House Flip

Ten Rating Changes as Democrats' Enthusiasm Edge Narrows and Fundraising Advantage Widens

Wasserman Photo
October 23, 2018

Two weeks out, district-level polls reflect a House battleground gradually polarizing along the lines of the 2016 presidential race. Democrats are maintaining leads over GOP opponents in upscale, Clinton-won "Whole Foods suburbs" of Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis and Northern Virginia. But Republicans' numbers continue to improve in Trump-won districts in places like rural Minnesota, Upstate New York and Downstate Illinois.

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows Democrats enjoy a four-point lead in midterm election interest, narrower than their ten points average lead for the first nine months of the year. It's likely that cultural flash points like the Kavanaugh confirmation fight and the "migrant caravan" are better-suited to rallying and awakening the Trump base than tax cuts, which mostly fell flat for Republicans in this year's special elections.

However, Democrats' staggering success in third quarter fundraising reports injects some last-minute uncertainty. An astounding 112 Democrats outraised GOP opponents in Republican-held seats between July and September. Of the 93 GOP incumbents who were outraised, 20 are currently in our Likely Republican column and 23 in Solid Republican. Democrats' late dominance in the air wars could produce several Election Night surprises.

Today, we're changing ratings in ten districts, including eight where Democrats' position has improved. Democrats now have a clear advantage in 17 GOP-held seats and Republicans have an advantage in two Democratic-held seats. If the 30 Toss Ups were to break evenly between the parties (15 seats apiece), Democrats would score a net gain of 29 seats, six more than the 23 they need to retake the majority.

We continue to believe anywhere from a 20 to 40 seat Democratic gain is possible, but right now the likeliest outcome is a Democratic gain of between 25 and 35 seats. View our full ratings here or download a presentation-ready PDF here.

Rating Changes:

AK-AL: Young - Likely R to Lean R
AZ-08: Lesko - Solid R to Likely R
FL-06: OPEN - Likely R to Lean R
FL-15: OPEN - Lean R to Toss Up
FL-27: OPEN - Toss Up to Lean D
IL-12: Bost - Toss Up to Lean R
NY-23: Reed - Solid R to Likely R
OK-05: Russell - Solid R to Likely R
TX-22: Olson - Likely R to Lean R
TX-31: Carter - Lean R to Likely R

Updated Bottom Lines:

AK-AL: Don Young (R) - Entire State
Lean Republican. Young, the occasionally curmudgeonly dean of the House, has survived countless close elections over the course of his 45 years in Congress. But he's never had to face an independent running with the endorsement of the Democratic Party before, and a poll taken last week by the nonpartisan Alaska Survey Research showed Young leading education funding advocate Alyse Galvin by just 49 percent to 47 percent.

Galvin outraised Young $643,000 to $236,000 in the third quarter. Galvin grew up in Alaska, graduated from UC-San Diego, moved back to Anchorage and worked in the hospitality industry. Her husband, a Democrat, served as the state's commissioner of revenue under Gov. Sarah Palin. In 2017, she led a grassroots effort called Great Alaska Schools to protest public education cuts proposed by the legislature to address budget deficits.

Galvin stresses her Independent affiliation and is listed as an "Undeclared" who is the "Alaska Democratic Party nominee" on the ballot. She's hoping to attract independent and third-party voters, who were a big reason President Trump only won Alaska 51 percent to 37 percent in 2016. However, her ads against Young's healthcare and tax votes mirror Democratic ads across the country, and Young is arguing she's a liberal Democrat in disguise.

At 85, Young is the oldest House incumbent seeking reelection in 2018, and Galvin argues he's served past his usefulness and is in the pocket of lobbyists. But he isn't shying away from a fight, and his ads warn that Galvin would vote for Nancy Pelosi and enable a crackdown on Alaska's energy industry. Young is still the favorite, but Gov. Bill Walker's last-minute exit and endorsement of Democrat Mark Begich adds an additional layer of uncertainty.

AZ-08: Debbie Lesko (R) - Phoenix ”West Valley:” Sun City, Peoria
Likely Republican. Lesko defeated Democratic former physician Hiral Tipirneni by just 52 percent to 48 percent in an April special election, a dismal performance in a retiree-heavy district that voted for President Trump by 21 points. Since then, Tipirneni has capitalized on the national attention by outraising Lesko $916,000 to $444,000, and some Republicans are concerned Lesko hasn't completely put the Democrat away.

Tipirneni has been up on air since September and is touting a Lake Research poll showing her trailing by four points. The attacks on Lesko, a longtime state senator, as a "career politician" took their toll in the special and Republicans admit her image is still poor. The Arizona GOP and Lesko are up with a joint ad warning Tipirneni wants to end Medicare Advantage and opposes the wall. It should be enough to help Lesko win a full term.

