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Graph of 2012 House race performance vs. presidential performance
2012 House candidate performance vs. presidential performance by congressional district
(click for larger | scatterplot courtesy Xenocrypt)
Last weekend—thanks to finally having 2012 presidential election performances for each of the nation's 435 House districts—we took a look at which were the most Democratic-leaning districts still represented by Republicans (and, conversely, which were the most Republican districts represented by Democrats). That told us half the story about what races might be most competitive next year: yes, it gave us the names of some Representatives who'll be facing an uphill fight if they want to come back (Gary Miller, for instance). But it also returned the names of some Representatives who—by virtue of moderate voting record, uncontroversial personality, weak Democratic bench, or all three—have been quietly surviving for decades in districts that should theoretically be inhospitable to them, and who aren't likely to get targeted in 2014 either.

So what's the other half of the story that's missing? It's one best told by focusing on who had the closest races last year. For every Frank LoBiondo ("who?" you're saying ... well, that's exactly the point) who's successfully camouflaged in a Democratic-leaning district, there's also a Michele Bachmann or Steve King, who manages to make a solidly-Republican district competitive simply by virtue of opening his or her mouth on a regular basis. For that matter, for every LoBiondo, there's also a Dan Benishek, too: in other words, a Republican who isn't at the vanguard of every conspiracy theory, but who manages to make a Republican-leaning district competitive in much subtler ways (more by virtue of a less-than-winning personality, and rigid tea party ideology in a far-flung district that likes its federal infrastructure).

Merely looking at a district's presidential performance doesn't point us in the direction of targets like Bachmann or Benishek. Of course, some of the names returned by a list of the closest races aren't necessarily the best 2014 targets, either. Many of them are on there mostly because they're red-district freshmen who either won an empty seat or knocked off a Dem incumbent; their numbers were sub-par because they didn't have an incumbency advantage. Once they're more entrenched in two years their performance might be more in line with the district's overall lean ... or they might continue to struggle. There's the difficulty: trying to identify who's simply finding their footing, and who has flaws that may point to longer-term troubles in holding what should be a favorable seat.

Let's take a look at the charts, over the fold ...

We'll start with the Republicans who had the closest races in 2012. (And in 2013... I'd be happy to throw Mark Sanford's special election in there, but with his 8.9% margin of victory of Elizabeth Colbert Busch, he actually narrowly escaped inclusion on the list.) The asterisks are for the winners who are freshmen (including, as we call them, "redshirt freshmen," returning to Congress after time away):

Dist. Rep. 2012 Result Margin
IL-13 Rodney Davis * 46.2/46.5 0.3
MI-01 Dan Benishek 47.6/48.1 0.5
MN-06 Michele Bachmann 49.3/50.5 1.2
IN-02 Jackie Walorski * 47.6/49.0 1.4
NY-27 Chris Collins * 49.2/50.8 1.6
NE-02 Lee Terry 49.2/50.8 1.6
CO-06 Mike Coffman 45.8/47.8 2.0
PA-12 Keith Rothfus * 48.3/51.7 3.4
FL-10 Dan Webster 48.3/51.7 3.4
NY-23 Tom Reed 48.1/51.9 3.8
KY-06 Andy Barr * 46.7/50.6 3.9
OH-16 Jim Renacci 48.0/52.0 4.0
NY-11 Michael Grimm 46.8/52.2 5.4
CA-10 Jeff Denham 47.3/52.7 5.4
FL-02 Steve Southerland 47.2/52.7 5.5
NY-19 Chris Gibson 47.1/52.8 5.7
NC-09 Robert Pittenger * 45.7/51.8 6.1
MI-11 Kerry Bentivolio * 44.4/50.8 6.4
OH-06 Bill Johnson 46.7/53.3 6.6
FL-16 Vern Buchanan 46.4/53.6 7.2
NV-03 Joe Heck 42.9/50.4 7.5
VA-02 Scott Rigell 46.1/53.8 7.7
NC-08 Richard Hudson * 45.4/53.2 7.8
IA-04 Steve King 44.8/52.9 8.1
MN-02 John Kline 45.8/54.0 8.2

As you can see, there's a high proportion of freshmen on the list, which will be a consistent theme throughout this story. They tend to be either candidates running in reddish open seats (like Jackie Walorski in IN-02 or Robert Pittenger in NC-09), or candidates who defeated Dem incumbents, most of whom got hosed by redistricting (like Chris Collins in NY-27, who defeated Kathy Hochul, Keith Rothfus in PA-12, who defeated Mark Critz, or further down the list, Richard Hudson, who beat Larry Kissell in NC-08).

