The question that will define the 2016 congressional election remains unchanged: Will it be a traditional election, where partisans of both parties overwhelmingly support the nominated presidential candidate (leading to moderate Democratic gains), or will defections and turnout aberrations create an environment for a Democratic wave?
Recent polls and political dynamics have stunted the short-lived Democratic momentum that had some analysts looking at a possible Democratic wave in the U.S. House.
Donald Trump, at least for the time being, has consolidated the Republican base in a dramatic and rapid way and recent polls bear this out. But both major candidates remain burdened by unprecedented unfavorability ratings, which makes this race unpredictable.
Trump’s anti-immigration, anti-women and overwhelmingly bizarre rhetoric against the Clinton family could still backfire in a major way. Minority voters seem poised to rebuke Trump and accord Hillary Clinton an advantage that could rival what President Obama accomplished in 2008 and 2012. But hopes of an even larger Democratic wave are in doubt.
Trump has resonated with rural and small-town voters at a level that may drive their turnout above the support amassed by John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, which would push back against growing Democratic support.
Clinton has not yet consolidated the Democratic Party’s core voters, largely as a consequence of Bernie Sanders’ unprecedented campaign. This is in no way an attack on Sanders’ durability—in fact, he has energized and awakened young voters who should eventually back Clinton. But there remains an uncomfortable fact for many establishment Democrats: Every reputable national poll reveals that Sanders is the stronger general election candidate. Hillary Clinton, barring unforeseen circumstances, will be the Democratic standard bearer, which will have real consequences for down-ballot races—some good, some bad.
Why is this so critical?
Without an assist from the top of the ticket, Democrats are still poised to score gains, but far short of what is required to threaten the Republican majority in the House. The Democrats are almost guaranteed to gain more than 5 seats, and the odds still favor net Democratic gains above 10 seats. However, the odds of reaching the 20 – 30 seat gain, a spectre that emerged when the Republican fissure appeared severe, are reduced if the presidential election is highly competitive.
2016 Battleground Districts
A number of key congressional districts will define the fight for control of the U.S. House.
Gains Due to Redistricting
Republican gerrymandering in the 2010 redistricting cycle remains the greatest impediment to a strong Democratic performance in the congressional elections this fall. But despite Republican efforts, Democrats are virtually certain to gain a net of three seats due to recent redistricting-related court decisions. As we noted in a previous article, Democrats are virtually assured to lose in Florida’s 2nd, while picking up seats in Florida’s 10th, Florida’s 13th, and Virginia’s 4th.
Democrats are likely to regain several seats that were lost due to the low turnout and unfavorable dynamics of the 2014 midterm election. Illinois’ 10th, Iowa’s 1st, Maine’s 2nd and Nevada’s 4th districts are almost certain to favor the Democratic presidential candidate which will, in turn, help the Democratic congressional candidates down ballot.
If Clinton’s margin grows large enough, the Republican freshmen in New Hampshire’s 1st, New York’s 24th and Texas’ 23rd could become vulnerable to Democratic challengers.
Republican Open Seats
Several Republican open seats (resulting from retirements and candidates seeking higher office) have generated prospects of additional gains in suburban-exurban districts: Minnesota’s 2nd, Nevada’s 3rd, Pennsylvania’s 8th; and in rural districts: Michigan’s 1st, New York’s 19th, New York’s 22nd, and Wisconsin’s 8th. The last four districts will be much more difficult to win.
Traditionally marginal districts held by Republicans are in play in presidential years—this includes Colorado’s 6th, Iowa’s 3rd, New York’s 1st and Virginia’s 10th. While the presidential race will be close in Iowa’s 3rd, Clinton should win in the Colorado, New York and Virginia districts, creating the opportunity for congressional candidates to ride her coattails to victory.
Traditionally Marginal Seats Held by Republicans
The math here suggests that Democrats are likely to win 10 or more seats and have a real possibility of gains approaching 15, but as we have said, this is far short of the 30 required for a new majority.
Few Vulnerable Democrats
There are only a few Democratic seats in jeopardy at this time: Arizona’s 1st and Florida’s 18th—both open seats where popular incumbents are running for the U.S. Senate. However, the existence of the incumbent’s name on the ballot for higher office should help the House candidate in these districts. The fate of California’s 24th may be determined by the primary in June, when the top two finishers advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation. The fourth marginal Democratic open seat is New York’s 3rd, where the popular incumbent, Steve Israel, is retiring. The electorate there will favor Clinton, but by a narrower margin than some observers believe, as Long Island is not as anti-Trump as other segments of the state.
There are five incumbent Democrats in marginal California districts that should be bolstered by the elevated minority turnout of a presidential electorate. Considering this, only Ami Bera, in California’s 7th District, seems realistically vulnerable.
Democrats must also defend Nebraska’s 2nd (a Republican-leaning district in a very red state) and Minnesota’s 8th, where Congressman Rick Nolan is facing a rematch against businessman Stewart Mills in rural Minnesota.
Given the current atmosphere and polling, we are forecasting a Democratic gain of 10 to 12 seats this November.
Expanding the Playing Field
Strong Latino and Asian-American Turnout
Strong turnout among Latinos and Asian-Americans, especially in California, could put in play California’s 10th, 21st, and perhaps 25th districts.
Anti-Trump Sentiment in Second-Tier of Suburban Districts
Should a strong anti-Trump sentiment take hold, it could put additional districts in play: Arizona’s 2nd (Tucson—a photo finish in 2014), Kansas’ 3rd (Kansas City), Minnesota’s 3rd (Minneapolis), New Jersey’s 5th (Bergen County- NYC suburb), New York’s 1st (Long Island), and Utah’s 4th (Trump is highly unpopular among Mormons). With the exception of Utah’s 4th, these districts will all be in play if Hillary Clinton achieves a strong majority in these areas. Florida’s reconfigured 7th district, which straddles the Orlando and Tampa suburbs and exurbs, also hinges on the presidential outcome, but seems slightly less likely to be competitive.
|NJ-05||E. Scott Garrett|
Strong Democratic Challengers in Diversifying Districts
As a result of strong Democratic challengers and a demographically mixed electorate, Colorado’s 3rd and New York’s 23rd will be competitive.
Watch Iowa’s 4th, where the incumbent Steve King seems to move further right every day; Montana’s 1st, where polls suggest the incumbent Ryan Zinke may face a competitive contest; as well as New Jersey’s 2nd and 3rd, two South Jersey districts that one would expect to be competitive, but remain solidly Republican; and Florida’s 6th, another Republican open seat.
Overall, the environment still strongly favors Democrats, but the perceived momentum that existed a month ago has dissipated. Watching the results in second-tier districts, especially in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington will be indicative of the scale of Democratic gains. As we survey the field today, a Democratic wave seems unlikely.