FL-06: VACANT (DeSantis) (R) - Northeast: Daytona Beach, Deltona
Lean Republican. In a surprise, Republicans' concern in Florida now extends beyond Ron DeSantis's standing in the governor's race to his open House seat. Democrat Nancy Soderberg, a protege of Madeleine Albright who served as a UN representative in the Clinton administration, has leveraged those connections to raise $2.4 million and had a three-week head start on the airwaves over GOP Army veteran Mike Waltz.

It should have been easy for Republicans to disqualify Soderberg as a liberal, elitist Clintonista in a Daytona Beach district President Trump carried 57 percent to 40 percent in 2016. But Soderberg, who runs a leadership program at the University of North Florida, didn't face a primary and stockpiled her money and has skewered Waltz for supporting the GOP healthcare bill. Now, Democrats' internal polling shows the race tied.

Waltz grew up in Jacksonville and served as a Green Beret in Afghanistan and an adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. His new ads frame the race as a "Green Beret" versus a "liberal bureaucrat" who worked for the Clintons, and he's getting back up from American Patriots PAC ads linking Soderberg to Nancy Pelosi. The race should move back in Waltz's favor once those attacks sink in, but Republicans have some catching up to do.

FL-15: OPEN (Ross) (R) - Central: Lakeland, Brandon, Plant City
Toss Up. This open seat has flown under the radar most of the year, partly because Rep. Dennis Ross announced his retirement within hours of Speaker Paul Ryan's. But suddenly Republicans are sounding the alarm. A new New York Times/Siena College poll found Democratic attorney Kristen Carlson and GOP state Rep. Ross Spano tied at 43 percent, and a SurveyUSA poll last week found them tied at 45 percent.

The 15th CD combines moderate Tampa suburbs with highly agricultural, citrus-growing portions of Polk County and it voted for President Trump 53 percent to 43 percent. But Carlson may hold unique appeal with rural voters. In the 1980s, as general counsel to the Florida Department of Citrus, she successfully lobbied the FDA to prosecute out-of-state "orange juice adulterators" who were passing off inferior juice as 100 percent OJ.

Carlson outraised Spano $600,000 to $219,000 between August and the end of September, and is running as experienced prosecutor prepared to work with both parties. GOP strategists complain Spano, regarded as a very conservative legislator, hasn't raised enough money to define himself in time, and may need a bailout from the Club for Growth, which supported him in the primary. It's a Toss Up.

FL-27: OPEN (Ros-Lehtinen) (R) - Southeast: parts of Miami, Coral Gables, Miami Beach
Lean Democratic. Former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala's late-career bid has complicated what should be a slam dunk for Democrats to capture an open Miami seat that voted for Hillary Clinton 59 percent to 39 percent. At 77, the former University of Miami president and head of the Clinton Global Initiative would be the second-oldest congressional freshman in history and doesn't speak Spanish in a 76 percent Hispanic district.

However, the balance of evidence suggests the past month's events and the anti-Trump fervor of the district make Shalala the narrow favorite to hang on against charismatic GOP former Telemundo journalist Maria Elvira Salazar. Polling has been all over the place, and several GOP-sponsored surveys continue to show a close race. But a new New York Times/Siena College poll gives Shalala a 44 percent to 37 percent lead.

The NRCC has purchased late ad time in the district, and Shalala embarrassingly had to rescind an invitation to California Rep. Barbara Lee, who has praised Fidel Castro in the past, to appear at a campaign event. But the DCCC is up with ads attacking Salazar for appearing to compliment Trump on Twitter. Salazar will carry the Cuban vote, but liberal white voters in Miami Beach could carry Shalala across the finish line.

IL-12: Mike Bost (R) - Southwest border: East St. Louis, Carbondale
Lean Republican. St. Clair County prosecutor Brendan Kelly remains one of Democrats' most prized recruits of the cycle. The Irish-Catholic Notre Dame graduate and Navy veteran has been called the "Conor Lamb of Downstate Illinois" and is exactly the type of moderate Democrat who has done well here in the past. But President Trump's popularity in this coal and steel-heavy district looks like it might be too much for Kelly to overcome.

A new New York Times/Siena College poll shows Bost leading 48 percent to 39 percent (up from 44 percent to 43 percent a month ago). Trump, who carried the seat 54 percent to 40 percent four years after Barack Obama won it by two points, is coming to Bost's hometown this Saturday for a rally, and they have a decent story to tell: U.S. Steel announced earlier this year it would add 800 jobs at its old Granite City works as a result of tariffs.

Moreover, the GOP-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund has been aggressive in attacking Kelly's prosecutorial record, alleging more than 50 percent of county crimes were pled out. Kelly has said he won't vote for Nancy Pelosi, but this is one place where Trump's base appears to have reawakened in the past month. In addition, Bost just won the endorsement of a large teachers' union. The race isn't over, but it's a Democratic frustration.

