We’ll Know A Lot About the Fate of the House From These Three Races

The nation’s leading congressional prognosticator says these are the districts to keep an eye on early.

A campaign sign for Democratic U.S. House of Representatives candidate for Kentucky’s 6th distrcit Amy McGrath is seen November 3, 2018 in Georgetown, Kentucky.
If Amy McGrath wins her House race in Kentucky’s 6th, that will be a good sign that Democrats are bound for a very strong night. Alex Wong/Getty Images

With the midterm elections coming on Tuesday, I spoke by phone with Dave Wasserman, the Cook Political Report’s U.S. House editor. My goal was to get a snapshot of the race for the House, and to find out what Wasserman makes of early voting trends, and what races political junkies should be paying attention to early Tuesday evening. Our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, is below.

Isaac Chotiner: Democrats seem to be doing extremely well in a bunch of House polls, although their lead on the generic ballot has either stayed steady or ever-so-slightly dipped. Where does the race stand right now, on Sunday afternoon, in your opinion?

Dave Wasserman: Democrats are still the clear favorites for the House Majority, but it’s not a done deal. It never has been. We’re noticing a few different trends. I’d put House races into three large buckets. The first would be Republicans running for reelection in upscale suburbs that voted for Hillary Clinton, and those are the lowest hanging fruit for Democrats. That list includes Barbara Comstock in Virginia, Mike Coffman in Colorado, Erik Paulsen in Minnesota, Leonard Lance in New Jersey, Mimi Walters in California, and Kevin Yoder in Kansas City. So those races have been pretty bad for Republicans for a while and aren’t getting any better.

The second bucket would be competitive seats in Trump zones that voted for Trump by double digits. We have noticed some improvement for Republicans there, in places like downstate Illinois, upstate New York, and the Iron Range of Minnesota. You can make a case that things have gotten better for Andy Barr in Kentucky, which also fits that characteristic. I think that speaks to Republican voters coming home on cultural issues—both Kavanaugh and caravans— and Trump.

But the third bucket is where things have moved the most. Middle-income suburbs that voted for Trump by single digits. Those are the bellwethers that will decide the House. We have seen movement towards Democrats in places like Michigan-8, Illinois-14, Utah-4, and Georgia-6, even though that’s kind of an upper class suburb north of Atlanta. It still voted for Trump by single digits. I think Pennsylvania-10 might fit that characterization. So those are the places that are most worrisome for Republicans especially because of getting outspent in those seats.

If Democrats do well in that last group or bucket, how do you explain the late break? Does the hard-edge cultural appeal play less well there? Is it really a huge money advantage? Did the Democrats just choose really good candidates?

We’ve observed two partially-offsetting trends recently. First, what we’ve learned in the period since Labor Day is that culture war issues, like Kavanaugh and the supposed invasion, are better suited to motivating the Trump base than tax cuts. The Republican message in so many of these special elections was tax cuts, and it fell flat. We’re seeing the enthusiasm gap between the two parties narrow. The bigger concern for Republicans, though, is independents. They still trail among independents by considerable margins, particularly independent women. Democrats have had more resources by far to target those voters. That’s where Democrats’ financial advantage really has come into play, because all the money in the world is not going to move hardcore Trump supporters or people who are very sympathetic to the President, but it can make a real difference with independents. So in a place like suburban Chicago, or suburban Atlanta, it’s a big reason why Democrats are doing well in bellwether districts.

There have been a few House races—Steve King’s race in Iowa, Don Young’s in Alaska—where we’ve seen some closer poll numbers in places with long-time incumbent Republicans, and these don’t fit into any of the three buckets you assigned originally. How do you understand what’s going on there?

Well, there’s a fourth smaller bucket and that’s Republicans who have no one to blame but themselves for their political problems. Don Young has been a Congressman for 45 years, and in some respects, has overstayed his welcome with an electorate that is getting younger and more independent-minded. That’s not to put him down as equivalent to Steve King or Duncan Hunter or Chris Collins, who are either under indictment or as good as indicted by their own party. Now I should caveat, it’s probable that all of those Republicans win, but there’s still a good chance that one of them will lose.

Have you looked at any early-vote turnout numbers that suggests to you that the models the polls have been using for turnout are incorrect?

I haven’t seen much early vote data that convinces me anyone’s ahead or convinces me that our priors are off, mostly because we learned our lesson in 2016. What I can say is looking at the early voting data in places like Texas and North Carolina, this is going to be a very high-turnout midterm, something of a hybrid between a typical midterm and a typical Presidential election. You can make the case either way as to whom that benefits, but in Texas in particular what we’ve seen is that early voting numbers are running almost on pace with 2016, which is staggering. But the two counties running closest to their 2016 numbers are Travis and Dallas, which are home to a lot of Democratic trending white voters.

But the two counties at the bottom of the heap that are not on pace as much are Hidalgo and Cameron, which are the two biggest 80 percent plus Hispanic counties. So my take away is that liberal or upscale whites are more enthusiastic about this election than Republicans or Hispanics.

Many of these races have a lot of undecided voters. Some of the Upshot polls have had as much as 15 percent of voters undecided. I’m assuming that there are not actually 15 percent undecided, that some people just don’t want to say, and then some of them maybe won’t vote. But is there a general rule on House elections about how undecided voters break for or against incumbents in midterms?

There’s not as much of a general rule as there is a tendency to break against the party in power. This is one of the reasons why the interpretation of polls in 2016 was worse than the polling itself. A lot people looked at Hillary Clinton’s lead over Donald Trump, which was between three and four points at the end and said, “She’s going to win.”

Well, not only do we not have one national election for President in this country, but her lead was in the 45 to 42 percent range. That meant that there were a whole lot of undecided voters.
Historically, they tend to break more against the party in power. The party in power in 2016 was Democrats. The problem for Republicans is that they’re the party in power now. A generic ballot average that shows Democrats with a 50 to 42 percent lead probably means Democrats’ actual lead is larger.

Oh, you do think it’s larger? OK, that’s interesting.

Special election results have suggested that. The Democrats are outperforming their typical margin in special elections by 16 points. That’s a much more positive indicator for Democrats than the generic ballot.

For people following this on Tuesday night, what are three House races where we might see results come in early that we should pay attention to as bellwethers, and what should we look for in those three races?

I’d be looking at Kentucky-6, Virginia-2, and Virginia-7. If Republicans hold Kentucky-6, which is where we’ll get our first results, that’s not fatal for Democrats, because after all it’s a state Trump won by 15 points. But if Democrats win it, watch out.

Now in Virginia-2 and Virginia-7, if Republicans hold those two, then they could be on their way to holding their majority. Democrats would want to win at least one of those three as a sign they’ve broken through in districts Trump won in 2016. They’ll need to win some of those suburban Trump districts to win the majority.