October House Temperature Check

INTRODUCTION

When Split Ticket released its last House Temperature Check at the end of August, 45 ratings changes were made in the Democrats’ favor. The shifts followed Pat Ryan’s victory over Republican frontrunner Marc Molinaro in New York’s 19th district, a culmination of Democratic overperformances in previous post-Dobbs special elections.

While the Dobbs decision effectively energized college-educated voters, particularly women, in urban and suburban communities, other factors like average gas price relief probably also contributed to the Democrats’ August breakthrough in 538’s generic ballot average. Democratic momentum by that metric continued to grow in September, peaking at about D+2.

But that lead, which was similar to the one that Republicans held in June, has since begun to decline as undecided voters make up their minds. Democrats currently lead the 538 average with a plurality of roughly D+1. Although that figure marks a full percentage point drop from September’s peak, Democrats actually received exactly 45.2% on both occasions. Republicans, meanwhile, rose a point in the same timeframe.*

The latest generic ballot numbers paint a picture of impending finality just one month before voters head to the polls to decide House control. While it is still unclear how much this midterm will end up deviating from historical precedent, if at all, it stands to reason that Republican numbers will improve as undecideds close ranks.

Should the post-September patterns continue to affect 538’s average, Split Ticket would expect a finish of about R+1 or 2. Such a result would suggest a modestly-Republican national environment instead of a neutral one. Either way, few deny the claim that the GOP could have had a better result if abortion had not become a salient campaign issue.

To cautiously reflect potentially-unrealized Republican momentum, Split Ticket is making a few House ratings changes. Most of these shifts are reversals in seats that moved from TOSSUP to LEANS DEMOCRATIC in August but feel too competitive or uncertain to favor Democrats distinctly.

Many of these districts could end up going back to LEANS DEMOCRATIC in our final House update in November, but some could go to LEANS REPUBLICAN too. To avoid any drastic shifts, like LEANS D to LEANS R, Split Ticket is preemptively expanding its Tossup category. After all, moving a TOSSUP race back to LEANS D is more justifiable than jumping two categories by moving a LEANS D race to LEANS R.

Besides keeping a careful eye on directionality, Split Ticket is also determined to make sure that as many remotely-competitive races are accounted for as possible. Some of these contests, which moved from LIKELY to SAFE D in August, will go back onto the board for the time being in case strange things happen in November. After all, any forecaster would rather rate an uncompetitive race LIKELY than a competitive one rated SAFE.

*The total number of decided voters in the October 8th survey was 89.5%; in April 2022, when Republicans posted their record-high R+2.7 lead, that figure was lower at 87.9%.*

CHANGES

Alaska-At Large

Alaska’s At Large district is the only seat moving in the Democrats’ direction this update. Without any cycle-specific context, this move would look like madness regardless of the national environment. After all, how could Democrats have a clear path to victory in a Trump +10 state that has voted for every Republican presidential nominee since 1968?

The answer is two-fold, resting on both the Last Frontier’s Ranked Choice Voting system and the above-average regional importance of candidate quality. Alaska’s new electoral process, approved by referendum in 2020, gives voters a more nuanced impact on election outcomes. The special election to replace the late Don Young, which Split Ticket wrote about last month, was a perfect example of this influence.

That race began after the top four candidates from the open primary advanced to an instant-runoff general election. They were, ordered by finish, former (R) Governor Sarah Palin, businessman (R) Nick Begich, 2020 Independent Senate candidate (I) Al Gross, and former state representative (D) Mary Peltola. Gross dropped out after the primary, setting up a three-way contest.

In the first round of ‘general election’ voting on August 16th, Peltola finished first with 39.6%, Palin second with 30.9%, and Begich last with 27.8% of first-preference votes. When the instant-runoff results were announced at the end of the month, Peltola shocked the country with a 51.5-48.5% victory. Democrats won because roughly-half of Begich’s first-round votes had Peltola marked as a second preference or were exhausted.

