The wheels have completely fallen off for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign following the release of an explosive video where he was seen vulgarly bragging about sexual assault. Many Republican officials have since publicly abandoned him, while House Speaker Paul Ryan even went as far as to say he won't defend him and told congressional Republicans they’re free to follow their conscience on Trump. This collapse has given downballot Democratic hopes a shot in the arm, with many analysts openly wondering if Democrats could take the House.
Widespread Republican gerrymandering requires Democrats to win the national popular vote for the House by several points—probably 7 or 8—for a bare majority. That serious obstacle helped deter strong candidates from running in many districts, leading to a number of unfortunate recruiting failures. As a result, few expected Democrats to flip the House early on, but a blowout Clinton presidential win completely changes the equation. While ticket-splitting will likely increase compared to 2012’s 92-year low thanks to Trump, downballot Republicans could be facing a tidal wave nonetheless big enough to wash them away, particularly if their party’s turnout falters thanks to a hopeless presidential race dampening enthusiasm.
It’s too soon for polling to have captured the full impact of Trump’s implosion, and right now Democrats only have a modest lead on the congressional generic ballot. However, we might not even know the full extent of Trump’s damage until Election Day, especially if Republican turnout craters. A potent example is the infamous tale of Missouri Republican Rep. Todd Akin, whose infamous “legitimate rape” gaffe during his 2012 Senate campaign led to widespread abandonment by his own party. In the end, Akin lost, of course, but the polls didn’t capture the immediate effect of Akin’s August implosion for many weeks, and in the end, they still badly underestimated his landslide loss. We could be in the midst of something similar here.
And if Trump does indeed drag the GOP to Akin-like depths, what might a Democratic majority look like, seat by seat? We used Daily Kos Elections’ race ratings and our chart of education and income levels by district to create one scenario you see illustrated at the top of this post (click here for a larger image). This hypothetical isn’t a prediction but rather a look at the type of seats Democrats would need for a working majority. In this example, Democrats hold all of their current seats (except for FL-02, which became dark red following recent court-ordered redistricting), and pick off 39 Republican-held seats for a net gain of 38 seats. That’s a bit larger than their 30 seat gain in the 2006 wave, but much smaller than Republicans’ 63 seat gain in the 2010 wave.
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Below is a chart of our race ratings for every competitive House contest in 2016, plus a trio of seats that are sure to change hands thanks to redistricting:
We currently rate 188 districts as favoring Democrats, 229 as favoring Republicans, and 18 as Tossups. That means Democrats would need to start eating into some of the 13 Lean Republican or maybe even the 14 Likely Republican seats to have a shot at a majority. These ratings don’t reflect the post-Trump meltdown landscape yet, because we simply don’t have enough data to draw any new conclusions, but it isn’t impossible that some of those seats where Republicans are modest favorites could swing toward Democrats over the final few weeks. Indeed, many prognosticators only captured the 2006 wave very late in the election cycle, and the same thing could happen here.
Should Democrats win every seat where they are favored, all of the Tossups, and all of the Lean Republican seats, they would just barely eke out a 219-216 majority. But if Democrats want to pass many parts of their ambitious progressive agenda, 219 seats simply isn’t enough to get much done because they could only afford one defection on key votes. Many newly elected Democrats would represent Republican-leaning districts and would therefore be apt to distance themselves from their party, so Democrats would need some room for error to get much done. With this in mind, our above hypothetical map also gives roughly half the Likely Republican seats to Democrats for a more comfortable 226-209 majority. If we’re going to dream, dream big!
Fortunately for Democrats, they’re almost all on the offense right now. Beyond the safely Republican redistricted FL-02, only four of their seats are Tossups, and just three are Lean Democratic. Meanwhile, Republicans automatically lose FL-10 and VA-04 due to court-ordered redistricting, while FL-13 and NV-04 are Lean Democratic. A further 15 Republican seats are Tossups and 13 are Lean Republican. So which seats should we watch to see if Democrats can win a majority, beyond those listed as Tossups?
Trump has shown unique weakness in relatively affluent suburban areas with highly educated white voters. Those sorts of voters have leaned Republican for decades but have now stampeded away from Trump, and Democrats are hoping they will do the same downballot. Many of these suburbs are also growing more racially diverse too. GOP-held seats to watch in this category include CA-25, CA-49, CO-03, FL-07, MN-03, NY-01, and VA-10, which are probably almost all necessary for any Democratic majority. Some longer shot seats Democrats might need to win include AZ-02, KS-03, MI-08, and UT-04.
Democrats aren’t just fighting it out in the upscale suburbs, though. They also probably must gain one or both of CA-10 and CA-21, which rank near the bottom in terms of education levels but have large Latino populations and voted for Obama. They will also likely need to flip some mix of the suburban and rural seats that simply have sizable lower-education white populations, a demographic trending Republican due to Trump, such as ME-02, IA-03, MI-07, NY-01, and WI-08. Longer shot targets include IL-12, IN-02, IN-09, MI-06, MT-AL, NY-21, NY-23, PA-16, and VA-05. Democrats don’t necessarily need all of those latter seats, but every one that pads the majority makes weathering defections easier once the speaker’s gavel is back in Nancy Pelosi’s hands
Again, it’s too soon after Trump’s meltdown to truly know just how bad it will be for Republicans. As with past waves, races can break late, and there are some contests that Daily Kos Elections rates Likely Republican or even Safe Republican that could become close if the bottom falls out, but many of those would likely just be icing on the cake. On the other hand, if Team Blue is struggling to clean up among the Tossup and Lean Republican seats, they can forget about winning control of the chamber.
We’ll be keeping close watch on all of these races from now through Nov. 8, but as the returns come in on election night, we’ll be focusing most tightly on the half-dozen contests below as bellwhethers:
- CA-49: Democrat Doug Applegate vs. GOP Rep. Darrell Issa
- FL-07: Democrat Stephanie Murphy vs. GOP Rep. John Mica
- KS-03: Democrat Jay Sidie vs. Rep. Kevin Yoder
- ME-02: Democrat Emily Cain vs. GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin
- MN-03: Democrat Terri Bonoff vs. GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen
- VA-10: Democrat LuAnne Bennett vs. GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock
If these seats start flipping then, a Democrat majority could be a real possibility.