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Democrats Have A Chance To Win One Of The Reddest Districts In The Country

West Virginia’s 3rd District doesn’t seem like a district that should be competitive. It should be an easy Republican hold. After all, President Trump won the 3rd District, anchored by Huntington, by 49 percentage points, and the district’s FiveThirtyEight partisan lean1 is R+37, meaning it is 37 points more Republican than the country as a whole. In fact, the West Virginia 3rd is one of the 50 most GOP-leaning seats in the country, according to our calculations. Yet the election prognosticators have tagged the race as “Lean Republican” or even a “Toss-up,” and nonpartisan polls have found mixed results since the May primary.



So how did such a deeply Republican seat become competitive? For one thing, it’s an open seat held by the presidential party, which can make it particularly susceptible to large swings in party vote share. The seat’s incumbent, Evan Jenkins, ran for a U.S. Senate seat instead of seeking re-election, so the 3rd is among the 41 seats Republicans are defending where the incumbent either retired, ran for another office or lost renomination.2 Another crucial factor is the cross-party appeal of state Sen. Richard Ojeda, the Democratic nominee, and his in-your-face populism. We know Ojeda could be a real threat because he won his state Senate district 59 percent to 41 percent in 2016, even as it backed Trump 78 percent to 19 percent.3

Despite all that, the “Classic” version of FiveThirtyEight’s House forecast currently gives Ojeda’s GOP opponent, state Delegate Carol Miller, around a 9 in 10 chance of winning — making West Virginia’s 3rd one of the districts where our forecast most disagrees with election handicappers. Our “Lite” forecast, which tries to rely as much as possible on the polls, has her as only a 3 in 5 favorite, though — it agrees with the handicappers.

The disagreement between our “Classic” forecast in West Virginia 3rd on one side and our “Lite” forecast and the handicappers on the other, basically comes down to this: Could a Democrat really win such a red district? If Ojeda were to win in November, his victory as a Democrat in an R+37 seat would rank as the largest “crossover” midterm party flip — by far — since at least 1998.4 It’s also the only district in our forecast5 that has a realistic chance at surpassing the record for a crossover flip in a midterm.

The biggest “crossover flips” in modern midterms

The 20 House midterm races that changed parties with the most extreme partisan leans away from the party of the winning candidate, 1998-2014

Year CD Incumbent Inc. status Winner cd Partisan Lean
2006 TX-22
Tom DeLay Resigned
Nick Lampson R+29
2006 PA-10
Don Sherwood Lost
Chris Carney R+19
2006 IN-8
John Hostettler Lost
Brad Ellsworth R+18
2006 KS-2
Jim Ryun Lost
Nancy Boyda R+17
2006 IN-9
Mike Sodrel Lost
Baron Hill R+15
2014 FL-2
Steve Southerland Lost
Gwen Graham R+14
2006 OH-18
Bob Ney Retired
Zack Space R+14
2014 IL-10
Brad Schneider Lost
Bob Dold D+13
2006 NC-11
Charles Taylor Lost
Heath Shuler R+12
1998 KS-3
Vince Snowbarger Lost
Dennis Moore R+12
1998 NJ-12
Mike Pappas Lost
Rush Holt R+12
2006 AZ-5
J.D. Hayworth Lost
Harry Mitchell R+11
2006 WI-8
Mark Green Ran for gov.
Steve Kagen R+11
2006 TX-23
Henry Bonilla Lost
Ciro Rodriguez R+11
2006 FL-16
Mark Foley Resigned
Tim Mahoney R+11
2014 NY-24
Dan Maffei Lost
John Katko D+10
1998 KY-4
Jim Bunning Ran for Sen.
Ken Lucas R+10
2006 PA-4
Melissa Hart Lost
Jason Altmire R+9
2006 IN-2
Chris Chocola Lost
Joe Donnelly R+9
2014 IA-1
Bruce Braley Ran for Sen.
Rod Blum D+9

In FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean formula, 50 percent of the weight is given to the 2016 presidential elections, 25 percent to the 2012 presidential election and 25 percent to state legislative elections. In the partisan lean column, negative values represent Republican leaning districts and positive values represent Democratic leaning districts.

Source: Gary Jacobson

The largest crossover flip to date came in 2006, when Democrat Nick Lampson won former GOP House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s district, the Texas 22nd — a R+29 seat. Wounded by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, DeLay withdrew from his re-election race and then resigned. Texas Republicans could not replace DeLay’s name on the ballot, which helped Lampson cinch victory against Shelley Sekula Gibbs, the principal Republican write-in choice.6 As for the other races in the table, controversy surrounded some of the incumbents who lost or abandoned their seats while others were ideologically extreme, but most fell in cycles more advantageous for the opposing party.7

Here’s the bad news for Ojeda, even if he wins: These extreme midterm crossovers tend to be short-term blips. Of the 18 seats in the table above that do not include incumbents running in the 2018 cycle, 12 reverted to their district’s previous party within two cycles.8 Looking at our partisan lean data and the current Congress, just 25 House seats are “crossover seats” out of 435.9 In our highly polarized political era, it’s understandably challenging for a party to hold a seat that predominantly leans toward the other party by default.

Still, when it comes to control of the House, every seat matters, no matter how short-lived the victory may be. After all, political winds change and a district might shift — either naturally or through redistricting — in a way that could make it easier to retain. Plus, the winning candidate could become a particularly formidable incumbent. Case in point, the longest-serving winner in the table above was Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore, who won the R+12 Kansas 3rd in 1998 and then five more times. From 1998 to 2008 — the years Moore sought office — the Kansas 3rd’s partisan lean ranged between R+9.5 and R+13, yet Moore managed to hold off the GOP each time. He retired in 2010.

For Democrats, the West Virginia 3rd may be a reach, but as we’ve seen in previous elections, it’s one Democrats could still grab on Election Night.

Footnotes

  1. FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean is based on how a district voted in the past two presidential elections and state legislative elections. In our formula, 50 percent of the weight is given to the 2016 presidential elections, 25 percent to the 2012 presidential election and 25 percent to state legislative elections.

  2. This also includes GOP incumbents who resigned, leaving a seat vacant.

  3. The district also has ancestrally Democratic roots: Democrat Rep. Nick Rahall served for 38 years before Jenkins defeated him in 2014, and the district was Sen. Joe Manchin’s strongest-performing congressional district in his last Senate bid.

  4. Using our partisan lean calculations from 1998-2018, we identified seats where the winning House party differed from the party that the district leans toward.

  5. We looked at the districts where each party has at least a 5 percent chance of winning — that is, seats that are not “Solid” for one party — and found only the West Virginia 3rd could break the record for a crossover flip

  6. But Sekula Gibbs did win the concurrent special election in November to serve out the last few months of DeLay’s term, a race Lampson didn’t compete in.

  7. One exception was Republican Rep. Steve Southerland, who lost re-election in 2014, a good Republican cycle.

  8. Redistricting prior to the 2016 election dramatically altered the partisan makeup of the Florida 2nd, and Democratic Rep. Gwen Graham opted against seeking a second term.

  9. This includes vacant seats in the House. In those cases, I assigned the party that previously held the seat to the district.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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