Republicans had an excellent chance to secure a comfortable House majority in 2022. The “out” party had gained seats in all but three midterms since 1862. Additionally, Democratic President Joe Biden suffered lower approval ratings throughout the cycle than Barack Obama had in November 2010, and only 23% of exit poll respondents rated the nation’s economic state positively on election day.
Forecasters saw little reason to doubt conventional wisdom despite numerous pre-election indications that Republicans might underperform expectations in November. The turning point in the election was arguably the Supreme Court’s holding in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which eliminated federal constitutional protections for abortion rights.
By the end of June, a mere four days after the Dobbs decision, Republicans won a special election in Nebraska’s 1st district (R+14) by just under six points — an underperformance that starkly contrasted with the GOP’s pre-Dobbs pickup in Texas’ 34th district (D+4) earlier that month.
Although the political environment undoubtedly favored the GOP before Dobbs, the Republicans’ combined 52.5% showing in the 34th probably overstated the party’s national advantage. South Texas swung aggressively towards Trump in 2020, and only 7% of registered voters participated in the special, which national Democrats neglected to invest in.
Democrats ended up overperforming in four more House special elections in seats redder than the nation that fall, upsetting prominent Republicans in New York and Alaska. The coalitions in most of these districts (e.g., NE-01, MN-01, NY-19) pointed to a probable Dobbs effect, albeit in unorthodox ways.
Rather than overperforming because of high differential turnout relative to Republicans, Democrats actually benefited more from persuasion. In other words, counties like Olmstead in Minnesota, Ulster in New York, and Lancaster in Nebraska — population centers with higher rates of educational attainment and, by extension, more persuadable, high-propensity independent and Republican voters — swung significantly towards Democrats.
Along with a 19-point defeat of an anti-abortion referendum in Trump +15 Kansas, the Democrats’ House overperformances suggested that Dobbs had had a material impact on swing voters nationwide — hardly a surprise considering most Americans are pro-choice. Republicans countered, arguing that favorable splits among undecided voters (coupled with elevated general election turnout) would ensure victory in November.
The GOP rebounded slightly in the polls at the end of October, but Split Ticket’s non-partisan generic ballot aggregate showed Democrats maintaining a very slight lead going into election day. That neutral environmental picture didn’t end up being too far off the mark. After accounting for uncontested seats, we found that Republicans won the House popular vote by just 1.6 points.
Republicans ended up winning just 222 seats — a slim majority that directly led to the most contested House Speaker election in over a century. As we’ll get into later, elastic midterm political environments had a particularly-pronounced regional variation in 2022 despite an increase in overall polarization. The Democrats’ diverse special election coalition, for example, resonated more in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania than in California and New York.
Had national Democrats made more efficient spending decisions by focusing on districts which Republicans unexpectedly won by less than one percentage point (e.g., CO-03, MI-10, AZ-01), they could have retained the House majority.
Our 2024 House Ratings – The State Of The Chamber
1) We assume an incumbent is running until he or she declares otherwise.
2) Our ratings in Ohio and North Carolina reflect the current district lines and will be updated once mid-decade redistricting is complete.
Earlier this year, we released our Congressional Voting Index (CVI), which used Trend Scores, environmentally-adjusted presidential returns (2016 & 2020), and SHAVE uncontested seat estimates (2022) to gauge the evolving partisanship of all 435 House seats. The “evolution” comes from the minor weight given to the metric’s 2024 estimates — trend analysis which other volatility indexes lack.
Our CVI conclusions were far more interesting than the associated methodology. We found that Democrats had a slim 218-217 House majority in terms of sheer partisanship. The median seat was New York’s 19th district at D+0.6, suggesting that the nation’s new congressional lines had, on net, a slight Democratic bias. That’s a stark contrast compared to 2012, when the nation’s median seat would have voted for Obama by just 2% in 2008 thanks to Republican gerrymanders spearheaded by Project REDMAP.
Both of those findings support our main 2024 evaluation: the battle for House control starts at Tossup. Speaker Kevin McCarthy currently presides over a 222-member GOP conference, meaning the Democrats only need to flip 5 seats to retake the majority. On paper, this is a realistic goal.
For one, our SHAVE calculations found that the GOP only won the generic congressional ballot by 1.6 points in 2022 after accounting for uncontested seats. That 3.7-point average swing relative to 2020 points to a slightly Republican national environment, but, as we touched on before, there were still significant regional divides in the results.
In other words, while we might expect the national generic ballot average to shift into neutral or Democratic-leaning territory in 2024 due to polarization (which actually increased last year despite seemingly-widespread crossover voting) and presidential turnout, we must predict how each state’s environment will change to do proper ratings. Historically less elastic than midterms, presidential cycles are excellent at regularizing regionalism in coterminous down-ballot races, especially when considering the localized trends which materialized last fall.