Source: By 沁水湾 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=123329820

Since taking office in September, Peltola has positioned herself as a pragmatic Democrat willing to legislate on behalf of her constituents like her Republican predecessor. Her independent-minded approach seems to be paying dividends, with the previously-accurate Alaska Survey Research poll predicting Peltola victories in November against both Palin and Begich. Given the fact that Begich could have won the special election instant runoff had he advanced, these revelations are surprising but not at all unfathomable.

This is where the second Alaska anomaly, the heightened-importance of candidate quality, comes into play. Peltola, as previously articulated, is the perfect Democrat for a traditionally-Republican state like the Last Frontier. Pro-gun and focused on fish, she is unlikely to personally offend even her most sanguine opponents.

Her most likely instant-runoff counterpart, though, sits in a completely different boat. Palin still struggles with dangerously-high unfavorability ratings. For now, Split Ticket sees no logical reason not to move Alaska from LEANS REPUBLICAN to TOSSUP. Furthermore, given our expectations of another Peltola v. Palin juxtaposition, LEANS DEMOCRATIC is the most-probable November rating.

California’s 13th

California’s 13th district (Biden +10.9) is still a fierce point of contention for both parties despite its presidential lean and the tendency for Golden State House seats to vote to the left of their primary results in general elections. Much of this outside interest stems from Republican businessman John Duarte, who has outraised his Democratic challenger Adam Gray and kept pace with him in terms of cash on hand.

Although Split Ticket would still pick Gray, who represents Stanislaus and Merced counties in the Assembly and outran President Biden in 2020, if the election were today, Duarte remains a formidable foe with upset potential.

National Republicans are clearly in the same boat, and have invested about $1.8 million in the district according to Rob Pyers. Low Central Valley Latino turnout could also endanger Gray, especially if Duarte is able to make inroads with Hispanics that many Republicans have hoped for. The polling average also suggests a close race, showing a modest Gray lead with lots of undecideds. LEANS DEMOCRATIC to TOSSUP.

Colorado’s 7th

Colorado’s 7th district (Biden +14.2) was deemed uncompetitive in August. Since then, Republican nominee Erik Aadland has managed to keep frontrunning Democratic state senator Brittany Pettersen on her toes, proving our call premature. The 7th has attracted little outside spending, but Split Ticket has obtained polling from a reliable source suggesting that Aadland is still within single digits.

Jefferson County’s Republican down ballot heritage, combined with redder turf around Cañon City added in redistricting, could make this race closer- than-expected next month. SAFE DEMOCRATIC to LIKELY DEMOCRATIC.

Florida’s 4th

Florida’s 4th district (Trump +6.7) no longer has a logical place on the board. Republican Aaron Bean, president pro tempore of the state senate, is a commanding favorite against Democrat LaShonda Holloway, who only had $8,000 of cash on hand back in August. No public polls have been released in this Jacksonville-area seat, but all of the fundamentals suggest a pro forma race. LIKELY REPUBLICAN to SAFE REPUBLICAN.

Illinois’s 13th

Democrats are clear favorites to win Illinois’s 13th district (Biden +11.2), but the probability of an upset is higher than some observers claim. Democratic nominee Nikki Budzinski is generally viewed as an excellent candidate. Endorsed by much of the state and national party establishment, she has outraised Republican challenger Regan Deering, who had little cash on hand at the end of the FEC’s last coverage period.

Budzinski also benefitted from redistricting, which added portions of East St. Louis in Madison and St. Clair counties while trimming Republican territory from Rodney Davis’s Trump-won 13th district, making it into a jagged band connecting Springfield, Decatur, and Champaign. Fundraising and the 13th’s partisan lean convince Split Ticket that Budzinski is favored to win, but not in a landslide. LIKELY DEMOCRATIC to LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

New York’s 2nd, 4th, and 22nd

As the November picture comes into view, three New York districts (2, 4, 22) are moving toward the Republicans. Two more swing seats (3 and 18) are staying LEANS DEMOCRATIC for now, but could move to TOSSUP if better evidence, like new polling or fundraising data, becomes available.