The only Republican freshman who doesn't seem to fit either category is Rodney Davis, who ran in a nearly-even open seat, a former red district turned into a swing district by Dem-controlled redistricting and then vacated by veteran GOPer Timothy Johnson. Predictably, he had the most difficult time of anyone. (As you can see in the table below, thanks to it being a Dem-friendly year overall, most of the swingy open seats were won by Democrats instead.)

Let's return again to the list of Republicans in the 25 most Dem-leaning districts from last week. Note that there isn't much overlap: only eight names show up on both lists (Davis, plus Mike Coffman, Jeff Denham, Mike Grimm, Chris Gibson, Joe Heck, Scott Rigell, and John Kline). These races, where the two vulnerability categories line up, seem like the best targeting bets. In fact, when you try looking beyond those 8 seats, you see why the Dems may have great trouble getting the 17 pickups they need, even if 2014 turns into a favorable year.

It means either winning against entrenched veterans in swingy seats, or else winning against shaky noobs who are protected by heavily-R terrain. (As we discussed last week, we largely have Republican-controlled redistricting to thank for that decline in swing seats.) It makes sense to go hard after a few of the really special cases—Bachmann, for starters—who are screwy enough to jeopardize an R+10 seat, but after her the pickings start to get much thinner.

You might be wondering about the Republican who was #1 on the list of worst districts, Gary Miller in CA-31, and wondering where he is. Well, he's an unusual case, and that deserves some explanation. Despite being in a Dem-leaning district, he faced a general election against a fellow Republican, state Sen. Bob Dutton, thanks to a quirk in California's top 2 primary system. He beat Dutton by a margin that's too wide to be included in the list (10.4%), but even if it had been a closer race, that doesn't fit correctly in this framework.

Dutton wasn't explicitly running to Miller's left, or doing anything that would make him the quasi-Democrat in the race; in fact, there were more than 50,000 undervotes in this race compared with presidential votes, indicating that around half of the Democrats in this district simply left the box blank. It'd be interesting to know how the remaining ones split their votes, but for our purposes, that race is just a square peg that we won't try to fit into this round hole.

Now let's take a look at the Democrats who had the closest calls in 2012:

Dist. Rep. 2012 Result Margin
NC-07 Mike McIntyre 50.1/49.9 0.2
UT-04 Jim Matheson 48.8/48.5 0.3
FL-18 Patrick Murphy * 50.3/49.7 0.6
AZ-02 Ron Barber 50.3/49.5 0.8
IL-10 Brad Schneider * 50.6/49.4 1.2
MA-06 John Tierney 48.3/47.1 1.2
NY-21 Bill Owens 50.1/48.2 1.9
CA-52 Scott Peters * 51.2/48.8 2.4
CT-05 Elizabeth Esty * 51.3/48.7 2.6
CA-07 Ami Bera * 51.7/48.3 3.4
AZ-01 Ann Kirkpatrick * 48.7/45.1 3.6
NH-01 Carol Shea-Porter * 49.8/46.0 3.8
NY-18 Sean Maloney * 51.9/48.0 3.9
AZ-09 Kyrsten Sinema * 48.7/44.6 4.1
TX-23 Pete Gallego * 50.3/45.6 4.7
NH-02 Ann Kuster * 50.2/45.3 4.9
NY-01 Tim Bishop 52.5/47.5 5.0
NY-24 Dan Maffei * 48.8/43.4 5.4
CA-26 Julia Brownley * 52.7/47.3 5.4
CA-36 Raul Ruiz * 52.9/47.1 5.8
IL-17 Cheri Bustos * 53.3/46.7 6.6
GA-12 John Barrow 53.7/46.3 7.4
WA-01 Suzan DelBene * 53.9/46.1 7.8
NV-04 Steven Horsford * 50.1/42.1 8.0
WV-03 Nick Rahall 54.0/46.0 8.0

Again, flip back to the list of Democrats in the most Republican-leaning districts from last week. You'll notice something different: there's a lot more overlap between those two lists. Sixteen of the 25 are on both the worst-districts and worst-2012-races lists. To me, that suggests that the Democrats are more exposed going into 2014; there are more races in that perfect-storm zone than the Republicans have.

