House Race Ratings

House: Ratings Changes in Seven Districts as GOP Majority in Peril

Wasserman Photo
November 17, 2017

If it wasn't already clear, last Tuesday's election results confirmed a political atmosphere that would seriously endanger the House GOP's majority in 2018. In Virginia, turnout was up 20 percent over 2013 in localities won by Hillary Clinton, compared to 13 percent in localities carried by President Trump. Not only did Democrat Ralph Northam outperform pre-election polls, Democrats shocked by nearly winning control of Virginia's House of Delegates.

In blue-leaning delegate seats, GOP incumbents' personal appeal failed to insulate them from voters' anti-Trump mood, even against weak, under-funded and self-described socialist opponents. Republicans held onto just two of their 17 seats in districts Clinton carried, and are headed to a recount in a third. The results suggest Northern Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock (VA-10) is the single most vulnerable GOP incumbent in the country.

Republicans push back by arguing that Virginia's proximity to DC makes it a uniquely anti-Trump place, nowhere near as many House GOP incumbents sit in districts as pro-Clinton as those Democrats won last Tuesday and that Democrats failed to make much progress in Trump territory. There's some merit to each of those points.

But, Virginia's Democrats didn't seriously compete or spend money in most Trump-carried delegate districts. And in the few where they did, they tended to modestly outperform Clinton. Democrats pick up a Virginia Beach seat Trump carried by a point, and came within less than 150 votes of winning two other Trump seats. In Loudoun County, Democrat Tia Walbridge spent over $264,000 and took 45 percent in a seat where Clinton took just 40 percent last fall.

Taken together with results from four 2017 House special elections in red districts, where Democrats outperformed Clinton anywhere from one point (GA-06) to 13 points (KS-04), the balance of evidence suggests Democrats would be the ever-so-slight favorites to reclaim the House if the elections were held today. New congressional generic ballot polls showing Democrats with double-digit leads only bolster that assessment.

The major caveats, of course, are that 2018 is still almost a year away and Republicans have yet to air their opponents' flaws. But, there's no guarantee things will get better for the GOP in the next 12 months.

At this point in 2006 and 2010, it wasn't yet obvious that the House majority was at serious risk. As a result, the parties in control didn't suffer historically large numbers of retirements. Today, we're still almost a month away from the first filing deadlines in Illinois and Texas. Over the next few months, many Republicans will weigh whether it's worth raising $3 million or more to face the wrath of Democrats, and in some cases, the likes of Steve Bannon as well.

Moreover, tough votes like yesterday's on tax reform continue to give Democrats new avenues to link GOP members to unpopular proposals and leaders. Democrats are increasingly confident Speaker Paul Ryan will turn into a more effective bogeyman than either Trump or Nancy Pelosi, because he's disliked not only by Democrats but by much of Trump's base — a constituency GOP members badly need to motivate and turn out to win their races.

Then there's the question of how many more members on both sides could get bogged down or sidelined by the latest rash of sexual misconduct allegations encircling Capitol Hill. Already, GOP Rep. Tim Murphy's resignation in PA-18 after revelations of an extramarital affair has spawned what could easily become another unwanted, drama-filled special election in a district Trump carried easily.

In fact, the March 13 special to replace Murphy will be a better test of how much progress Democrats can make in Trump territory than anything that was on the ballot last Tuesday. PA-18 voted for Trump by 20 points, but plenty of his support came from registered Democrats, who hold a six point registration edge. And, the lingering Murphy scandal and the profiles of the candidates could make the contest more competitive than Trump's numbers suggest.

This week, local Republican leaders selected state Rep. Rick Saccone as their nominee. Saccone, an ardent social conservative, once sponsored a "Year of the Bible" resolution in the legislature and has a Harrisburg voting record for Democrats to attack. During his brief Senate run earlier this year, Saccone, a former counterintelligence officer, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that "we have to establish relationships" with North Korea.

Meanwhile, Democrats will convene this Sunday to select their nominee. According to party insiders, top contenders include former federal prosecutor Conor Lamb, a 33-year old Marine veteran whose uncle is Pittsburgh's city controller, and Westmoreland County Commissioner Gina Cerilli, a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat who was Miss Pennsylvania in 2010. Either profile could potentially give Democrats a favorable contrast against Saccone, who is 59.

Based on recent developments, we're changing our ratings in seven districts, with six moves reflecting enhanced opportunities for Democrats. View our full ratings here.

