On Monday, Split Ticket released its second to last House ratings update showing Republicans favored to take back the majority in the chamber. Our current forecast gives the GOP 223 seats to the Democrats 195, with 17 Tossups yet to be eliminated. A winner will be picked in each of those undecided races this Sunday and some contests may have to move LEANS D to LEANS R. The purpose of this article, then, is to highlight “blindspot districts” where we might be overestimating frontrunners. Because there are too many sleeper seats to cover in one piece, we’ve selected two interesting districts for both parties.
Pennsylvania’s 12th (Biden +19.9) is a Democratic district in the southwestern corner of the Keystone State. Lying at the top of the Monongahela River Valley, this seat connects portions of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties. Pittsburgh, the urban core of the 12th district, accounts for 40% of its 2020 total population. The city is also home for many of the seat’s Black voters, though mixed communities like Clairton and McKeesport also have sizable minority populations.
Marginal, democratic-trending suburbs like Plum Borough, Monroeville, and Bethel Park line Allegheny County’s southeastern border and balance out Pittsburgh and other smaller blue municipalities scattered nearby, including John Fetterman’s hometown of Braddock. Further east, the 12th scoops into the western half of Westmoreland County. This is comfortably-Republican turf that the seat picked up in redistricting after Pennsylvania lost its 18th seat in reapportionment.
The addition of Westmoreland is the main reason that Republicans can contend for 12th district under current environmental conditions. Without Pittsburgh, the redrawn seat actually voted for Trump 51-48%. About 15% of the district’s 2020 total population lives in Westmoreland. That’s not a tremendous amount of people, but it’s enough to meaningfully supplement Republican margins districtwide.
Source: Dave’s Redistricting App
As we mentioned two updates ago, progressive Democrat Summer Lee is still a comfortable favorite to win the 12th district but *could* be held to a modest single-digit victory against Republican Mike Doyle. The underdog coincidentally shares a name with the retiring incumbent, a point of repeated concern for Democrats this cycle.
Two other pieces of outside evidence bolster the Republican case despite the 12th’s solidly-Democratic baseline partisanship. On one hand, internal polling conducted by Lee’s campaign has shown her only barely leading Doyle. Fundamentals should always be given more weight than House polling because of undecided voters and other variability concerns, but it is not a good sign that Lee isn’t up comfortably in a Biden +20 seat.
On the other hand, Republicans recently acknowledged uncertain polling by diverting a small amount of resources to the 12th district along with California’s 26th and New York’s 25th – similar reach seats. Groups supportive of the GOP had previously tied 17th district Democrat Chris DeLuzio to Lee, an attempt to kill two birds with one stone. While there is little doubt that Lee is a clear favorite to win this Democratic-trending seat, many observers expect her to underperform. The real question is by how much? Alienating too many suburban whites in Allegheny, for example, would put the Democrats on very thin ice. LIKELY D
Iowa’s 1st (Trump +2.9) is marginally-Republican swing district covering the Hawkeye State’s southeastern quarter. The seat connects the Des Moines exurb of Indianola in the west to larger communities like Iowa City and Davenport nearer to the Mississippi River. The territory lying in between is generally rural or small-town, laying the Republican coalition’s foundation. With the exception of a few diverse precincts in Johnson County, the district’s Democratic anchor, the population is overwhelmingly white.
Redistricting shook up the numbering of Iowa’s congressional seats more than it did their actual boundaries by inverting the preexisting relationship between the north (1st district) and south (2nd district). A similar dynamic played out in West Virginia, which lost its 3rd seat in reapportionment. In terms of actual geographic changes, the new 1st is slightly more Democratic than its predecessor after shedding eight Republican counties near the Missouri border, including Wapello (Ottumwa).
Source: Dave’s Redistricting App
Just like before redistricting, Iowa City is the primary element of the Democratic base in this seat. Though Johnson County accounted for just 19% of the 2020 total population, the 1st would be significantly more Republican (Trump +14) without it. Further east lies Scott County, the second most populated in the district. Davenport proper, a good source of Democratic votes, gave Biden a countywide edge in 2020, but Republicans kept it close thanks to support from the marginal suburbs and uncompetitive outlying townships.
In addition to the support that they draw from decently-populated river counties like Muscatine, Des Moines, and Lee, the GOP now also benefits from Warren, Marion, and Jasper counties. Each of these sits within the Des Moines Metropolitan Area and is a comfortable part of the Republican coalition. When it comes to swing between the 2016 and 2020 presidential contests, the 1st was somewhat variable but broadly adhered to national patterns. Democrats have made inroads in Iowa City and the eastern suburbs of Davenport, at the cost of Republicans gaining ground in rural areas where President Obama garnered large amounts of crossover support.
The candidates in this year’s 1st district race are incumbent Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Democratic state representative Christina Bohannon. Miller-Meeks, who won a 6 vote upset to replace retiring incumbent Dave Loebsack in 2020, had her Wapello home drawn out of the new seat; Bohannon comes from Iowa City. Democrats have struggled to keep up financially in this district, a sign that Republicans have the race locked up. We tend to agree, but there is one important, albeit unlikely, caveat possibility.
Some have used the special election in Nebraska’s 1st district and the recent Siena polling of Kansas’s 3rd to suggest that the effects of the Dobbs decision may be more pronounced in red states. That could explain why Republicans have polled comparatively well in blue states like New York. But it’s also possible that recent polling data are underestimating majority parties in both directions, making strong GOP positioning in Oregon or Democratic momentum in Oklahoma mere mirages. If, however, the so-called “Plains theory” comes true, a Republican wave could have less of an effect on the region. That might improve Bohannon’s chances of posting a close result.
Despite its slim presidential partisanship, the 1st has never left the perimeter of the competitive board. National midterm conditions have put the Democrats on defense this cycle, meaning the average Tossup seat voted for Biden, in some cases comfortably. That’s not at all to say a Democrat like Bohannon cannot give Miller-Meeks a close race, but rather that the environment has relegated her to playing catchup since the start. To win, Bohannon would need to outrun Biden across the district while pumping up turnout in Johnson County. Neither prerequisite seems that likely as of this writing, though the 1st is bluer down-ballot. LIKELY R
Pennsylvania-12 and Iowa-1 are just two out of a long list of sleeper seats rated either LIKELY D or R for Split Ticket. Both of these districts, in addition to their unmentioned counterparts, should vote in line with expectations, but could surprise us in terms of margin or eventual outcome. Devil’s advocate analysis is crucial to checking forecasting priors and spotting House anomalies before they occur.
As a final note, it’s important to distinguish between sleeper seats (i.e. PA-12) and their counterparts rated LEANS D or R. Districts in the latter category, like Democrat Abigail Spanberger’s Virginia-7 or Republican Ken Calvert’s California-41, are expected to reelect their incumbents, but not so overwhelmingly as to preclude victory for either challenger. In other words, wins by (R) Yesli Vega and (D) Will Rollins would be unexpected, but not improbable upsets or even flukes. Check back on Sunday for Split Ticket’s final House ratings.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org