Elections Daily has eight updates to our House Ratings this week. With just about a month left until election day, many Americans around the country have already voted. As we get closer to the election, we will continue our policy of cutting the number of races in our Tossup column to zero by November 2nd.
South Carolina-2 (Safe R to Likely R)
South Carolina’s 2nd district is located in the south-central part of the state, stretching from Columbia to Augusta. It is currently held by Republican Joe Wilson. The district voted for Trump by around 18 points in 2016, and Wilson was reelected by around 13 points last cycle.
On paper the seat looks heavily Republican, but we’ve come to agree with our friends at Sabato’s Crystal Ball that this year’s race may be closer than most observers expect.
The Democratic nominee this cycle is attorney Adair Boroughs, a surprisingly strong candidate. Boroughs has outraised Wilson by around $300,000 this cycle and currently has an advantage with cash-on-hand. On top of the fact that Boroughs is a strong challenger, she has also been campaigning rather actively, notably challenging Wilson to three debates going into the November election. It is also pertinent to point out that the closest congressional victory of Wilson’s recent career, his 56-42% win in 2018, was against a candidate far weaker than Boroughs. With the general ballot polling for the House this year at-or-about what it was in the final stages of the 2018 campaign, it might be reasonable to expect a slightly closer race here given Boroughs’s strength compared to Sean Carrigan, the last Democratic candidate for this seat.
On top of her strength as a challenger, Boroughs could benefit from the district’s slow shift toward the Democrats. Trump’s 2016 victory here was about two points less than both Mitt Romney and John McCain’s victories in the seat during their Presidential campaigns. The driving factor of these trends has been Richland County, the home of Columbia. The Richland portion of the seat swung from Obama +3 to Clinton +10 in 2016 according to Daily Kos. It saw an even more extreme swing on the Congressional level from 2016 to 2018, though, going from Wilson +1 to Carrigan +14.
With President Trump and Senator Lindsey Graham both underperforming their previous margins of victory in South Carolina in current polling, it is difficult to see Wilson winning reelection by a greater margin than he did last cycle. With heightened political polarization this cycle, it is also more difficult to see Wilson winning over as many Biden voters as he did Clinton voters in 2016. While 2018 showed us that he doesn’t need Richland County to win reelection, it did show us that it can tighten the race here. On election night we are going to be watching how Richland County votes in this race; the larger Boroughs’s margin is in Richland, the closer the election will likely be.
That said, the district remains fairly Republican, and President Trump is still the favorite to win it in November. The reason the seat remains a reach for Democrats is Lexington County, the Republican foundation of the seat. As mapper and commentator Armin Thomas would say, Lexington is “blood red”. Another disadvantage for the Democrats here is the fact that Lexington casts significantly more votes than the more Democratic Richland portion of the district.
In conclusion, we moved the 2nd from Safe Republican to Likely Republican because it doesn’t fit with the other races in the Safe Republican category. The new-found Democratic edge in Richland, coupled with a strong candidate like Boroughs, will likely make the race somewhat competitive, but the Republican strength in Lexington should pull Wilson over the line – keeping him as a favorite in this race. So give this race a watch, it may yield some surprises.
Montana-At Large (Likely Republican to Leans Republican)
Montana’s At-Large district has had some surprisingly competitive races over the last few years for a state that’s usually fairly Republican on the Presidential level. But to a skilled political observer, Montana is more of a purple state than it is a Republican one. Look down-ballot under the surface of that federal Republican facade, and you’ll find a state that re-elected Democrat Steve Bullock to the Governor’s mansion on the same day that it went to then-candidate Trump by double digits on the Presidential level. You’ll find a state that, as analyst J. Miles Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball pointed out, re-elected Democratic Senator Jon Tester by his largest margin yet – 50.3% of the vote – even after he opposed both of President Trump’s nominees for the Supreme Court. So when we look at this year’s race for the House in Montana, it is important to understand Montana’s greater openness to Democrats in non-Presidential races.
