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The 10 Types of Districts That Will Determine Who Runs the House


The 10 Types of Districts That Will Determine Who Runs the House

The good news for Democrats is they have a wide range of opportunities to make gains.

  • Oct. 23, 2018

Democratic strength in mostly white, well-educated suburbs has stretched the Republican House majority to the breaking point.

The good news for Republicans is it’s not clear that their majority has actually broken yet.

The good news for Democrats is that the midterm playing field is big and diverse. There are a lot of different ways they can make the jump to the net gain of 23 seats they need to retake the House, with dozens of competitive seats where the party has a realistic chance to prevail.

Here’s how the race to 23 breaks down.

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Sharice Davids, a Democrat, is running strong in Kansas’ Third District.CreditCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

Democrats are thought to have already claimed a clear advantage in enough districts to flip 15 Republican-held seats on Nov. 6.

And Republicans have a good chance to flip two seats themselves — Pennsylvania’s 14th and Minnesota’s Eighth — which would put the Democrats at a net gain of 13.

Four of the 15 seats poised to flip to the Democrats are in Pennsylvania, where Democrats benefit from a new congressional map drawn by the state’s Supreme Court. Five others are in open races where Republicans retired and Democrats have strong recruits.

Then there are six Republican incumbents who are already thought to be at a big disadvantage. Five of them are in relatively white suburban districts: Colorado’s Sixth, Minnesota’s Second, Minnesota’s Third, Kansas’ Third and Virginia’s 10th. A sixth, Iowa’s First, is in a mostly white working-class but traditionally Democratic district where Barack Obama won easily in 2012.

We can’t say that Democrats have truly locked down these races, though the party’s candidates led by at least seven points in each of the New York Times Upshot/Siena polls of these districts. All are rated as “lean Democratic” by the Cook Political Report, and there’s varying talk that the G.O.P. will withdraw resources in these races.

But there’s still vigorous spending here, and polling is often sparse or out of date. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Republicans ultimately pulled it out in at least one of them in the final stretch.

If, however, the Democrats won all of these races, the party would need to gain a net of 10 more seats to gain control.

CA45, IL06, NJ07, CA48, TX07, TX32

The most highly educated battleground suburbs are among the best Democratic opportunities to make additional gains, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise, given how many breakthroughs Democrats have already posted in well-educated suburbs.

There’s already talk that Democrats have pulled ahead in California’s 45th, where a Times/Siena poll late last month showed the Democrats up by five points, and Illinois’s Sixth, where a Times/Siena poll at the beginning of September showed the Republican up by less than a point.

These districts are, historically, more conservative than the typical district where the Democrats have taken a clearer lead. The Republicans have a registration or party primary vote advantage in all of them, and all of these districts voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, often by a wide margin. Of the districts where Democrats have claimed a clear edge, only Kansas’ Third has a similarly Republican history.

The California and Texas districts are also much more diverse than the typical district where Democrats have broken through. That’s a problem for Democrats, because so far it seems nonwhite voters will represent a smaller share of the electorate than they did in the 2016 presidential election.

In these more competitive and more traditionally Republican districts, the decline in nonwhite turnout might be the difference between the district Hillary Clinton won in 2016 and the district Republicans might just hold in 2018.

CA10, CA25, CA39, FL26, FL27

On paper, these five districts ought to be at the very top of the list of Democratic pickup opportunities. They might prove to be, in the final account.

But it’s not so clear where a lot of these races stand. California’s 10th hadn’t been the subject of a telephone poll at all until we started one over the weekend.

Nonwhite voters represent an outright majority of the electorate in three of these districts, and more than a third in the other two. That can make turnout an even bigger problem for Democrats here than in the other districts, particularly the California districts where white voters lean pretty heavily Republican.

But in several of these districts the Democratic candidates have another challenge: They face tough rivals.

