Washington (CNN)The battle for control of the US House is coming into sharper focus with November's midterm elections now less than 70 days away.
CNN Key Races: 11 House seats move toward Democrats, 3 in direction of Republicans
For Democrats, the path to the majority appears to run in large part through suburban, well-educated districts where disapproval of President Donald Trump's job performance could be hobbling GOP candidates. The party's prospects have improved as Democratic candidates continue to overperform in special election contests, with the latest example being last month's slim defeat in a reliably Republican central Ohio district. The result was further proof the party has a significant enthusiasm edge this cycle.
Despite those headwinds, there remain a few bright spots for the GOP. The party has a handful of incumbents who are running strong races in districts that would be tough in any environment, let alone one where the President's approval rating is stuck in the high 30s or low to mid-40s. The latest ABC News/Washington Post survey, released Friday, showed the President at 36% approval and 60% disapproval.
Ten weeks might not seem like a long time, but in politics it is a lifetime. The national dynamics can change in an instant, as we saw with the recent legal bombshells involving Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort. Then there was the stunning indictment of a sitting GOP member of Congress for allegedly misusing campaign funds, prompting Democrats to reprise their "culture of corruption" line of attack, which the party successfully deployed against Republicans in 2006.
In all, CNN is moving 14 seats -- 11 toward Democrats and three in the direction of Republicans. There are currently 11 seats held or vacated by Republicans that CNN rates as Lean Democratic or better, which would get the party almost halfway to the 23 it needs to gain in order to win control of the House. Of the 30 districts now rated as Toss-Ups, 28 belong to Republicans -- and Hillary Clinton won 12 of them in 2016.
To the ratings:
CA-45: This district is one of seven GOP-held seats in districts that Clinton won in the Golden State, carrying it 49% to 44%. In 2012, it went 55% to 43% for Mitt Romney. Based entirely in Orange County, the 45th District is diverse -- 22% Asian and 19% Latino -- and highly educated -- a majority of residents hold at least a four-year college degree. Two-term GOP Rep. Mimi Walters is running against UC Irvine consumer law professor Katie Porter. With Republicans facing long odds in California's gubernatorial contest and shut out of the Senate race, the party is hoping an effort to repeal the state's gas tax will boost GOP turnout this fall to the benefit of some congressional candidates locked in tough battles. Porter recently released an ad saying she opposes higher gas taxes, a move to try and neutralize attacks from Walters and outside groups. Republicans are trying to cast Porter as too liberal for the district, highlighting the Democrat's support of "Medicare-for-all." Democrats, meanwhile, are likely to seize on Walters' vote in favor of the GOP tax plan, which included a cap on state and local tax deductions -- claimed by 46% of households in the 45th District in 2014, according to the Tax Policy Center. Both candidates should have plenty of resources for the fall campaign. Porter outraised Walters by $1 million to $704,000 in the second quarter, but the GOP incumbent held a $1.5 million to $780,000 lead in cash on hand at the end of June. Race moves from Lean Republican to Toss-Up
CA-50: The indictment of GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter on charges he and his wife misused $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses not only places the five-term incumbent in legal jeopardy, it also adds a degree of difficulty to his political challenge this cycle. The charges detailed in the 47-page indictment include spending campaign money on an Italian vacation, in-cabin flights for the family's pet bunny and tequila shots at a DC bachelor party. Hunter's Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, has turned the indictment into a new TV ad that calls Hunter an "embarrassment." Even with the charges, the district remains an uphill climb for Democrats. Trump won it by 15 points with 54% of the vote in 2016. Romney carried it by an even wider 22-point margin in 2012, 60% to 38%. Campa-Najjar is running a progressive campaign on some of California's most conservative terrain. That could make it difficult for the Democrat to fully capitalize on any Republican voters in the district who sour on Hunter because of the charges. Hunter has struggled to raise money amid the federal investigation into his campaign spending, which seems unlikely to change following the indictment. Campa-Najjar nearly doubled Hunter in the second quarter, $362,000 to $183,000. Races moves from Solid Republican to Likely Republican
IA-04: Eight-term GOP Rep. Steve King remains a heavy favorite to prevail in November, but he's got some competition in the form of Democrat J.D. Scholten, a former professional baseball player barnstorming the northwest Iowa district in a red, white and blue Winnebago emblazoned with his name. Part of the challenge for Democrats in the 4th District is the GOP's commanding registration advantage. Republicans make up 39% of registered voters, while Democrats are just 25%. Another 35% don't have a party affiliation. Scholten will have to tap into that vote if he's going to fare better than previous challengers to King. The conservative firebrand's previous low-water mark came in 2012, when he defeated former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack by 8 points, 53% to 45%. One area that might be of concern for King is money. Scholten outraised King by $342,000 to $140,000 in the second quarter of 2018 -- which marks the third consecutive quarter he's hauled in more funds than the GOP incumbent. At last check Scholten leads $254,000 to $117,000 in cash on hand. Race moves from Solid Republican to Likely Republican
KS-02: Democrat Paul Davis lost his 2014 bid for governor against Sam Brownback by 4 points, but he carried the 2nd District by 6 points. This year the former Kansas House minority leader will face off with Army veteran Steve Watkins, who won a competitive seven-way GOP primary with 26% of the vote. Watkins benefited from roughly $300,000 in television advertising from a PAC founded and funded by his father, support that Democrats might try to turn into a political liability. Still, that kind of outside spending could help Watkins close the fundraising gap with Davis, who had a $942,000 to $125,000 advantage in cash on hand as of mid-July. Watkins is also getting an assist from the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP super PAC, which is targeting Davis with ads saying he'll "rubber-stamp" House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's "liberal tax and spend agenda." Davis has vowed to vote against Pelosi for Democratic leader if he's elected. Another figure who could be a factor in the race is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the GOP nominee for governor. Kobach, a vocal proponent of strict voter identification laws and hardline immigration policies, could be a potential drag on House GOP candidates in the Sunflower State. Republicans there were already facing headwinds stirred up by Brownback, the unpopular former governor, who resigned earlier this year to take a job in the Trump administration. Race moves from Lean Republican to Toss-Up
KS-03: Staying in Kansas, the potential Kobach and Brownback drag also applies to the 3rd District, where GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder is facing a challenge from Democrat Sharice Davids, a former mixed martial-arts fighter and White House fellow who emerged from a competitive six-person primary. This mostly suburban district surrounding Kansas City has a large share of college graduates. In 2016, Clinton narrowly won the district, 47% to 46%. Romney carried it by 10 points four years earlier. Yoder received less than 70% of the GOP primary vote, which could be a warning sign for the four-term incumbent. He also was called out by the Kansas City Star editorial board for primary night comments that Davids and one of her Democratic rivals didn't "know Kansas" and "don't know our values." Davids would be the first openly lesbian congresswoman from Kansas and one of the first Native American women elected to Congress along with Deb Haaland, who is running for a solidly blue House seat in New Mexico. Race moves from Lean Republican to Toss-Up
KY-06: Just how far will the Democratic Party's enthusiasm edge carry it in 2018? Kentucky's 6th District, home to Lexington, is one race to watch for an answer. Democrat Amy McGrath, a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot, is challenging three-term GOP Rep. Andy Barr in a state Trump carried by 16 points. McGrath's candidacy -- fueled in part by sharply produced television ads highlighting her military background -- has turned this into a top Democratic target this cycle. Barr recently sought to compare his political experience to McGrath's military service,