The story of our current race begins back in 2017, when then-Congressman Ryan Zinke resigned to take a position in the cabinet of President Trump. The special election for that seat was very close. Greg Gianforte, who had lost his gubernatorial bid to Bullock in 2016, defeated musician Rob Quist, even after he assaulted a reporter questioning him about his campaign. Gianforte was reelected by a slightly smaller margin against Democratic State Representative Kathleen Williams in 2018. Williams is running again this cycle, and it’s looking like the race will be close again.
Republican Matt Rosendale is taking a similar path to the House to that of Gianforte. Like Gianforte, Rosendale lost a statewide race before his campaign for House. Williams is running a similar campaign to the one she ran in 2018, and it appears well-suited for a Democrat in Montana. She has outspent Rosendale by a significant margin and has run “folksy” ads attempting to show voters that she understands Montana values. Looking at her 2018 performance, it is also reasonable to expect Williams to outrun Joe Biden, though Biden is currently ahead of where Clinton was in 2016 the state according to the 538 model.
What other evidence is driving our change here? Polling. In a recent poll from Siena College/NYT Upshot, an A-rated pollster according to 538, Williams led Rosendale by three points. This directly followed a Democratic internal poll by Expedition Strategies that also had Williams ahead by three points. While these may look rosy for Democrats, Rosendale still leads in the polling average. And while we consider him a favorite now, we will have to see how polling plays out over the final weeks of the election to know whether or not he will remain a favorite. We changed our rating to Leans Republican in an effort to show that this race is indeed competitive.
New Jersey-2 (Leans Republican to Tossup)
New Jersey’s 2nd district has been shaping up to be a very competitive race this cycle. Interestingly, very few observers would’ve thought that we’d be at this point back in November of 2018 when then-Democrat Jeff Van Drew won the seat of retiring Republican Congressman Frank LiBiondo. Shortly after voting against the Articles of Impeachment against President Trump, Van Drew, a noted conservative Democrat, switched his party affiliation. Just a few months later he was speaking in front of the RNC criticizing the leader of his former caucus.
Initially we viewed the race as Leans Republican. Why? Immediately following the primary, Van Drew had a relatively strong fundraising lead over Kennedy. On top of that, trends were looking strong for Republicans in South Jersey following the 2019 Legislative Elections in which they flipped Van Drew’s former Senate seat along with two Democratic seats in the Assembly. But recent developments have brought our previous belief into question.
One recent development for Kennedy that has been positive is polling. She has led in four of the last six polls, and while Democratic internal polling is likely to be biased toward the Democrats, it still shows that the race is competitive. In addition to Kennedy’s lead in the combined polling average, she has also overcome her initial burden: fundraising. As David Wildstein, the founder and editor of the New Jersey Globe, brought up in an article earlier this week, Amy Kennedy has raised over $2 million this quarter, a far-cry from her initial fundraising capabilities. That warchest should give Kennedy a greater ability to match Van Drew in the expensive South Jersey media market.
Another fascinating factor that will play into this race is the performance of the top of the ticket in this race. Though polling has shown a competitive race between Trump and Biden in this Obama-Trump district, recent trends lead us to consider the district more favorable territory for Trump than for Biden, at least for now. Even in a tossup race, Trump winning the district could help pull Van Drew over the line. Our team will be looking at this district closely on election night to see if, or by how much, Kennedy outruns Biden. Because we’re approaching an unknown with an election that seems competitive, we felt that Tossup was the best possible rating.
Also make sure to check out the upcoming Monmouth poll of this district.
Texas-24 (Tossup to Leans Democratic)
Texas’s 24th district is a suburban seat north of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. It is currently represented by Kenny Marchant, a Republican who retired this cycle following a close race in 2018. Like many suburban seats, the 24th has been trending toward the Democrats as of late. Though Trump carried it by six in 2016, his margin was far less than Romney’s 22 point victory in 2012. (The 24th was also one of many Republican-held Congressional seats to vote for Beto O’Rourke in his 2018 Senate bid) The fact that this year’s election is an open race has also thrown some additional uncertainty into this race for one of Texas’s traditionally Republican seats.