Ratings Changes

DIST
INCUMBENT
RATINGS CHANGE
FL-26 Curbelo Lean R to Toss Up
IL-06 Roskam Lean R to Toss Up
MN-08 Nolan Lean D to Toss Up
NJ-11 Frelinghuysen Lean R to Toss Up
TX-07 Culberson Lean R to Toss Up
UT-04 Love Likely R to Lean R
WI-06 Grothman Solid R to Likely R

Updated Bottom Lines

FL-26: Carlos Curbelo (R) - South: Homestead, The Keys, The Everglades
Toss Up. Curbelo impressed in 2016, winning a second term by 12 points while Hillary Clinton carried this 69 percent Latino district by 16 points. But Curbelo also had the luxury of running against Democrat Joe Garcia, who was disgraced by an absentee ballot scandal. And despite his push for a bipartisan immigration reform bill, Curbelo's recent votes in favor of the GOP's healthcare and tax bills give Democrats fodder to tie him to Trump.

The Democratic favorite is Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a non-profit consultant who took 46 percent in a 2016 state senate race that overlapped with much of FL-26. She raised $177,000 last quarter and has a long way to catch up to Curbelo's $1.3 million, but Democrats are encouraged that they flipped a nearby state senate district in a September special election. No Republican running for reelection represents a more pro-Clinton district than Curbelo. He's in for another tough race.

IL-06: Peter Roskam (R) - Chicago west suburbs: Wheaton, Palatine
Toss Up. Roskam has been a party loyalist since 2006, narrowly losing a bid for GOP whip in 2014 and casting conservative votes. But his suburban Chicago district has moved away from the GOP so fast that Democrats are now wishing they hadn't protected him in their 2012 gerrymander. In 2016, Clinton won this seat 50 percent to 43 percent. Only eight House Republicans represent a seat Trump lost by more. Defeating Roskam will be Chicago Democrats' top priority.

The large Democratic field is led by financial adviser and former North Barrington Village Trustee Kelly Mazeski, who had $343,000 on hand at the end of September. Clean energy businessman Sean Casten, former congressional aide Carole Cheney and 2016 nominee Amanda Howland are running too. Fortunately for Democrats, Illinois's March 20 primary should give the nominee more time to consolidate support and raise money to compete in a very expensive market.

MN-08: Rick Nolan (D) - Northeast/Iron Range: Duluth, Bemidji
Toss Up. Nolan survived 2016 by just 2,009 votes while Trump clobbered Clinton in this Iron Range district, 54 percent to 38 percent. Nolan's ads highlighting his Minnesota authenticity helped him, but another key was Democrats' ads casting two-time GOP nominee Stewart Mills III as an out-of-touch millionaire. Mills just announced he won't run a third time, clearing the Republican field for St. Louis County Commissioner Pete Stauber.

Stauber, a 23-year veteran of the Duluth Police Department who briefly played hockey in the Detroit Red Wings organization, could hold more appeal with blue-collar voters than Mills. Whereas Mills was famous (or infamous) for his slick long hair, Stauber will highlight his union membership. Republicans are also eager to attack what they say are Nolan's flip-flops on the Iron Range's mining permitting issues, which could squeeze him from both the right and left.

Nolan's more recent calls to reverse Obama-era guidance on mineral leases have generated a primary challenge for the DFL nomination from Leah Phifer, a former FBI counter-terrorism analyst who has toured the district on her motorcycle. Phifer isn't likely to defeat Nolan, but attacks from the left could end up bleeding some votes to Green Party candidate Skip Sandman, who will be on the November ballot. Sandman took four percent in 2014 and didn't run in 2016.

Even in a terrific political environment for Democrats nationally, the combination of these unique factors make Nolan the single most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in 2018.

NJ-11: Rodney Frelinghuysen (R) - North central: most of Morris County
Toss Up. Frelinghuysen has waited 22 years to chair the House Appropriations Committee, but now that he's there, he finds himself in the toughest race of his career. His once-safe Republican Morris County seat, dominated by suburban professionals, is rapidly moving away from the GOP: it voted for Trump by less than a point in 2016 and was the only GOP-held seat in North Jersey to vote for Democrat Phil Murphy for governor in 2017.

More troubling for Republicans, Frelinghuysen looks unprepared for his first real race in decades. In May, he drew an official ethics complaint after sending an intimidating note to a board member of a local bank warning that one of his high-level employees was a "ring leader" of an anti-Trump activist group in his district. The unforced error was reminiscent of those of former GOP Rep. Scott Garrett, who went on to lose the neighboring 5th CD in 2016.

