House Opens: No Dem Path

By Jim Ellis

July 17, 2017 — There is a great deal of political chatter discussing the Democrats’ chances to assume the House majority in the 2018 elections, but one key facet that must work for them is not yet in place.

For an out-party to wrest the majority away from their counterparts who control the body, a large number of open seats must change hands. So far, after three consecutive election cycles that featured large numbers of open seats – a cumulative 158 since 2012 inclusive, counting the 20 new seats that reapportionment and redistricting created at the beginning of the decade – only 15 CDs so far will be open next year in addition to the UT-3 special election that will be filled this coming November.

To make matters even more difficult for Democrats, just one open Republican seat, that of retiring Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Miami), can reasonably be considered a toss-up. This compares to two Democratic opens, those of Reps. Tim Walz (D-MN; running for governor) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV; running for Senate), which now reside in the pick ‘em category.

Rep. Steve Pearce’s (R-Hobbs) southern New Mexico seat, newly opened with his decision to run for governor announced earlier in the week, could eventually land in toss-up configuration. This obviously depends upon how events transpire but, for now, it should be considered as a Lean Republican district even though the Hispanic sector accounts for 54 percent of the total population.

Just eight more GOP seats are in the open category, all considered to be Likely or Safe Republican when looking at the overall 2018 election outlook graph:

Likely Republican:

• KS-2: Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Topeka); retiring
• OH-16: Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Wadsworth); running for Governor
• SD-AL: Rep Kristi Noem (R-Castlewood); running for Governor
• WV-3: Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-Huntington); running for Senate

Safe Republican:

• ID-1: Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Eagle/Boise); running for Governor
• OK-1: Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Tulsa); retiring
• TX-3: Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Plano); retiring
• UT-3: Vacant (Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Alpine/Sandy); 11/7 special election

Furthering the Democrats’ inability to take make major gains in the open seat category is that six of the 15 regular cycle districts are already under their control. In addition to the Minnesota and Nevada seats already mentioned as being in the toss-up category, four more remain:

Likely Democratic:

• CO-7: Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Golden); retiring
• NM-1: Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-Albuquerque); running for Governor

Safe Democratic:

• CO-2: Rep. Jared Polis (D-Boulder); running for Governor
• TX-16: Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso); running for Senate

Today, if only these 15 seats comprise the open seat category, it is conceivable that not only would the Democrats fail to gain seats within this sector, but they could well come away down one district. This would require them to unseat even more Republican incumbents, meaning at least 25 in order to obtain a minimum one-seat majority.

The common argument is that the out-party does well in the first mid-term in a new president’s tenure. While the average in the modern era (post World War II) is a 26-House-seat-loss for those within the same party as the president, two factors skew such a number.

First, redistricting elections should be annotated within the model because the political landscape drastically changes: 1962: Kennedy (-6); 1982: Reagan (-26); 2002: G.W. Bush (-9).

Second, the large number of losses under Democratic presidents tilts the overall picture. Since President Truman, Democratic presidents have lost an average of 35 seats in the first mid-term, including presidents Johnson, Clinton, and Obama sustaining massive losses, while Republican presidents have seen an average reduction of only 15 House districts.

Accounting for the low number of open seats and the Republicans traditionally faring better in the first presidential mid-term election than Democrats, the House outlook greatly changes.

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