In fact, it'd be easier just to list the nine Dems who aren't on the worst-districts list, who are likelier to be able to look forward to getting entrenched (John Tierney, Brad Schneider, Elizabeth Esty, Dan Maffei, Ann Kuster, Julia Brownley, Cheri Bustos, Suzan DelBene, and Steven Horsford). Even that list should have some caveats: Tierney is the only non-freshman on the list, and he suffers from bad publicity concerning his wife's legal problems, which may continue to dog him in future runs, while Schneider faces a rematch with the Republican incumbent (Bob Dold!) whom he defeated last year.

Mike McIntyre, a Blue Dog who got redistricted from a merely Republican-leaning district into a blazing-red one, is not only at the top of this list, but also #3 on the list of worst districts. Even without considering that he too will face a rematch with the Republican who nearly beat him last year (David Rouzer), that would tend to suggest he's the most vulnerable Dem going into 2014. In fact, that's what we'll talk about next week, in the final installment of three parts: how to put these two components together into one unified field theory of vulnerability.

Parallel to the discussion of Gary Miller's race that we discussed above, there actually was one intra-party California House race that was close enough to be included on the Dem side, where challenger Eric Swalwell narrowly unseated long-time incumbent Pete Stark in CA-15, by a 4.2% margin. Again, that's a result that just doesn't fit into our framework: Swalwell vs. Stark didn't have many ideological overtones (it was more about Stark's ineffectiveness and cantankerousness), and a close Swalwell victory certainly doesn't indicate he's vulnerable to a Republican in 2014 in a district that went 68% for Obama.

Finally, I wanted to try one last thing as part of this analysis: looking at the differences between a list of who had the closest races, and a list of who underperformed their districts' leans the most. This initially seemed like a great way to try and see who might secretly have a glass jaw and be a good under-the-radar target. However, in the final analysis, it doesn't tell us much that's new. It points to a lot of the same names as the charts above: mostly freshmen who had competitive races in open seats or against weakened incumbents, who'll probably be better protected in future years with more seniority and name rec.

It also points to Reps. who are carrying around some serious baggage with them, who'd be toast in more swingy districts, but who are adequately insulated against losing. That starts with Scott DesJarlais, who not only was hampered by his massive abortion hypocrisy but faced a solid Dem opponent, but still managed to win by 10 in an R+18 district. Bachmann isn't far behind, and the list also includes Mark Sanford, who won a surprisingly comfortable special election but still woefully underperformed the district's R+11 lean. (On the Dem side, it also points to Tierney and David Ciccilline, whose shortcomings are less glaring but who still labor under clouds.)

Dist. Rep. 2012 House 2012 Prez. Margin
TN-04 Scott DesJarlais 44.2/55.8 33.1/65.3 20.6
OK-02 Markwayne Mullin * 38.3/57.3 32.2/67.8 16.6
MN-06 Michele Bachmann 49.3/50.5 41.5/56.5 13.8
PA-12 Keith Rothfus * 48.3/51.7 40.9/57.8 13.5
IN-02 Jackie Walorski * 47.6/49.0 42.1/56.1 12.6
TX-14 Randy Weber * 44.6/53.5 39.5/59.3 10.9
NY-27 Chris Collins * 49.2/50.8 42.9/55.3 10.8
UT-01 Rob Bishop 24.7/71.5 20.4/77.4 10.2
UT-02 Chris Stewart * 33.5/62.2 29.2/68.0 10.1
KY-06 Andy Barr * 46.7/50.6 42.2/55.8 9.7
SC-01 (sp) Mark Sanford * 45.3/54.2 40.2/58.3 9.2
NC-08 Richard Hudson * 45.4/53.2 40.9/58.2 9.5
IN-08 Larry Bucshon 43.1/53.4 39.6/58.4 8.5
NC-11 Mark Meadows * 42.6/57.4 37.8/60.9 8.3
MI-01 Dan Benishek 47.6/48.1 45.3/53.6 7.8

