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House Overview|By David Wasserman, October 17, 2013

Earlier this year, a senior House Democrat ribbed our pessimistic forecast for their 2014 prospects by suggesting, "Why can't you just say 'Democrats can't win a majority in the House, but Republicans can lose one?'" That admonition has never seemed more appropriate.

Given the GOP-tilted nature of the congressional map and the dynamics of midterm turnout, we have always maintained that House Republicans would need to engage in some spectacularly self-destructive behavior in order for Democrats to have any shot at netting 17 seats and a majority next November.

Over the 16-day course of the government shutdown, House Republicans flirted with just that. Republicans' detour into what some have described as a defund-at-all-costs "cul de sac" has turned a negative spotlight on the party to an extent no Democratic ad could ever achieve.

"The only thing we've gotten from a two-week shutdown is about five or ten more races we've got to pay attention to," complains one clear-headed GOP strategist. "More money spent defending people than expanding the majority. Hopefully folks are scared and are going to take their races seriously."

The GOP's brand has been awful for years, and sustained more damage this month. Yet the biggest boost for House Democrats isn't the downturn in the GOP's brand (NBC News/Wall Street Journal surveys showed negative views of the Republican Party surging from 44 percent in September to 53 percent in October). It's that the shutdown forced voters to actually focus on the House GOP as "the problem" in DC, something Democrats simply could not do amid the noise of the 2012 presidential election.

The question now: did the shutdown inflict long-term damage upon individual GOP incumbents? Or does the 285-144 House vote to end the shutdown rob Democrats of the momentum they would need to maintain for an entire year until next November? The answer depends, in part, on whether Republicans pursue similarly self-destructive strategies in next year's budget fights.

By our calculations, House Democrats would need to win the national popular vote for the House by between six and seven points in order to win the barest possible majority of 218 seats. How did we calculate this? In 2012, Democratic candidates won 49.16 percent of the national popular House vote to 48.03 for Republicans, but only won 201 of 435 seats. If every seat shifted uniformly in Democrats' direction, Democrats' lead nationally would have needed to expand to roughly 6.8 percent to drag 17 more GOP-won seats to Democrats' side.

A 6.8 percent national "landslide" is rare, but not impossible. Generic congressional ballot surveys have their limitations, often skewing more Democratic than the result by a handful of points. But several taken during the shutdown have shown the GOP approaching the danger zone: a Pew Research poll (10/9-13) showed Democrats leading 49 percent to 43 percent, and a Democracy Corps (D) survey (10/6-8) showed Democrats leading 47 percent to 43 percent.

Partisan Democrats excitedly point to polls in 24 districts taken by Public Policy Polling for MoveOn.org that showed 17 Republican incumbents trailing "generic" Democratic opponents. But don't be fooled by hyped results. In October 2011, PPP conducted similar "generic" polls in 20 districts and concluded "Polling Shows Democrats Can Take Back the House in 2012." Last week, HuffPollster's Mark Blumenthal and Ariel Edwards-Levy compiled a chart of those polls and found that PPP had a median bias of six points in Democrats' favor.

Rather than pay any attention to poorly designed polls designed to boost press and fundraising for Democratic candidates and liberal advocacy groups, the best way to gauge the shutdown fallout is to watch for the telltale micro and macro-level signs of a building wave.

First, is there a surge in Democrats' recruiting? To date, DCCC Chair Rep. Steve Israel has done the tough job of cajoling credible candidates into uphill races against well-funded GOP incumbents remarkably well, and the shutdown might ease his sales pitch. Already, we have seen an uptick: Omaha City Councilman Pete Festersen reversed his earlier decision not to run against GOP Rep. Lee Terry (NE-02), and it now looks likely Democrats will have their first credible challenger against GOP Rep. Frank LoBiondo (NJ-02) in nearly two decades.

Second, will at least a few Republicans in winnable districts retire? Up until GOP Rep. Bill Young (FL-13) announced his retirement last week, all nine Republicans not seeking reelection sat in districts at least seven points more Republican than the national average. Young's retirement gives Democrats a golden opportunity - particularly if former state CFO Alex Sink runs - but which other Republicans in marginal seats decide they've had enough of a dysfunctional House (and GOP conference) and refuse to run for reelection?

Third, do we begin to see high quality, district-level polling showing previously semi-secure GOP incumbents tied with or trailing named Democratic challengers, even if those incumbents voted to end the shutdown? In 2010, votes against cap-and-trade and health care reform failed to insulate some Democrats from a backlash against the actions of more liberal Democrats. A great irony of this shutdown is that the Republicans who wanted it least (those from swing districts) are likeliest to suffer the most if even a small Democratic wave develops.

But, keep perspective. As atrocious as the post-shutdown wreckage looks for Republicans, now is not the time to get carried away. At various points throughout 2013, members of the media have declared the 2014 elections would hinge on Lois Lerner and the IRS, Edward Snowden and the NSA, and Syria. The shutdown may seem all-consuming today, but where will it rank - particularly against Affordable Care Act implementation - in a year and two weeks from now?

Even after our 15 ratings changes today, there are only 18 GOP-held seats in Lean Republican, Toss Up, or Lean Democratic. In other words, Democrats would not only have to hold all of their own seats (including 10 races in Toss Up), but "run the table" on vulnerable GOP seats in order to win a majority.