The first move comes in the 2nd (Trump +1.5), a marginally-Republican district located primarily in Suffolk County straddling the towns of Islip and Brookhaven. This seat is currently held by Andrew Garbarino, a freshman Congressman facing 2020 Democratic congressional candidate Jackie Gordon.

While fundraising has been competitive, Garbarino’s incumbency should help him outrun the 2nd’s presidential lean in Democratic-trending, majority-white precincts surrounding central Brookhaven and Islip. LEANS REPUBLICAN to LIKELY REPUBLICAN.

District 4 (Biden +14.5) is on this list for the same reason that Colorado’s 7th is, though Republicans are bigger underdogs in this seat. Located in Nassau County around heavily-Democratic Hempstead, the open 4th is expected to go to Democrat Laura Gillen, a former town supervisor running to replace retiring Congresswoman Kathleen Rice.

Republican Anthony D’Esposito has kept pace with his opponent when it comes to fundraising, though, pushing us to keep the 4th on the edge of the board with a move from SAFE DEMOCRATIC to LIKELY DEMOCRATIC.

One of the most mysterious House races in the entire country is playing out in the 22nd district (Biden +7.4), an Onondaga County-based seat left open by legendary Republican John Katko. Recent polling from Siena College showed Republican Brandon Williams leading Democrat Francis Conole 45-40%, suggesting that our move to LEANS DEMOCRATIC was premature.

Most of the uncertainty in this seat cannot be explained unless more polling comes out over the next month with fewer undecided respondents. Katko, who pulled a landslide upset against Democratic incumbent Dan Maffei in 2014, proved that Onondoga County is not afraid to provide Republicans with crossover support. Until the noise surrounding this cycle’s race dies down, a move from LEANS DEMOCRATIC back to TOSSUP seems merited.

Oregon’s 5th and 6th

Oregon’s 5th and 6th districts are each moving one rating rightward because polling and outside investment data suggest that Republicans are fighting close races in both seats.

The 5th (Biden +8.8) is definitely the easiest of the Beaver State’s three competitive districts for the GOP to win. Stretching between Clackamas and Deschutes counties, this seat is being contested by former Republican Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer and Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who beat moderate incumbent Kurt Schrader in the primary earlier this year.

While progressive insurgents tend to be less electable than the incumbents whom they defeat, Split Ticket’s WAR research suggests that Schrader would not have added much benefit to the Democratic side had he secured renomination. Good public polling has been scarce in the 5th, but available data suggest a race where Democrats are only slightly-favored with many undecided voters. LEANS DEMOCRATIC to TOSSUP.

Unlike the 5th, the Marion County-based 6th (Biden +13) really should not be that competitive on paper. But national Republicans have shown much more interest in this district than the slightly-redder 4th, forcing outside Democratic groups to match spending last minute. The GOP’s nominee Mike Erickson, has kept pace with Democrat Andrea Salinas in the polls but seems unlikely to gain more ground. Out of an abundance of caution, though, Split Ticket is moving this district from LIKELY DEMOCRATIC to LEANS DEMOCRATIC.

Texas’s 15th, 28th, and 34th

South Texas has a long Democratic tradition, but federal trends seem to finally be impacting its down ballot tendencies. In 2020, President Donald Trump lost reelection but posted incredible margins along the Rio Grande. His campaign’s Hispanic outreach, combined with Joe Biden’s social liberalism, warmed many traditionalist Democrats, and first-time voters, to the Republican cause. Trump’s regional momentum melted double-digit Clinton margins into soft Democratic ones, sometimes even delivering historic GOP victories – like in Zapata County.

