While the presidential contest understandably gets the lion’s share of election coverage, don’t forget that all 435 seats in the House of Representatives will also be up for grabs in November. And Democrats currently look like decent favorites to hold onto the majority they won in the 2018 midterm election.
Currently, Democrats hold 233 seats to the Republicans’ 196, giving them a sizable 37-seat advantage. (There are also five vacancies — four seats previously held by the GOP and one held by Democrats.) That means that if Republicans hold onto the four vacant but solidly GOP seats they previously controlled, they will need to pick up 18 seats to win a majority.
But that might be difficult for House Republicans. The electoral environment currently favors the Democrats, and Republicans have more open seats to defend. Median race ratings from the three major election handicappers — The Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball1 — rate 222 seats as safely, likely or lean Democratic, and 193 seats as safely, likely or lean Republican. The other 20 seats are toss-ups that could go either way.
Democrats have the upper hand in the House
Competitiveness of House races by the party that currently holds the seat, as rated by three major election handicappers
|Median Race Rating|
|Party||Safe D||Likely D||Lean D||Toss-up||Lean R||Likely R||Safe R|
One reason Democrats are starting in such a strong position is few of their incumbents are retiring or seeking another office. In total, only 11 Democratic-held seats have no incumbent running (including that one vacant seat) compared to 31 for the GOP (including those four vacant seats).
True, 22 of those 31 open GOP-held seats are currently rated as “safe,” but the other nine are competitive — including three where the Democrats are favored. The Democrats, on the other hand, only hold two open seats that are rated as competitive.
Democrats hold an edge in competitive open seats
Competitive open House seats by incumbent party, 2016 presidential result and median race rating
|District||Inc. party||Outgoing representative||2016 pres. margin||Race Rating|
|NC-02||R||George Holding||D+24.4||Likely D|
|NC-06||R||Mark Walker||D+21.5||Likely D|
|TX-23||R||Will Hurd||D+3.4||Lean D|
|NY-02||R||Peter King||R+9.1||Lean R|
|MI-03||L||Justin Amash||R+9.4||Lean R|
|IN-05||R||Susan Brooks||R+11.8||Lean R|
|MT-AL||R||Greg Gianforte||R+20.6||Likely R|
Among the competitive GOP open seats, the two likeliest to flip for Democrats are the 2nd and 6th Congressional Districts in North Carolina, whose current boundaries are the product of court-ordered redistricting drafted late last year. The new lines made them much more Democratic and precipitated Republican retirements in both. Democrats are also slight favorites in the Texas 23rd Congressional District, which was carried in 2016 by Hillary Clinton, according to data from Daily Kos Elections. Texas Rep. Will Hurd, who often criticized President Trump, is leaving after three terms.
As for the five open seats currently rated as toss-ups, two are held by Democrats and three by Republicans. We’ll get an early test of the 2020 electoral environment next week with a special election in California’s 25th Congressional District. The district — formerly held by Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, who resigned last November after she admitted to an affair with a campaign staffer and a conservative website published leaked nude photos of her — was one Democrats flipped as part of the 2018 blue wave, but it looks like the special election to fill the seat could go to either party.2 The Democrats are also defending an open seat in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District, which Trump carried by 4 points. And three GOP-held open seats are also currently rated as toss-ups: Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, which required a recount in 2018 because the contest was so close, as well as Texas’s 22nd and 24th Congressional Districts, which former Rep. Beto O’Rourke either carried or nearly won in Texas’s 2018 Senate race.
And as for the four open seats that lean toward the GOP, only one is in a district that the party doesn’t already control — Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, held by Libertarian Rep. Justin Amash. However, a win there wouldn’t really involve picking up new territory, as Amash was a Republican until he left the GOP last year. (He has since mounted a Libertarian presidential bid and said he will forgo a reelection campaign.) Republicans are also slight favorites to retain Indiana’s 5th Congressional District and New York’s 2nd Congressional District, and are likely to hold onto Montana’s at-large Congressional District.
But these open seats are just a handful of the seats up this year — Democrats also have 42 incumbents running in seats that election handicappers rate as competitive. The incumbency advantage has lessened in recent years, but incumbents still enjoy a slight edge, so Democrats will be banking on that to help them in some of the more competitive districts in 2020.
Take the 30 seats the Democrats won in 2018 but Trump won in 2016 — Democratic incumbents are defending 29 of them (all but the Iowa 2nd, where the Democrat is retiring). If House Republicans are going to make up ground in 2020, these are the first seats you’d expect them to gain. But so far, it’s mostly good news for Democrats: Yes, 12 are rated as toss-ups, but no seats currently lean toward the GOP even though Trump carried 13 of these districts by at least 5 points in 2016.
Democrats are defending many districts Trump won
Incumbents seeking reelection in seats won by the other party’s presidential candidate in 2016, by 2016 presidential result and median race rating
|District||Inc. party||Incumbent seeking reelection||2016 pres. margin||race Rating|
|NJ-11||D||Mikie Sherrill||R+0.9||Safe D|
|NJ-05||D||Josh Gottheimer||R+1.1||Safe D|
|WI-03||D||Ron Kind||R+4.5||Safe D|
|IL-17||D||Cheri Bustos||R+0.7||Likely D|
|AZ-01||D||Tom O’Halleran||R+1.1||Likely D|
|MN-02||D||Angie Craig||R+1.2||Likely D|
|NY-18||D||Sean Patrick Maloney||R+1.9||Likely D|
|PA-17||D||Conor Lamb||R+2.6||Likely D|
|MI-11||D||Haley Stevens||R+4.4||Likely D|
|NV-03||D||Susie Lee||R+1||Lean D|
|NH-01||D||Chris Pappas||R+1.6||Lean D|
|VA-02||D||Elaine Luria||R+3.4||Lean D|
|IL-14||D||Lauren Underwood||R+3.9||Lean D|
|MI-08||D||Elissa Slotkin||R+6.7||Lean D|
|UT-04||D||Ben McAdams||R+6.7||Lean D|
|NY-19||D||Antonio Delgado||R+6.8||Lean D|
|PA-08||D||Matt Cartwright||R+9.6||Lean D|
|NM-02||D||Xochitl Torres Small||R+10.2||Toss-up|
|NY-24||R||John Katko||D+3.6||Lean R|
|PA-01||R||Brian Fitzpatrick||D+2||Lean R|
Meanwhile, the GOP retains a slight edge in only two districts Clinton won in 2016: New York’s 24th Congressional District and Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District.
Of course, none of this rules out the GOP retaking the House in November. For one thing, the generic ballot margin could narrow and the electoral environment could grow more competitive as we get closer to November. This is especially true if the contest between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden heats up. That’s because House results are partially tied to the race for the White House — that is, if the candidate at the top of the ticket does well, that can produce down-ballot gains for their party.
And a good performance from Trump could make a big difference in the House, as the House map already has a slight Republican lean. The median House seat, using the 2016 margin between Trump and Clinton, is Florida’s 25th Congressional District, which Trump carried by about 2 points. That means the median House seat is about 4 points to the right of the country as a whole, as Clinton won the national popular vote by 2 points. In other words, even though Democrats are currently favored, a shift in the electoral environment toward the GOP could make them particularly vulnerable, especially considering they have few targets on favorable turf because they already won most Clinton-won districts in 2018. And when push comes to shove, those districts that Trump won in 2016 and Democrats picked up in 2018 are where the House will likely be decided.