NY-23: Tom Reed (R) - Southern Tier: Jamestown, Elmira, Ithaca
Likely Republican. Reed, the former mayor of Corning, sits in a heavily blue-collar district that voted for President Trump 54 percent to 39 percent after voting 50 percent to 48 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012. But it can't be ignored that Democrat Tracy Mitrano, former Director of IT Policy at Cornell University, raised $855,000 in the third quarter and is on air attacking Reed for voting for a "$1.9 trillion tax giveaway for the wealthy."

Reed has stepped up his campaign game since a close call in 2012, and is using the $3 million he's raised this cycle to attack Mitrano as a "liberal Ithaca extremist," a tactic that's worked well against past opponents here, and for supporting "heroin injection sites." At the end of the day, Reed can probably count on Trump's popularity and Gov. Andrew Cuomo's unpopularity to keep him secure, but it's worth watching.

OK-05: Steve Russell (R) - Central: Oklahoma City and suburbs
Likely Republican. Russell is perhaps best-known as the former Army Ranger who personally helped capture Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But he hasn't yet faced a competitive general election in this Oklahoma City seat, which gave President Trump just 53 percent. And Russell raised just $100,000 in the third quarter, less than a third of the $444,000 raised by Democrat Kendra Horn, a former staffer for Rep. Brad Carson.

The nonpartisan SoonerPoll found Russell leading Horn 47 percent to 37 percent in September, and one of Russell's own polls showed him a hair under 50 percent. The biggest threat to Russell isn't Trump but rather outgoing GOP Gov. Mary Fallin, whose approval rating is 17 percent. Horn's ads feature Russell and Fallin side by side and assert Oklahoma is ranked 47th in school funding. Still, it would take a tsunami to topple Russell.

TX-22: Pete Olson (R) - Houston southwest suburbs: Sugar Land
Lean Republican. The rapidly growing southwest Houston suburbs are undergoing a rapid demographic shift: the 22nd CD, once held by Tom DeLay, is now just 40 percent white (down from 45 percent in 2010) and voted for President Trump by just 52 percent to 44 percent, a third of Mitt Romney's 25 point margin in 2012. It's 26 percent Hispanic, 19 percent Asian and 12 percent black, and and 43 percent of adults hold college degrees, among the highest in the state.

Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni embodies this transformation. The Indian-American former foreign service officer and aide to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand grew up in Fort Bend County, attended UT-Austin and Harvard's Kennedy School and speaks six languages. His $1 million raised won't buy him Houston broadcast TV, but his campaign is conducting outreach in 13 languages and won the endorsement of the Houston Chronicle, which has backed Olson in the past.

Moreover, Olson hasn't had a competitive race since 2008, was outraised $578,000 to $319,000 in the third quarter and had just $312,000 on hand at the end of September. GOP colleagues praise his outreach to ethnic groups, but he was caught on tape complaining about running against an "Indo-American carpetbagger." And, private polls show Olson still isn't well-known or defined. That's potentially dangerous in a wave, especially if Democrat Beto O'Rourke carries the district.

The expense of the Houston market means this race will largely play out on cable television and. Kulkarni's biggest obstacle is the gerrymandered nature of the district: Hillary Clinton carried Fort Bend County, but in 2011 Republican mapmakers drew its most Democratic precincts into the 9th CD. Kulkarni believes the campaign's efforts to register immigrant communities to vote are a game-changer. There's still reason to be skeptical, but this sleeper race is intensifying.

TX-31: John Carter (R) - Central: Round Rock, Temple, Killeen
Likely Republican. Democrat MJ Hegar, an Air Force search-and-rescue pilot whose helicopter was shot down and ambushed in Afghanistan, has raised an eye-popping $3.4 million thanks to a viral "Doors" video about her service and suing the Defense Department to overturn a rule barring women from many combat positions. But so far, it hasn't helped her close the gap against Carter, and time is running out.

Hegar has enjoyed a massive spending advantage since Labor Day, but several Democratic strategists lament that the 30-second cutouts of the "Doors" video haven't generated as much crossover support in the district (which voted for President Trump 53 percent to 40 percent) as enthusiasm among Democratic activists nationally. An early October New York Times/Siena College poll showed Carter ahead, 53 percent to 38 percent.

Carter, a former Williamson County judge who hasn't had to run a competitive general election since his election 2002, is up with ads praising Hegar's military heroism but warning she would vote with Nancy Pelosi to raise taxes. Carter never served in uniform, but one of his spots features a testimonial from a local veteran who needed help getting his benefits. GOP Sen. Ted Cruz's improved standing in the Senate race helps Carter as well.