently fallen as individual congressional results have become increasingly-connected with presidential toplines.
It is also important to remember that political trends do not always unfold linearly. They are occasionally delayed or dampened by outside factors like candidate quality and downballot lag. For example, southwestern Connecticut and suburban Cincinnati continue to vote Republican at higher rates downballot than at the presidential level. The reverse is true in northeastern Minnesota and southern West Virginia.
But strong candidates and downballot ancestral leanings are not always enough to win districts overwhelmed by long-running trends. This was true across the country in 2018, as Split Ticket previously noted. All of the seats in question have strong working-class bases and have moved rightward over the last two decades. By breaking down unsuccessful Democratic attempts to win reach seats in 2018, a banner year for the party, Split Ticket will be able to better judge Republican efforts in similar reach districts ahead of the November elections.
Here is a list of the districts utilized:
Taking into account the two scandalous members, Steve King (IA-04) and Chris Collins (NY-27), the average overperformance for Democrats in these reach seats was roughly 10 points when compared to 2016 presidential lean. These data prove that candidate quality and downballot lag close gaps between fundamentals and reality. The strongest overperformers, besides those running against scandalous incumbents, were Paul Davis (KS-02), Kathleen Williams (MT-AL), Ron DiNicola (PA-16), Amy McGrath (KY-06), and Mel Hall (IN-02).
These districts are definitely out of Democratic reach at the presidential level, but could still be close at the House level, under the right conditions, due to prevalent historical ticket-splitting. It should be noted, though, that all of these seats elected Republicans by lopsided margins in 2020, when then-President Trump stood at the top of the ticket.
So, what has been learned? Two things. First, out-parties can post strong overperformances in reach seats if well-funded, high-quality nominees are found. Second, presidential partisanship is not fixed and can therefore be affected by midterm peculiarities. Both of these points are expected to remain salient this fall.
To conclude, let’s review some of the reach seats that the GOP has invested a higher-than-usual amount of resources in this cycle. Split Ticket looked into these districts earlier this year, when the national environment seemed better for the GOP. As a general point, characteristic differences are important. Whereas the Democratic reach seats of 2018 were predominantly working-class and somewhat rural, 2022’s far-flung Republican targets are mostly Democratic-trending and suburban.
One example of a reach seat for the GOP is Virginia’s 10th district, where Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D) became the first Democrat in a generation to win this seat in 2018. This year, Wexton faces Republican veteran Hung Cao, who has attempted to mobilize NOVA’s downballot Republican lean to force a competitive race in a Biden +18 seat.
Glenn Youngkin would have only lost the redrawn 10th by 2 points in his 2021 gubernatorial bid, but most indicators suggest that the national environment is now neutral rather than fervently-Republican as it was last November. In other words, Cao is more of a longshot than he was a few months ago.
Another seat of interest is California’s 26th district, home to Rep. Julia Brownley (D). Because of Ventura County’s slight downballot lag and Republican heritage, the GOP recruited A-tier candidate Matt Jacobs to contest this seat earlier in the cycle. The historically-red Simi Valley was added to the redrawn 26th, but the seat’s partisan lean is still Biden +20.
Back when a lopsided Republican wave was expected, it looked like the GOP could make the race here somewhat competitive. While that no longer seems to be the case, there is no reason to completely ignore any seat in which Republicans have invested a significant amount of resources.
Both the 10th and 26th districts recently moved from LIKELY to SAFE DEMOCRATIC, meaning they are not expected to be particularly competitive based on the information available to Split Ticket at present. However, general variance is often intertwined with midterm cycles. It is for this reason that reach seats of all types merit being watched even if they do not end up being competitive.