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The state of the battle for the House of Representatives, explained

Republicans are playing whack-a-mole in their struggle to keep the chamber.

Paul Ryan at the Capitol on September 13, 2018.
Astrid Riecken/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Three weeks before the 2018 midterms, more than a dozen Republican-held House seats appear to have tipped toward Democrats — and dozens more are in play too, according to polls and expert race ratings. Meanwhile, only a handful of Democrat-held seats appear to be in danger of flipping to the GOP.

The magic number for Democrats is 24: that is, they need to pick up, on net, 24 seats from Republicans to cement a House majority.

(That exact tally can change slightly depending on how you categorize certain ambiguous contests, such as the one in Pennsylvania where two incumbents are running against each other. But I find 24 to be the most helpful number to keep in mind.)

Currently, there are not yet that many individual contests in which Democrats are believed to have a solid advantage over GOP candidates. If we exclude toss-up contests and look only at how many races are at least leaning toward flipping, the Cook Political Report currently has Democrats favored to gain 15 seats on net. FiveThirtyEight has them clearly favored to net around 22, which would be agonizingly close.

Yet here’s the thing: There are many more remaining toss-up and other competitive contests — and they’re overwhelmingly in Republican-held districts.

For instance, Cook ranks 53 more GOP-held seats as in play (either toss-up or Lean Republican), and only four Democratic seats. That means that Democrats have a target-rich environment in which to pick up the remaining wins they need — and that the GOP is, essentially, playing whack-a-mole, trying to defeat Democratic challengers who keep popping up in so many places.

Strong fundraising numbers and generic ballot polling are making Democrats confident their candidates have the wind at their backs. Already, they appear to be in striking difference of a takeover. But they still, of course, haven’t quite put this thing away. Here’s the current state of play.

Democrats are favored to pick up more than a dozen — but not quite two dozen — specific seats

To start off, the consensus among election watchers is that Democratic candidates have already gained a solid advantage in enough districts to pick up at least a dozen seats, on net.

This is one takeaway that’s consistent across qualitative expert analyses like the Cook Political Report (from Cook’s House editor Dave Wasserman, a must-follow for election watchers), model-based forecasts like FiveThirtyEight’s, and recent press coverage such as a New York Times piece listing several races for which Republican outside groups are canceling their ad spending.

To narrow down the races currently deemed most likely to change party control, let’s be conservative and set the bar pretty high. Let’s look at seats that, as of Tuesday midday, 1) are rated “Lean D” or “Likely D” by Cook, and 2) in which FiveThirtyEight’s “Classic” forecast gives the Democratic candidate a more than 75 percent chance of winning.

Fifteen GOP-held seats meet those criteria.

  • 4 Pennsylvania seats: Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court imposed a new map this year, which has helped Democrats gain a clear upper hand in three GOP-held open seats (the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh districts) as well as the 17th District, where incumbent Rep. Keith Rothfus (R) is being challenged by fellow incumbent Rep. Conor Lamb (D).
  • 5 other open seats: Then there are five seats that are being vacated by retiring Republican incumbents and also feature strong Democratic nominees who have built up solid poll leads. These Democratic nominees are former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-02), environmental lawyer Mike Levin (CA-49), former Obama administration official Haley Stevens (MI-11), state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (NJ-02), and Navy veteran Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11).
  • 6 more imperiled incumbents: In addition to Rothfus in Pennsylvania, five more GOP incumbents appear to be in particularly dire trouble: Reps. Rod Blum (IA-01), Barbara Comstock (VA-10), Jason Lewis (MN-02), Erik Paulsen (MN-03), Mike Coffman (CO-06), and Kevin Yoder (KS-03).

How many more seats are leaning toward Democrats at this point? Cook only puts one more GOP-held seat in the Lean Democrat category — Rep. Pete Roskam (IL-06). FiveThirtyEight, meanwhile, rates nine more GOP-held seats as leaning toward Democrats (which it defines as the Democratic candidate having more than a 60 percent chance of winning).

But these gains would be undercut by the one to three seats Democrats currently are expected to lose.

  • Everyone agrees Pennsylvania’s 14th District is highly likely to be a Republican pickup (which will essentially cancel out one of the expected Democratic gains in Pennsylvania above).
  • FiveThirtyEight also lists two Democrat-held Minnesota open seats (MN-01 and MN-08) in which Republicans have the advantage at this point. (Cook has them both as toss-ups.)

Depending on how you add these together, it would put Democrats with a net gain of somewhere between 13 and 21 seats. That is, of course, short of the 24-seat net gain they need for a majority.

But the remaining toss-ups and competitive races are overwhelmingly for Republican-held seats

It’s the next tier of the House map that strikes such terror into the hearts of Republicans, though.