The Republican nominee here is Beth Van Duyne, a former mayor and HUD employee. The Democratic nominee is Candace Valenzuela, a former school board member. Van Duyne currently leads Valenzuela in fundraising, but has trailed Valenzuela in the average of opinion polls. However, it is important to remember, as we mentioned earlier, that internal polls usually have a slight bias to them. Despite this, they can still be a good judge of whether or not a race is competitive.
We certainly have a competitive race here, and there’s plenty of evidence pointing to it. First off, both candidates are able to compete with each other when it comes to fundraising. Van Duyne has raised $1.45 million to Valenzuela’s $1.12 million, and both have spent around $1 million on their respective campaigns this quarter according to the FEC. As evidenced by the heavy campaign spending thus-far, the advertising battle between the two candidates has been rather strong. Both candidates have put out poignant advertisements in an effort to appeal to specific parts of the suburban electorate. Valenzuela ran an ad designed to appeal to the diversifying electorate of the district that has recently become more open to Democrats. In the ad she talked about the personal hardships she endured during her childhood and connected her success to public education, one of the core parts of her campaign. In one of her ads, Van Duyne appealed to the more traditional conservative electorate of the district by pointing out her opposition to illegal immigration. The final indicator of a competitive race is polling. Valenzuela has led in two Democratic internal polls and was tied with Van Duyne in the RMG Research poll.
So why do we think Valenzuela is favored to win? The House generic ballot continues to indicate a favorable environment for Democrats. Also, this cycle, if polling is any indicator, could exacerbate the trends we’ve seen here, pushing the seat toward the Democrats. Part of this swing could come at the federal level. Why? Because Biden is currently expected to run ahead of Clinton’s 2016 totals in Texas. The 538 polling average has Trump leading in Texas by around four points; he won by nine in 2016. Assuming uniform swing, Biden’s numbers statewide could be enough to trim, or even flip, seats like the 24th, where Trump won by six points last cycle. A hypothetical outcome like this could also corroborate the DCCC internal poll in the 24th to a certain extent. That poll showed Valenzuela ahead of Van Duyne 45-39%, with Biden leading Trump 51-45%. While we haven’t had very much reliable independent polling here, we still believe there is enough evidence up to this point to support our move to Leans Democratic.
Ohio-12 (Safe Republican to Likely Republican)
Two years ago, Republican Troy Balderson narrowly defeated Democrat Danny O’Connor in a hotly-contested special election to fill the seat of Republican Pat Tiberi. The Trump +11 seat wouldn’t look like prime Democratic territory at first glance, but during the leadup to the 2018 cycle Democrats managed to overperform expectations in many Trump districts – including Pennsylvania’s old 18th.
Balderson was re-elected in 2018 and is considered a strong favorite to win a second full term this November. While we still view him as the favorite here, we no longer think Safe Republican is the optimal rating for this seat. Even if Alaina Shearer isn’t as strong of a candidate as O’Connor was, a weaker Trump performance at the top of the ticket in Ohio could make this district more competitive than some observers expect. Another factor to take into account is Franklin County, the Democratic heart of the district. Home to Columbus, Franklin county makes up a hefty majority of the Democratic electorate in the district. Between the 2012 and 2016 Presidential elections, the Franklin portion of the 12th went from 51-48% Obama to 57-38% Clinton. Like we argued in Texas-24, if Biden wins, or at least trims Trump’s margin, statewide, the uniform swing could push Franklin County even further to the left.
But the Democrats still have a few problems here. Balderson could outrun Trump. Since there hasn’t been any polling here we have no conclusive evidence to say whether or not he will, but it remains a possibility. Even with a strong margin in Franklin County, the district is still fairly Republican. O’Connor took 65% of the vote in Franklin, an incredibly high figure, and still lost the special election. For Shearer to win, she would have to overperform that figure while holding on to O’Connor’s margins in the more Republican parts of the seat. Since this is relatively unlikely, we are keeping the seat at Likely Republican. Balderson, in our view, is still the favorite here, just not an assured favorite.