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Young Kim is the Republican candidate in California’s 39th District.CreditChris Carlson/Associated Press

The Republican incumbents in Florida’s 26th and California’s 10th are well-funded, relative moderates who are good fits for their districts. The Republican nominee in Florida’s 27th is a Cuban-American woman in a mostly Cuban-American district, while the Republican nominee in California’s 39th is a Korean-American woman in a district where Asian-Americans represent around 20 percent of the electorate.

Put it together, and you can see why the Republicans of these districts still have a chance to prevail.

WA08, PA01, NJ03, IA03, MICH08

On paper, these classic suburban battleground districts are the kind that might decide control of the House.

They mix suburban, rural and exurban areas, and they’re the kinds of places that many analysts though Mrs. Clinton would win in 2016. She wound up not doing as well as she did in the more affluent and elite suburbs. She went two for five here, and didn’t win any by more than three points. The white working-class areas of these districts swung to the president.

This time, Democrats are counting on a reversion among white working-class voters and a surge in turnout among well-educated voters.

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Brian Fitzpatrick, the Republican incumbent in Pennsylvania’s First District.CreditMatt Rourke/Associated Press

These districts are all loosely similar, but the challenge facing Democrats is a little different in each one. The most Democratic of these districts — Washington’s Eighth and Pennsylvania’s First — also have the strongest Republican nominees. The most Republican of these districts — Michigan’s Eighth and New Jersey’s Third — seem to have the weakest Republicans. In Michigan’s Eighth, Republicans have even considered pulling resources from Mike Bishop.

These races could be tough battles till the end, and they’re solid election night bellwether picks.

IL12, ME02, NY19, NY22

Barack Obama carried all of these districts, and Mrs. Clinton lost them all.

The districts have been home to hotly contested congressional races over the last decade. Democrats held three of four after the 2012 election, and none of the Republican incumbents here held their seat before 2014.

If Democrats who fit their districts can still compete in traditionally Democratic areas, as Conor Lamb did in the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th in March, Democrats could be poised for a breakthrough in all of them. The Democratic candidates in Maine’s Second, Illinois’s 12th and New York’s 22nd all hold elected office — and in Maine’s Second and Illinois’s 12th, they’re also military veterans.

KY06, VA07, KS02, WV03, NY27

To this point, most of the races we’ve mentioned were all but bound to be competitive in this political environment. That’s not so true for these races. These six all voted for President Trump by a comfortable to wide margin, but they’re competitive because the Democrats have wound up with a strong candidate matchup.

In Kentucky’s Sixth and Virginia’s Seventh, Democrats nominated two compelling female candidates — Amy McGrath and Abigail Spanberger — with strong national security backgrounds. Neither district should be so competitive; both voted comfortably for Donald J. Trump. But both stretch into well-educated areas where Mrs. Clinton did well, and Kentucky’s Sixth has a long Democratic tradition.

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Paul Davis, the Democratic candidate in Kansas’ Second District.CreditDave Kaup/Reuters

The Democrat in Kansas’ Second, Paul Davis, isn’t a national celebrity, and this district voted for Mr. Trump by 18 points. But Mr. Davis won the district while running for governor in 2014, and the state’s Republican Party is in a tough spot. His Republican opponent, Steve Watkins, has been accused of embellishing his business record.

These three races represent such favorable matchups for Democrats that the party could win any or all of them, even on a tough night when they really need them to get a net gain of 23 seats.

West Virginia’s Third is probably the most extreme case of the bunch. The district voted for Mr. Trump by nearly 50 points, but Democrats have a registration advantage here and an unusual nominee in Richard Ojeda, who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and then opposed him. The district will probably vote for Joe Manchin for senator, and if there’s another candidate who can take advantage of the district’s Democratic tradition, someone like Mr. Ojeda seems to fit the bill. The last Times/Siena poll had the Republican Carol Miller ahead by five points, but in such a district it would be a mistake to rule anything out.