That’s because they have dozens more seats that are either toss-ups or just leaning toward the GOP rather than solidly in their camp. Democrats, meanwhile, have just a handful of their own seats in comparable danger.

Using the Cook ratings for simplicity (the other ratings and models are not quite exactly the same but are generally similar), 53 Republican-held seats are in that next tier — 29 they rate toss-ups, and 24 others they rate Lean Republican.

Democrats have just four comparable seats — the two Minnesota open seats mentioned above, as well as two open seats in Nevada. (Cook doesn’t believe a single Democratic House incumbent is at serious risk of losing at this point.)

The GOP-held toss-ups are:

  • 5 in California Clinton districts: Four of these GOP incumbents — Reps. Jeff Denham (CA-10), Steve Knight (CA-25), Mimi Walters (CA-45), and Dana Rohrabacher (CA-48) — represent districts Hillary Clinton won. There’s also an open seat in another GOP-held Clinton district, the 39th.
  • 7 more Clinton districts: There are two GOP-held South Florida districts in which Clinton won overwhelmingly but where Democrats haven’t gained a clear advantage this fall due to GOP candidate strength: Rep. Carlos Curbelo’s (FL-26), and a Miami open seat (FL-27). There are also four GOP incumbents trying to survive in districts Clinton won more narrowly — Reps. Leonard Lance (NJ-07), Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), John Culberson (TX-07), and Pete Sessions (TX-32). Finally, there’s one more Clinton open seat where the GOP candidate, Dino Rossi, remains competitive so far (WA-08).
  • 9 districts Trump won narrowly: The next set of races are in districts Donald Trump won 3 to 8 points — so, Trump country, but potentially vulnerable to a wave. These incumbent Republicans are Reps. Scott Taylor (VA-02), David Young (IA-03), Randy Hultgren (IL-14), Tom MacArthur (NJ-03), Dave Brat (VA-07), Steve Chabot (OH-01), Mike Bishop (MI-08), Mia Love (UT-04), and John Faso (NY-19).
  • 8 Trumpier districts: Finally, favorable candidate matchups have made Democrats very competitive even in several districts Trump won by more than 9 points. They hope they can defeat incumbent Reps. Ted Budd (NC-13), Bruce Poliquin (ME-02), Mike Bost (IL-12), Andy Barr (KY-06), and Claudia Tenney (NY-22). And they hope to pick up open seats being vacated by Reps. Steve Pearce (NM-02), Robert Pittenger (NC-09), and Lynn Jenkins (KS-02).

Beyond that, Cook ranks another two dozen GOP-held seats as Lean Republican:

  • 2 strong GOP incumbents in Clinton districts: Reps. Will Hurd (TX-23) and John Katko (NY-24) have seemingly managed to defy political gravity so far.
  • 2 indicted incumbents: Reps. Chris Collins (NY-27) and Duncan Hunter (CA-50) both represent very Trumpy districts, but they’re also both under indictment.
  • 7 incumbents in red-leaning districts: These GOP incumbents in districts Trump won by 10 points or less are Reps. Karen Handel (GA-06), Don Bacon (NE-02), Rodney Davis (IL-13), Rob Woodall (GA-07), Jaime Herrera Beutler (WA-03), and Scott Perry (PA-10).
  • 5 open seats in very red districts: These are all districts Trump won by 10 points or more (in some cases, a whole lot more), but Democrats have recruited strong candidates and hope they’re in play: FL-15, WI-01, VA-05, SC-01, and WV-03.
  • 8 incumbents in very red districts: Finally, there’s another set of GOP incumbents in districts Trump won by between 10 and 20 points that at least might be in play, per Cook: Reps. Ann Wagner (MO-02), French Hill (AR-02), Vern Buchanan (FL-16), Troy Balderson (OH-12), John Carter (TX-31), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-05), Mike Kelly (PA-16), and Greg Gianforte (MT-AL).

And even beyond that, there are another two dozen Republican-held seats that Cook says “are not considered competitive at this point, but have the potential to become engaged” — the Likely Republican seats.

So basically, should Democrats pick up the seats they’re already favored in, they’ll have a great many options as they try to cobble together the last few seats they need for a majority. That’s why most believe they’re the favorites to take over control right now — Republicans are, essentially, trying to play whack-a-mole.

The flip side is that if Republicans do manage to come close to running the table in those many toss-ups and Lean Republican races, they would maintain control at this point.

Bearing 2016’s lessons in mind, we should also of course keep in mind that the polls could be off, or that future news could produce a late swing toward either party. But this, it seems, is our best sense of the current state of play: Democrats are within striking distance of a majority, and have many possible opportunities to help them get there, but it’s not a sure thing just yet.

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