It should be no surprise then, that Split Ticket entered the 2022 cycle with a particularly-pessimistic expectation for the Democrats’ floor in South Texas. Our first case test cropped up in June, when Republican Mayra Flores won the Biden +4 version of Texas’s 34th district against underfunded Democrat Dan Sanchez. Her comfortable, but not overwhelming, special election victory suggested that the Democratic down ballot advantage in South Texas had weakened but not disappeared. (Read our analysis here).

At that point in the cycle, Split Ticket still expected a behemoth Republican wave rather than a modest one. The polling repercussions of the Dobbs decision have somewhat softened our predictions on many swing-seat contests since then, but we still believe that South Texas should be excluded from the latest conventional wisdom. While abortion could energize urban voters in districts 28, 15, and 34, it is unlikely to garner sympathy from Catholic Hispanics, including many soft Democrats.

That’s the main reason why Split Ticket still believes that Democratic losses could be worse in South Texas than elsewhere in the country. To better convey this Republican potential, the 28th and 34th districts will be moving from LEANS DEMOCRATIC to TOSSUP and the 15th from LEANS REPUBLICAN back to LIKELY REPUBLICAN. Let’s take a closer look at each seat.

The 15th district (Trump +2.9), a Trump-won replacement for the seat that Vicente Gonzalez narrowly won two years ago, favors Republican Monica de la Cruz against progressive Democrat Michelle Vallejo. Polling and fundraising both point in the GOP’s direction, with national Democrats allocating practically no outside resources to this seat in the last coverage period.

In the 28th (Biden +7) and the 34th (Biden +15.5), Democratic incumbents are slight favorites against capable Republican challengers. Given its presidential lean, some readers might be particularly-surprised to see the 34th moved to TOSSUP after staying at LEANS DEMOCRATIC for the entire post-primary cycle.

But recent moves by Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the Cook Political Report suggest that its presidential partisanship could be a mirage this year, with Republican polls finding Flores neck and neck with Gonzalez. In general, it seems that Flores, somewhat similarly to Peltola, has attracted enough sticking-power of her own to not be taken for granted.

Conservative Democrat Henry Cuellar is in a much better position to win reelection in the 28th against Cassy Garcia than Gonzalez is to secure another term in the 34th, but we feel compelled to move it to TOSSUP just in case Republicans have to be picked to win it in November. In all likelihood, though, the 28th will move back to LEANS DEMOCRATIC in the last update to reflect Cuellar’s persistent entrenchment as an incumbent.

CONCLUSION

Overall, this month’s House Temperature Check should show that Republicans remain favorites to retake the House and could continue to gain ground as undecideds fall away. These changes also are not irreversible. Whether Republican growth is merely a mirage or the foundation of larger momentum, requisite shifts could easily be made in either direction based on how the next month goes.

The final House Temperature Check, in which all of Split Ticket’s TOSSUPs will be picked with justifications, is set to be published shortly before the general elections on November 8th.

My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies 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, aviation, and fitness.

Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or harrisonwlavelle1@gmail.com

One response to “October House Temperature Check”

  1. Speaking solely in regards to Oregon 5 (my mother-in-law’s district), I think Deschutes County might ultimately be the X-factor that determines the winner.

    Thanks to re-districting and the addition of a 6th congressional district for Oregon, Deschutes County has influence at the congressional level for the first time in a long time.

    Previously, fast-growing Bend and Redmond were buried in OR-02 with all of eastern Oregon, so their votes didn’t matter at the congressional level. This year however, their votes will, and have, mattered. A big reason why McLeod Skinner unseated Schrader was the fact that she obliterated him in Deschutes County (something akin to 70-30%).

    Deschutes County has moved to the left at a pretty good clip (from 2012-20 it went from Romney +6.7, to Trump +3.3, to Biden +8.2), but it also went for local resident Knute Buehler in the 2018 gubernatorial race by nearly 10 points.

    I’m not sure anybody really knows how the county is going to vote this year (I think if McLeod Skinner wins it by more than 5, Chavez-DeRemer is gonna have a tough time winning overall) and that’s why I can see an argument for either nominee to win the district.

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