The leading Democrat is former Navy helicopter pilot-turned-federal prosecutor Mikie Sherrill, who is running with EMILY's List's endorsement. Republicans have panned Sherrill for living just outside the district before running, but her resume may be difficult to attack. Sherill raised $442,000 last quarter. Meanwhile, despite his Appropriations perch, Frelinghuysen raised just $154,000, far lower than an average freshman incumbent readying for a fight.

More recently, Frelinghuysen was the only member of the New Jersey delegation to vote in favor of advancing a tax reform bill that would have cut the state and local tax exemption, potentially handing Democrats another line of attack in one of the most highly-taxed districts in the country. Despite ultimately voting against the entire package, Frelinghuysen's behavior and voting record are making some Garden State pundits wonder if he intends to run at all.

TX-07: John Culberson (R) - Houston northwest suburbs: Jersey Village
Toss Up. Republican operatives routinely identify Culberson as one of the incumbents least prepared for a Democratic wave. Culberson, a member of the Tea Party caucus, is an increasingly odd fit in an upscale, diversifying Houston district that voted for Clinton by a point after voting for Mitt Romney by 21 points in 2012. He also took just 57 percent in his 2016 primary and remains poorly defined after nearly two decades in Congress.

Most jarringly, Culberson had only $389,000 on hand at the end of September in one of the most expensive media markets in the country. Last quarter, he was out-raised by a pair of Democratic attorneys, Alex Triantaphyllis ($536,000 on hand) and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who is running with EMILY's List's endorsement. Cancer researcher Jason Westin and progressive activist Laura Moser are running too, as is token 2016 nominee James Cargas.

There's a strong likelihood Democrats' March primary will lead to a May runoff, giving the nominee some time to regroup for the general. At the moment, Culberson looks like the most endangered GOP incumbent in Texas.

UT-04: Mia Love (R) - Central: southern Salt Lake City suburbs
Lean Republican. In her first run for Congress in 2012, Love underperformed GOP nominee Mitt Romney by 19 points and lost by less than 1,000 votes. In 2016, she took 54 percent while Trump took just 39 percent in the district. Although Love has worked hard to change her initial reputation as a spotlight seeker, she still hasn't put this overwhelmingly GOP seat away. And, Trump's unpopularity in Utah could keep Democrats in the game.

In a major coup for Democrats, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams is running, and Democrats are encouraged by early polling data. McAdams, 42, won the top county office in 2012 and 2016 and already represents 85 percent of UT-04 (although UT-04 is much more Republican than the county). McAdams has built a unique brand as a wonky, nerdy Mormon Democrat, raised over $1 million in past races and cultivated relationships with Republican mayors.

McAdams, an attorney, plans to focus on local needs like transportation and infrastructure funding and paint Love as an inaccessible obstructionist who has sided with the Tea Party over Salt Lake's business community on issues like reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. He also contends he'll be harder to pigeonhole as "Nancy Pelosi's dream" than Love's previous opponents because voters already know him as a pragmatist.

However, McAdams's most press-worthy episode of 2017 could cut both ways. In March, McAdams's consideration of several possible suburban sites for new homeless shelters drew intense ire at town hall meetings. Later, it was revealed McAdams had been moved to act on the issue after posing as a homeless person and living in a particularly distressed shelter for three days and two nights. Love is still the favorite, but this is shaping up to be a competitive race.

WI-06: Glenn Grothman (R) - East central: Fond du Lac, Sheboygan
Likely Republican. Grothman was one of the most outspoken and controversial conservatives in the state senate prior to his elevation to Congress in 2014, but Democrats have never truly had the resources to define him. That won't be the case in 2018. Democrat Dan Kohl, a former Milwaukee Bucks Assistant General Manager and the nephew of former Sen. Herb Kohl, is running and has outraised Grothman $535,000 to $468,000 so far this cycle.

Still, this is the kind of seat that would only come into play in a Democratic tidal wave. Despite the 6th CD's middle-of-the-road tradition - it narrowly voted for Obama in 2008 - Trump carried it by a massive 55 percent to 38 percent margin in 2016. Republicans also note that Kohl served on Hillary Clinton's national finance committee and lost a bid for state assembly in 2008. And, this contest could ultimately be overshadowed in the by Speaker Paul Ryan's race down the road.