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House Party

These Are the 12 House Races Everyone Should Be Watching

A breakdown of the elections that will decide whether Congress will act as a check on Trump.

by Robert Wheel
Sep 5 2018, 8:31pm

Capitol Hill at night. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty

After a brief summer break (hope you got some good beach books in—anyone else read Bad Blood?) House Party is back to help you navigate the midterms.

While you were at the beach, Axios found a GOP-penned list of almost 20 investigations into the Trump administration that Democrats could begin if they win control of the House. I know what you’re thinking: Only 20? But it shows just how high the stakes are as we head into the midterms. As you may know, Democrats need to pick up 23 Republican-held seats to hold the House for the first time since 2010. Outlets like UVA’s Crystal Ball, the Cook Political Report, and 538 provide rough measures of the state of play at the moment, but if you want to dig a little deeper, what are the key seats to watch as November approaches? Let’s try to game that out, starting with a few assumptions on what a Democratic majority would look like:

Democrats Will Hold on to All Their Current Seats

This isn’t a given, even in a wave election. But it seems unlikely Republicans will try to make a serious play for any Democrat-held seats when they can win just by putting all their resources into defending the ones they already hold. Taking a quick fly-by of the most vulnerable Democrat-held seats:

  • In Minnesota’s two rural Trump-won seats that have been vacated by Democrats there has been little polling, but Republican candidates have posted weak fundraising numbers and there’s been little outside spending on the GOP’s behalf. In the First District even conservative hacks are down on their nominee, while in the Eighth Democrat Joe Radinovich has experience in tough elections.
  • In Nevada’s two swingy suburban open House seats Republicans have already given up on Danny Tarkanian, and though they're still supporting Cresent Hardy, he only won during what was a historically good year for Republicans, especially in Nevada.
  • The Pennsylvania redistricting decision scrambled the idea of what new seat is represented by which incumbent, but I’d assume that all the Pennsylvania Democrats win their re-election campaigns (including Conor Lamb)

Republicans Will Abandon at Least a Dozen Races

A ten-seat majority is just as good as a 23-seat one. So why would Republicans bother to put too many resources into defending seats where they’re overextended? The first step in figuring out where the battle for the House will come down to is to look at the ground they’re likely going to concede to Democrats:

  • There are three open seats—NJ-02, PA-05, and PA-06, where nobody expects them to put up much of a fight.
  • Per numerous media reports, incumbents Rod Blum (IA-01), Barbara Comstock (VA-10), and Jason Lewis (MN-02) aren’t going to get any help from the national party.
  • There are six other open seats that are held by Republicans but that Hillary Clinton won: FL-27, CA-39, CA-49, PA-7, AZ-02 and WA-08. The only one that Republicans have yet to show a serious appetite to defend is CA-39, where Clinton won by 8 but where Latino turnout historically drops during midterms (and there does seem to be a real problem with Latino turnout this year). But a poll released by Democrat Gil Cisneros showed him up by 11, and he can self-fund against any Republican attacks on him. Ultimately it’d be far cheaper for Republicans to defend other seats.
  • There are two GOP-held open seats, NJ-11 and MI-11, where Donald Trump won with only 50 percent or less and Republicans have shown little taste for a big fight. In New Jersey Mikie Sherrill is one of Democrats’ most touted recruits nationwide, and in Michigan they put up a former chief of staff to the auto rescue against a Republican described by the Detroit Free Press as “the sort of candidate former Republican House Speaker John Boehner had in mind when he complained, in a recent appearance in Michigan, that the GOP has devolved into a personality cult with few coherent principles.”

Assuming Democrats hold on to all their seats and win the 14 listed above that’d get them to 209 members in the next House, nine short of a majority. And of those 209 there’s still a chance that scandals and other missteps could cost Democrats a seat or two. On top of that, even though the following seats aren’t gimmes quite yet, Democrats feel good about their chances in the following:

Assuming Democrats win all but three of all the seats above (as noted above they aren’t a lock yet for any of them), they’d need to win six more to take control of the House. Accordingly, you’d want them to take at least half of the next dozen races to be on track to take over the chamber:

  1. IL-12. This is another blue-collar seat more amenable to the party downballot (Senator Tammy Duckworth carried it in her tight 2016 race even as Trump was winning it 55-41), that Democrats won as recently as 2012. Local prosecutor Brendan Kelly had a good story to tell about fighting the opioid crisis, and with Governor Bruce Rauner poised to be blown out, he could drag downballot Republicans like Representative Mike Bost down with him.
  2. NY-19. Antonio Delgado has had some of the best ads of any candidate this cycle in using people who would’ve been harmed by the AHCA to appeal directly to incumbent John Faso. More Democrats should do that! Delgado’s problem is that his ties to the district are flimsy, having moved there for the first time to run for this seat. But Republicans may be overplaying their hand, trying to turn Delgado’s relatively anodyne rap lyrics (he used to perform as AD The Voice—and was pretty good!) into dog whistle campaign ads that the Washington Post called “grossly misleading.”
  3. KS-03. Representative Kevin Yoder should’ve known he was in for a tough race in this district which went narrowly for Clinton and has been a swing seat for decades. But Yoder has been complaining that the national party isn’t doing enough to support him. It’s a bit early for loserspeak, Kev.
  4. IL-06. This district in the Chicago suburbs should be one of Democrats’ top takeover targets: Clinton won it by 7 and Rauner should be a drag here tool. Democrats even got more votes in the Sixth in the March primary when both parties had high-profile statewide contests. But Democrat Sean Casten recently found himself in hot water for comparing Donald Trump to Osama Bin Laden. I’m dubious that it’ll cost him that much in a seat where Trump only got 43 percent of the vote, but it isn’t a good look when you’re trying to win over people who also voted for Mitt Romney. Notably Roskam is anti-abortion, and with women fearful about the Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court, Democrats should make a big deal about it in moderate suburban districts like this one.
  5. IA-03. This seat narrowly went for both Obama and Trump so it was always going to be heavily contested. But neither candidate here has impressed so far. Incumbent David Young was recently called out by members of his own party for his lackadaisical performance on the campaign trail, while Democrat Cindy Axne’s initial ad was about the Pony Express for some reason.
  6. CO-06. Both sides are spending heavily in this district, which hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 2004 but is still represented by Republican Mike Coffman. Democrat Jason Crow is out with a positive bio spot, but his history of representing oil companies and payday lenders will likely make its way into GOP attacks.
  7. NJ-07. Things have already gotten ugly here as Representative Leonard Lance accused Tom Malinowski of supporting terrorism. The reason? He wanted to close Guantanamo Bay. Remember that the next time you swoon over George W. Bush at a funeral.
  8. WV-03. Back in February I told you I might be crazy but I thought Richard Ojeda could win an open seat that Trump won 72-23. Well, the polls show it: I am officially not crazy! Ojeda is the type of working-class candidate that plays well in one of the poorest districts in America, while his opponent Carol Miller is the daughter of a congressman, worth more than $10 million, and has proved stiff as a retail campaigner.
  9. CA-10. This race was always going to be tight—Representative Jeff Denham only won re-election by 3 percent, about as much that Clinton's margin of victory in the district. Democratic candidate Josh Harder is telling people that his polls have the race tied. This contest will likely end up reflecting the national mood.
  10. CA-45. While Trump lost this district, Representative Mimi Walters insists he’d win it if he ran again today and isn’t making any effort to separate herself from the president. She’s also trying to tar Democrat Katie Porter as a clone of her old boss, Elizabeth Warren. I think a Trump-Warren proxy battle here is one that Democrats want.
  11. TX-07. Incumbent John Culberson hasn’t ever had to win a tough general election race, and it shows. He was already insider trading–adjacent before his latest scandal —spending campaign funds on Civil War memorabilia and fossils. Lizzie Fletcher has run a disciplined race against him so far, but she has little margin for error in a seat that narrowly voted for Clinton but backed Romney by more than 20 percent.
  12. ME-02. Jared Golden is a millennial veteran and he has the corresponding tattoo to go along with it (other inked Democrats running in 2018 include viral stars Ojeda, MJ Hegar, and John Fetterman). But incumbent Bruce Poliquin is trying to tie his tattoos to welfare, a dog whistle that could play well in a state that has twice sent Paul LePage to the governor’s office. (Golden’s spokesman, in a refreshing use of profanity, called the attack “bullshit.”)

For now those are what I’d term the Decisive Dozen, the group of House races Democrats want to win at least half of if they’re on track to win the chamber back. Each week we’ll look at the race for the House and how it manifests itself in those most decisive seats, which are always subject to change. Just ten weeks to go.

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Robert Wheel (a pseudonym) is an attorney who lives in New York. He tweets here , and his DMs are open.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.