If damage to the GOP proves long-lasting, we could expect to see more previously "safe" GOP seats move into competitive categories, and previously competitive contests lean towards Democrats. We could also expect fortunes of vulnerable Democrats to improve. Continued Republican self-harm could indeed threaten their 17-seat majority. But, Democrats still have a long way to go.

In the interim, we are shifting our House Topline from a Republican gain of two to seven seats to a minimal net change of up to five seats in either party's direction, with larger Democratic gains possible if Republicans continue to pursue unpopular and self-destructive strategies.

To crudely gauge the political health and readiness of Republican incumbents heading into 2014, we are inaugurating a chart listing five "risk factors" to watch in case a backlash against the GOP develops. Those incumbents with a high number of risk factors are typically the ripest Democratic targets, those with lower numbers of risk factors could still be vulnerable but may be better able to withstand a bad Republican year.

The five risk factors are:

1) Sits in a district with a Cook PVI score of R+5 or more Democratic.
2) Sits in a districts with a Cook PVI score of R+2 or more Democratic.
3) Received 55 percent of the vote or less in the 2012 election.
4) Held less than $500,000 in cash on hand at the end of September 2013.
5) Had a Democratic opponent with more than $100,000 in cash on hand at the end of September 2013.

Republican Incumbents with Four Risk Factors

District Republican Incumbent PVI = R+5 or Less PVI = R+2 or Less 55% or Less of 2012 Vote $500K or Q3 CoH Dem w/ >$100K Q3 CoH
CA-10 Rep. Jeff Denham R+1 R+1 52.71% - $147,000
CO-06 Rep. Mike Coffman D+1 D+1 47.81% - $1,335,000
IA-03 Rep. Tom Latham EVEN EVEN 52.22% - $200,000
IA-04 Rep. Steve King R+5 - 52.94% $93,000 $129,000
IL-13 Rep. Rodney Davis EVEN EVEN 46.55% - $370,000
MI-01 Rep. Dan Benishek R+5 - 48.14% $500,000 $104,000
MI-06 Rep. Fred Upton R+1 R+1 54.59% - $112,000
MN-02 Rep. John Kline R+2 R+2 54.01% - $119,000
NJ-03 Rep. John Runyan R+1 R+1 53.72% $296,000 -
NV-03 Rep. Joe Heck EVEN EVEN 50.36% - $195,000
NY-11 Rep. Michael Grimm R+2 R+2 52.18% - $904,000
NY-19 Rep. Chris Gibson D+1 D+1 52.83% - $956,000
Republican Incumbents with Three Risk Factors

District Republican Incumbent PVI = R+5 or Less PVI = R+2 or Less 55% or Less of 2012 Vote $500K or Q3 CoH Dem w/ >$100K Q3 CoH
CA-25 Rep. Buck McKeon R+3 - 54.78% - $170,000
CA-31 Rep. Gary Miller D+5 D+5 - - $438,000
CO-03 Rep. Scott Tipton R+5 - 53.36% $482,000 -
MI-03 Rep. Justin Amash R+4 - 52.62% $314,000 -
MI-07 Rep. Tim Walberg R+3 - 53.34% - $166,000
MI-11 Rep. Kerry Bentivolio R+4 - 50.76% $39,000 -
NY-23 Rep. Tom Reed R+3 - 51.9% - $375,000
OH-14 Rep. David Joyce R+4 - 54.04% - $327,000
PA-08 Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick R+1 R+1 - - $326,000
VA-02 Rep. Scott Rigell R+2 R+2 53.76% - -
VA-10 Rep. Frank Wolf R+2 R+2 - $285,000 -
WA-08 Rep. Dave Reichert R+1 R+1 - $303,000 -
Republican Incumbents with Two Risk Factors

District Republican Incumbent PVI = R+5 or Less PVI = R+2 or Less 55% or Less of 2012 Vote $500K or Q3 CoH Dem w/ >$100K Q3 CoH
CA-21 Rep. David Valadao D+2 D+2 - - -
FL-02 Rep. Steve Southerland - - 52.7% - $666,000
FL-10 Rep. Dan Webster - - 51.73% $275,000 -
FL-27 Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen R+2 R+2 - - -
IN-08 Rep. Larry Bucshon - - 53.36% $272,000 -
KY-06 Rep. Andy Barr - - 50.57% - $109,000
MI-08 Rep. Mike Rogers R+2 R+2 - - -
MN-03 Rep. Erik Paulsen R+2 R+2 - - -
MT-AL Rep. Steve Daines - - 53.25% - $182,000
NE-02 Rep. Lee Terry R+4 - 50.8% - -
NJ-02 Rep. Frank LoBiondo D+1 D+1 - - -
NJ-05 Rep. Scott Garrett R+4 - 55.03% - -
NY-02 Rep. Peter King R+1 R+1 - -
NY-22 Rep. Richard Hanna R+3 - - $240,000 -
OH-06 Rep. Bill Johnson - - 53.25% - $100,000
PA-06 Rep. Jim Gerlach R+2 R+2 - - -
PA-07 Rep. Pat Meehan R+2 R+2 - - -
PA-15 Rep. Charlie Dent R+2 R+2 - - -
PA-16 Rep. Joe Pitts R+4 - 54.85% - -
VA-05 Rep. Robert Hurt R+5 - 55.44% - -
WA-03 Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler R+2 R+2 - - -
WI-01 Rep. Paul Ryan R+3 - 54.9% - -
WI-07 Rep. Sean Duffy R+2 R+2 - - -
WI-08 Rep. Reid Ribble R+2 R+2 - - -