That’s why House Republicans could very well have better 2024 showings in Colorado and Washington, which saw leftward shifts on the generic congressional ballots relative to 2020, while losing steam in California and Oregon, where GOP momentum was already pronounced in 2022.
Another potential feather in the Democrats’ cap is the Republicans’ recent inability to win the presidential popular vote. In an age of declining crossover voting and now a slight Democratic House bias, Republicans may have lost the efficient vote distribution they enjoyed last decade.
Put differently, it’s difficult to see a repeat of 2016, when strong crossover support for popular Republican moderates helped the GOP win the House popular vote (non-SHAVE) despite losing it at the presidential level. With such a threadbare majority, any significant leftward shift in the chamber’s 2024 popular vote would probably be indicative of enough swing seat victories to flip control to the Democrats.
That brings us to the third factor broadly benefiting the Democrats going into next year: Republicans are now playing defense. Of the 21 CVI crossover seats, the GOP carried 13 in 2022 — including 6 districts bluer than D+5. Eight of those vulnerable Republicans are untested freshmen like Anthony D’Esposito (NY-04) and Lori Chavez-DeRemer (OR-05). Tom Kean Jr. (NJ-07) and George Santos (NY-03) are the only members of the group who have run in a presidential cycle before.
While Democrats do have freshmen like Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (WA-03) facing challenging reelections in unfavorable territory, there are more battle-tested incumbents like Jared Golden (ME-02), Matt Cartwright (PA-08), and Marcy Kaptur (OH-09) on the Democratic than Republican side.
Republicans are currently banking on three different factors to hold the House and potentially expand their majority: mid-decade redistricting, crossover voting stimulated by well-funded incumbents and a strong presidential candidate, and the continuity of House control during presidential cycles. Of these cases, the first is easily the most compelling.
The biggest obstacle to Democratic House control stems from North Carolina and Ohio, where freshly-drawn Republican gerrymanders could wipe out upwards of half a dozen Democratic incumbents. We don’t know for sure how the maps will look, but even mildly-aggressive redraws would visibly reduce the number of vulnerable Republican freshmen from crossover seats who would need to win reelection for the GOP to keep House control. Democrats may benefit from mid-decade redistricting in Wisconsin should the state Supreme Court’s composition change in April.
Should he become a presidential nominee, GOP strategists like Karl Rove also expect Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to raise the Republican floor relative to Trump’s 2020 performance in traditionally-Republican, Democratic-trending suburban districts like NJ-07. In theory, this would make it easier for credible incumbents like Kean to garner the crossover support needed to win reelection.
While we don’t expect DeSantis to come anywhere close to reviving Mitt Romney’s 2012 margins in the suburbs, one could argue that ongoing leftward trends in seats like Kean’s would probably move slower relative to 2020 if someone like DeSantis were at the Republican helm instead of Trump. Under such circumstances, the crossover potential of 2022 WAR overperformers like Mike Lawler (NY-17) could decide the chamber in the GOP’s favor — especially after taking mid-decade redistricting into account.
The last argument used to support the Republican case for holding the House majority is not very compelling: precedent. House control hasn’t flipped in a presidential cycle since 1952, 72 years ago, but historical patterns are the status quo until they aren’t (as 2022 proved). The GOP’s current majority is also far slimmer than it was going into 2004, 2012, and 2016 — all cycles in which gerrymandered lines limited Democratic advances.
Where Do We Stand Now?
We currently favor Democrats in 209 seats compared to the Republicans’ 208, a topline that aligns perfectly with undecided House control. Of the 18 Tossup races, 14 involve incumbent Republicans, a sign that Democrats will probably be on offense this cycle.
The total number of Tossup contests may seem small, but it’s important to remember that there are usually more competitive House races in midterms than in presidential cycles. Our preliminary ratings are also conservative toward incumbents as an acknowledgment of uncertainty more than a year out from November 2024. In other words, both parties have clear opportunities to expand the Tossup column.
John James (MI-10) and Jen Kiggans (VA-02), for instance, could both find their seats rated as Tossups if Democrats convince former Representatives Andy Levin and Elaine Luria to return to Congress. Someone like Don Bacon (NE-02), meanwhile, got the initial benefit of the doubt thanks to a consistent record of overperformance, but could also find himself in hot water depending on the quality of his Democratic opponent.
If the environment ends up tipping in a more decidedly-Republican direction than expected, there are multiple seats rated Leans D (e.g., CO-08, AK-AL, NM-02, and IL-17) could become more contentious. Until we get a better sense of the challengers, though, the most vulnerable Republican incumbents are probably George Santos (NY-03) and Anthony D’Esposito (NY-04).
On the Democratic side, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (WA-03) is an excellent target on paper, but the burden of proof lies with Republicans to nominate a candidate more credible than 2022 nominee Joe Kent, who would greatly increase the chances of a GOP loss in a seat that should be in the Republican column in a presidential year.