Wisconsin-3 (Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic)
Wisconsin-3 runs along the western spine of Wisconsin. This majority-rural seat is in the heart of “the Driftless area”. The Congressman from the 3rd, Democrat Ron Kind, is exactly the type of Democrat to defy recent trends and reliably hold a district like this one. With Biden looking to make up for ground Democrats lost in districts like these in 2016, Kind may be just the incumbent to help him out. The district may have swung from Obama +10 to Trump +4 in 2016, but Kind has proven he has no difficulty winning re-election here in the Trump-era. Notably, he defeated Republcian Steve Toft by 20 points in the 2018 midterm, running far ahead of Trump. This leads to a fascinating conclusion. While many House Democrats may usually rely on a strong performance at the top of the ticket to help them out, Biden is likely relying on a strong Kind victory to bring him over the line in a district where Kind is almost certain to outrun him with Trump crossover support.
So why are we moving Kind’s seat from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic? A safety precaution. While Kind is a strong favorite for re-election, it’s difficult to see this race moving completely off the board when the Presidential race here will be competitive. Even though we have seen no evidence that Kind’s Republican opponent Derrick Van Orden is in a competitive race, it’s unclear if Kind will outrun his 2018 numbers. And since he was unopposed in 2016, we have no data showing how much he will outrun the top of the ticket with Trump on the ballot. Our move is similarly motivated to the Likely Democratic rating of Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the Leans Democratic rating of The Cook Political Report.
California-4 (Safe Republican to Likely Republican)
The first of two changes to our House ratings in California comes in the 4th district. The 4th is located in north-central California and is based around Sacramento, the state’s capital city. This district is traditionally Republican, and went to Trump by 15 points in 2016, but there are signs that this year’s election could be more competitive than expected.
The incumbent here is Republican Tom McClintock. McClintock has held the seat since 2009 and has only had a close re-election race once: 2018. That year, he was challenged by Democrat Jessica Morse, an important figure in the California Natural Resources Agency. Morse took nearly 46% of the vote in her bid, holding McClintock to his slimmest margin since his initial election in 2008. Morse declined to run this cycle.
Businesswoman Byrnne Kennedy is the Democratic nominee this year, and the evidence we found shows us that she could be a formidable opponent, even against an incumbent who’s outrun Trump before. For one, Kennedy is a strong fundraiser. She has outraised McClintock and has kept pace with the incumbent in campaign spending. That said, fundraising is not everything. The seat is still decidedly Republican and McClintock has led Kennedy in two Democratic internals, often a bad sign for a hopeful challenger.
Why did we move this seat to Likely Republican? For a very similar reason to Wisconsin-3: a safety precaution. We don’t consider McClintock at risk of losing, but we don’t consider him an infallible favorite either. So keep an eye on this race; it could end up being closer than expected like it was in 2018.
California-50 (Safe Republican to Likely Republican)
Our second California change comes in the 50th district, one of the few reliably Republican seats left in southern California. The seat voted for Trump by 15 points in 2016 and was not particularly competitive until scandalous incumbent Duncan Hunter narrowly won re-election in 2018. Hunter would go on to resign in April 2019. While most observers figured the district would revert back to its typical self with Hunter out of the picture, new polling indicates that might not be the case.
The Republican nominee this year is Darrell Issa, the former Congressman from the 49th district. Issa retired from the 49th in 2018 and decided to run for Congress again in the more Republican 50th district. The Democratic nominee is Ammar Campa-Najjar, the 2018 nominee for the seat. There have been three polls of the race so far, and all of them have shown a race within the margin of error. One poll in particular, conducted by SurveyUSA, showed Issa up by just a single point. If the polls really are accurate, then a Safe Republican rating is irrational. For that reason, we are not discounting Campa-Najjar’s campaign unless we see further polling. For now, we believe a Likely Republican rating is the most prescient option.
Minnesota-2 (Likely Democratic to No Election – Tossup)
Effective immediately, we will be moving Minnesota-2 into its own unique category of Tossup due to the fact that the November election here has been delayed following the death of a third-party candidate. Unless further litigation results in a change to the scheduling of this election, we will not provide a rating for this race.