New York’s 27th is in its own category. In August, the Republican incumbent, Chris Collins, was charged with insider trading. An Optimum/Siena College poll showed Mr. Collins ahead by just three points and, again, in such an unusual race it would be hard to rule out a Democratic win.

NC09, NC13, OH01, OH12, IL14, UT04, VA2

These districts were not drawn to elect Democrats. They all voted for the president in 2016 and Mr. Romney in 2012.

But Democrats have strong candidates in these districts, and several of the Republican incumbents haven’t always posted particularly strong results. Democrats can also hope that a strong turnout in the Democratic-leaning parts of these districts might overwhelm Republican strength in rural areas.

These are the kinds of seats that could make the difference between a Democratic gain of, say, 27 seats and 37 seats. But it’s possible to imagine them factoring into a close election night, since several of them have their quirks.

The Republican Scott Taylor in Virginia is dealing with an investigation into his campaign over potentially fraudulent petition signatures. The Republican in North Carolina’s Ninth, Mark Harris, is being outgunned in fund-raising and has a history of remarks that might hurt him with moderate suburbanites.

In Utah’s Fourth, Mia Love faces a strong opponent, as well as headwinds over Mr. Trump’s unpopularity among Utah Republicans.

In Ohio’s 12th, the Democrat Danny O’Connor nearly won a special election in August; it would be foolish to rule out a victory in November.

VA05, NM02, FL15

The special congressional elections of the post-Trump era — followed obsessively by many Democrats — were fought in reliably Republican terrain, and millions of dollars were spent by Republicans to defend them. One flipped to the Democrats nonetheless.

But in this year’s general election, the races that most closely resemble last year’s special elections have received far less attention and far less money. It’s understandable, since on paper they shouldn’t be among the G.O.P.’s biggest concerns. But the special elections showed that an open race in a Republican-leaning district can be pretty dangerous for the party in this political environment.

Virginia’s Fifth, New Mexico’s Second and Florida’s 15th are three open-seat Republican-leaning districts where Democrats seem to have a realistic opportunity. All of them are in more Democratic districts than the typical special elections of 2017 and 2018. Times/Siena polls show close races in all of them.

In last year’s special elections, Republicans spent millions to prevent Democrats from getting over the top in deeply Republican areas. Without that kind of spending to undermine Democrats this time, one wonders whether these might be exactly the sort of districts that surprise the Republicans on election night.

MN01

Republicans also have the opportunity to pick up some Democratic seats. They’ve essentially bagged Pennsylvania’s 14th because of redistricting. And Minnesota’s Eighth looks as if it’s trending their way, too. These two chances are already accounted for in the Democratic path above.

There’s really only one other district where Republicans seem to have as good a shot as the Democrats do in the districts we’ve listed: Minnesota’s First. The incumbent, the Democrat Tim Walz, is leaving the seat open and running for governor. The district voted for Mr. Obama twice, but Mr. Trump won it by 15 points.

There’s been virtually no polling in this race.

Minnesota’s First is not alone: There are a lot of districts with almost no polling.

With so little information, a surprising district could easily pop into the top tier on Election Day, or even into the Democratic path of least resistance. In 2016, Minnesota’s First was listed as safely Democratic by the Cook Political Report. It was decided by a point.

Democrats won’t have to reach anywhere near the “safe Republican” column to find a good opportunity for a surprise. There are dozens of districts considered “lean Republican” where they could find what they need. With so few polls in these districts, it’s entirely possible that the Democrats have already pulled ahead in one or more of these contests and we just don’t know it yet.

There’s plenty of uncertainty about which side is ahead, with two weeks to go. There just isn’t much data to go on compared with a presidential race, for one thing. But the wide range of opportunities for Democrats is a major reason they’re considered favorites to flip control.

Nate Cohn is a domestic correspondent for The Upshot. He covers elections, polling and demographics. Before joining The Times in 2013, he worked as a staff writer for The New Republic. @Nate_Cohn

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