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House Update: Where Democrats And Republicans Are Outperforming Their Party

Welcome to our Election Update for Wednesday, Oct. 31! Some scary news for Republicans: Their chances to hold the U.S. House of Representatives are down to 1 in 7 (14 percent), according to the Classic version of our House forecast as of 9 a.m. Eastern time. The Deluxe version is slightly more favorable to them, at 17 percent. But even according to the GOP’s best-case scenario, the Lite (aka polls-mostly) version, the party is a 2 in 9 (22 percent) underdog.

Over the weekend, Siena College dropped a poll of the New York 24th District that gives Republican Rep. John Katko a 14-point lead over Democrat Dana Balter. The finding was pretty similar to what Siena found the last time it polled the race, in August. Why is the result so noteworthy, then? It’s a phenomenal performance by a Republican in a district that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2012. In fact, the New York 24th is 5 points more Democratic-leaning than the country as a whole.1



With the generic congressional ballot tilting nearly 9 points in Democrats’ favor, Katko is the rare Republican candidate who’s expected to actually outperform the partisanship of his or her district. Our forecast2 anticipates that it could happen in just 35 out of 435 districts in the House.3 And not only is Katko primed to outperform his district’s partisan lean, but he’s also one of the even fewer Republicans outperforming it in a district with a Democratic partisan lean (many of the other 34 were strong Republicans outperforming in already pretty red districts; only five others were Republicans outperforming in blue ones4). Here’s our list of the top five highest-overperforming Republicans:

The strongest Republican candidates

The five Republican candidates who are forecasted to outperform their district’s partisan lean by the most, as of Oct. 31

District Republican Terms Served Democrat Forecasted Margin Partisan Lean Difference
CA-21 Valadao 3 Cox R+6 D+10 +17
NY-24 Katko 2 Balter R+6 D+5 +11
FL-26 Curbelo 2 Mucarsel-Powell D+1 D+10 +9
LA-4 Johnson 1 Trundle R+28 R+21 +7
MI-3 Amash 4 Albro R+16 R+10 +6

The California 21st District remains Democrats’ white whale. Even though Clinton won this Central Valley district by 16 points, Rep. David Valadao posted a 50-39 lead in a September poll by SurveyUSA. The three-term incumbent has won the district with double-digit margins since it was created in 2012 through redistricting and has focused on local rather than national issues in this blue district. As for Katko, he won his 2016 campaign by 21 points and looks on track to do almost as well this year. In the Florida 26th, Rep. Carlos Curbelo is downright liberal on environmental issues in a D+10 district that includes the Everglades and Florida Keys. It also doesn’t hurt that Curbelo is Cuban-American in a 37 percent Cuban-American district; this voting bloc still leans Republican down the ballot even as it has moved toward Democrats in presidential elections. The Louisiana 4th’s Mike Johnson, who is facing an underfunded Democratic opponent, and Michigan 3rd’s Justin Amash, who may have cross-party appeal because of his mavericky, libertarian voting record, round out the list.

On the other side of the coin, there are more than 350 Democrats poised to outperform their district’s partisan leans (a little over 200 were performing strongly in districts that lean Republican, the other 150 or so in districts that were already blue). With the political winds at their backs, the strongest Democratic candidates look stronger than even the strongest Republican candidates.

The strongest Democratic candidates

The five Democratic candidates who are forecasted to outperform their district’s partisan lean by the most, as of Oct. 31

District Democrat Terms Served Republican Forecasted Margin Partisan Lean Difference
MN-7 Peterson 14 Hughes D+11 R+25 +36
CA-32 Napolitano 10 Scott D+67 D+33 +34
CT-2 Courtney 6 Postemski D+32 D+2 +30
IL-17 Bustos 3 Fawell D+30 D+1 +29
WV-3 Ojeda N/A* Miller R+10 R+37 +28

* Ojeda is not an incumbent.

Politically, the Minnesota 7th District is more like neighboring North Dakota, which has a similar partisan lean of R+34. But the lone poll we have, a Democratic internal from September, gives Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson an 18-point advantage, and the Classic version of our forecast rates the seat as “likely Democratic.” (When Peterson eventually retires, Democrats will probably have an even tougher time keeping this seat than what they’ve faced currently in the open 1st and 8th districts next door.) The California 32nd is a bit of an outlier on this list, as the model may be giving Rep. Grace Napolitano too much credit for having run unopposed in June’s top-two primary (Republican Joshua Scott qualified for the November ballot as a write-in in the primary). And in the Connecticut 2nd and Illinois 17th, two seasoned Democrats face no serious threat despite occupying rural-suburban seats that swung hard toward Donald Trump in 2016. What’s more, in these two races and the California 32nd, all three Republicans have raised very little in individual contributions; in other words, the relative strength of Napolitano, Rep. Joe Courtney (CT-2) and Rep. Cheri Bustos (IL-17) may be more a function of their opponents’ weakness.

It’s rare for a non-incumbent to outperform his or her district’s partisan lean by much, but Democratic state Sen. Richard Ojeda, while an underdog, nevertheless cracks the list at No. 5. The West Virginia 3rd was one of Trump’s best congressional districts nationwide, but this coal-producing region has a much longer track record of supporting conservative Democrats like Ojeda. If he manages to pull off the victory, he’ll not only be one of the strongest candidates of 2018, but of the last two decades: No candidate has won a district so deeply entrenched in enemy territory since at least 1998.

CORRECTION (Oct. 31, 2018, 1:45 p.m.): A previous version of this story incorrectly said that there were three blue House districts other than the New York 24th where Republican candidates were outperforming the district’s partisan lean. There were five. The story also incorrectly said that Republican candidates in the Illinois 17th and the California 32nd had raised $0 in individual contributions. They have raised less than $6,000 each.

Footnotes

  1. According to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric, which is the average difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. In our new and improved partisan lean formula, 2016 presidential election results are weighted 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results are weighted 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature are weighted 25 percent.

  2. Specifically, the Classic version as of 9 a.m. on Oct. 31.

  3. I compared the forecasted margin of victory between a district’s Democratic and Republican candidates against that district’s partisan lean — ignoring districts without two major-party candidates as well as Louisiana districts with more than one candidate from a party.

  4. David Valadao in the California 21st, Carlos Curbelo in the Florida 26th, Maria Salazar in the Florida 27th, Joe Profit in the Georgia 4th and Elizabeth Heng in the California 16th.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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