And on the Dem side, again, there are a lot of freshmen who won hard-fought races in Dem-leaning districts (like Brad Schneider, Cheri Bustos, and oddly, Tammy Duckworth, who was expected to defeat Joe Walsh going away but had to gut the race out after some late third-party spending on his behalf). There are also a few unusual cases where lopsided victories simply weren't lopsided enough, given districts' even-more-lopsided leans in Barack Obama's direction. (Though there's usually an explanation for them, like the unusual circumstances of Robin Kelly's recent special election victory... or Charlie Rangel's vaguely corrupt reputation, which seems to have held him to a mere 91% while Obama was winning the 13th with 95%.)

The biggest underperformer seems entirely out of left field, though: it's Colleen Hanabusa, in Hawaii's 1st district. There are two factors at work in her case: one, a rematch against ex-Rep. Charles Djou, who won a fluky special election and then was promptly unseated by Hanabusa in 2010, but who's a more imposing challenger than one usually sees in districts like this. The other is Obama's unique popularity in what's essentially his home state, which pushed his numbers up at the same time as Djou pushed Hanabusa's numbers down. She's running for Senate this year, so worrying about future performance in HI-01 isn't relevant at any rate; if she has some sort of Achilles heel, it's going to be found by Brian Schatz in the Democratic Senate primary, not by a Republican.

Long-time progressive Henry Waxman's underperformance may actually be a bit more troubling. Facing a lot of new constituents after redistricting, and being opposed by a freely-self-funding Republican muddying the waters by running as an "independent," he seemed caught off guard, and his numbers show it.

Dist. Rep. 2012 House 2012 Prez. Margin
HI-01 Colleen Hanabusa 54.6/45.4 69.7/29.0 31.5
RI-01 David Ciccilline 53.0/40.8 66.2/32.2 21.8
CA-33 Henry Waxman 54.0/46.0 60.6/36.8 15.8
IL-10 Brad Schneider * 50.6/49.4 57.5/41.1 15.2
IL-02 (sp) Robin Kelly * 70.8/22.0 80.7/18.5 13.4
IL-01 Bobby Rush 73.8/26.2 79.0/20.2 11.2
NY-24 Dan Maffei * 48.8/43.4 57.0/41.1 10.5
IL-17 Cheri Bustos * 53.3/46.7 57.6/40.6 10.4
MA-06 John Tierney 48.3/47.1 54.7/43.9 9.6
CA-47 Alan Lowenthal * 56.6/43.4 60.0/37.5 9.3
CA-41 Mark Takano * 59.0/41.0 61.5/36.3 7.2
IL-08 Tammy Duckworth * 54.7/45.3 57.4/40.9 7.1
CA-09 Jerry McNerney 55.6/44.4 57.8/40.1 6.5
CT-05 Elizabeth Esty 51.3/48.7 54.0/45.0 6.4
TN-09 Steve Cohen 75.1/23.8 78.3/20.9 6.1
NY-13 Charlie Rangel 90.7/6.3 94.6/4.6 5.6

The wacky intra-party elections in California and Louisiana caused by their primary systems are much more of a factor here than they were in the tables of purely-close races. Had I not stuck my thumb on the scale and thrown those races out, the underperformer tables would have included not just Eric Swalwell, but also Janice Hahn, Lucille Roybal-Allard, Gloria Negrete McLeod, Cedric Richmond, Maxine Waters, and Brad Sherman (and on the Republican side, Charles Boustany), all of whom had at least mildly-interesting races in districts that are thorougly safe at the presidential level. I didn't have to exclude Gary Miller, though: according to spreadsheet logic, he vastly overperformed his district's lean by triumphing in an R/R battle in a Dem-leaning district.

Kyle Kondik (of Univ. of Virginia's Center for Politics) has issued a much more extensive piece on the underperformers, if you want to continue down the lists. In addition, Daily Kos Elections commenter Xenocrypt has been all over the "underperformer" issue in recent weeks; the scatterplot at the top of this story, which graphs House race performance against presidential performance, comes courtesy of him.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Elections on Sun May 12, 2013 at 04:59 PM PDT.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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