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Everything you need to know about the 2020 US election
03:30 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

The fight for the House isn’t so much about who will control the chamber; it’s about how many seats Democrats will pick up and whether they can expand their majority.

With the national environment looking encouraging for Democrats, they have more offensive opportunities in GOP-held suburban seats. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s lead over President Donald Trump has expanded to 57% to 41% among likely voters in CNN’s latest poll, taken after the first debate and largely after news of the President’s coronavirus diagnosis was made public. That survey is just a snapshot in time ahead of the November 3 election, but with more than 3 million general election ballots having already been cast, the current environment matters.

The race is closer in some individual battleground states, but Biden’s strength nationally may be having a trickle-down effect in House districts where the former vice president is expected to do better against Trump than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. A Supreme Court fight doesn’t directly impact the House in the same way as it does the Senate, which has the power to confirm nominees. But Democrats are seeing the court vacancy further energize voters who may have been moving in their direction in well-educated districts. Health care was a winning message for Democrats in 2018, helping them pick up a net gain of 40 seats during the midterms, and it was already a dominant message this year, too. But with the court expected to hear a challenge to the Affordable Care Act the week after the election, it’s even more omnipresent now.

Interactive: 2020 House ratings

The top two districts most likely to flip partisan control remain the same as they were in early September. Texas’ 23 District and Georgia’s 7th District are both open seats currently held by Republicans. Besides two North Carolina districts that became more favorable to Democrats in court-mandated redistricting and that aren’t included on this list, these are the only two seats rated in the opposite party’s favor by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, a CNN contributor.

This is the time of the election cycle when outside groups triage their advertising by moving money around, which can reveal a lot about the battleground. A reservation in a particular district is often reduced or canceled for one of two reasons: the party’s candidate is doing so well that they don’t need the help as much as someone else, or, conversely, it’s a lost cause. The House Democrats’ campaign arm has cut advertising in Maine’s 2nd District, for example, because freshman Rep. Jared Golden continues to look strong against his Republican challenger. That’s significant because it’s one of the districts Trump won by a large margin in 2016 and where his campaign was hoping to pick off an extra electoral vote.

The 30 districts held by Democrats that Trump won in 2016 should be top GOP targets this year – and four of them make this list. Inside Elections recently moved another, Wisconsin’s 3rd District, in Republicans’ favor. But in many Trump districts that Democrats flipped two years ago, freshmen have consistently had healthy cash advantages over their GOP opponents or failed to even attract competitive challengers. One significant change from last month’s ranking is that South Carolina’s 1st District, which Democrat Joe Cunningham flipped in 2018, has dropped off and is now safer for Democrats.

Several GOP-held districts are now on this list of districts most likely to flip partisan control for the first time, including ones in Nebraska, Indiana and Ohio, because suburban elements make them competitive for Democrats. Another seat with a well-educated electorate in Arizona doesn’t quite make the cut but has also gotten more competitive because of similar suburban elements and because the incumbent, Rep. David Schweikert, faces ethics issues. Some other districts in traditionally more conservative areas, like Missouri’s 2nd District or Michigan’s 3rd District, have also gotten more competitive for Democrats, with Inside Elections moving them to Tilt Republican and Toss-Up, respectively. A newly-held Republican district in California that flipped parties earlier this year in a special election is still worth keeping a close eye on.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Leadership Fund – the super PAC tied to House GOP leadership – has made reservations in longtime red districts in places like Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Alaska, either to shore up support in suburban areas or boost GOP candidates who have struggled to raise money.

But while Republicans admit the suburbs are a real problem for the party generally, there’s a presidential-year argument for why Republicans may still have a shot in some traditionally conservative suburban districts: Unlike in 2018, voters can vote against Trump on the ballot instead of taking their anger against him out on down-ballot Republicans.

There are potential bright spots for Republicans in two Democrat-held seats that Clinton won in 2016 – Florida’s 26th District and California’s 21st District – which are now both Toss-up contests. But a Biden win there would be hard for down-ballot Republicans, even a former congressman in California and high-profile mayor in Florida, to overcome.

In more rural or White working class areas, Republicans are feeling good about their voters coming home to them, either because of what they say is the efficacy of their law-and-order message or simply because of an anticipated post-Labor Day tightening in some races as more voters tune in and retreat to their partisan corners. They see their law-and-order message resonating in New York Trump-friendly districts, especially on Long Island. But while still very competitive, the 11th District doesn’t yet crack the top 10 with Democratic Rep. Max Rose, an Army veteran, using his financial advantage to deflect some of those attacks and Biden doing better with White, working class voters than Clinton did. One of those heavily rural districts, however – Minnesota’s 7th District – now makes the list.

Here are the districts most likely to flip:

1. Texas’ 23rd District

Inside Elections rating: Lean Democratic

This open seat is one of the few remaining seats Clinton won in 2016 that is still represented by a Republican. But with GOP Rep. Will Hurd retiring this year, and the winner of the GOP primary runoff getting a late start, Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, who lost narrowly in 2018, has an advantage. Fundraising reports for the third quarter, which are due soon, could give some clues as to whether Republican Tony Gonzales has been able to pick up momentum, but Jones is expected to benefit from presidential-year turnout in this border-district.

2. Georgia’s 7th District

Inside Elections rating: Tilt Democratic

Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux came about 400 votes shy of winning this district in 2018, when GOP Rep. Rob Woodall prevailed in a recount. Woodall soon announced his retirement, while Bourdeaux decided to give it another shot. Republicans are worried about changing demographics in the Atlanta suburbs and how that will affect their chances up and down the ballot here. But when it comes to this district, Republicans also argue that Woodall didn’t do much to campaign in 2018, so GOP nominee Richard McCormick might give them a better shot of holding it. But Democrats are eagerly trying to tie McCormick to Trump, especially on the coronavirus, in a rapidly diversifying and suburban area that hasn’t taken well to the President.

3. New Jersey’s 2nd District

Inside Elections rating: Toss-up

Freshman Rep. Jeff Van Drew delighted Republicans when, as a Democrat, he announced he’d vote against both articles of impeachment against the President and then promptly switched parties. But now voters in his south Jersey district, which voted for Trump by about 5 points in 2016, don’t seem too pleased. Democrat Amy Kennedy (the wife of former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy) led Van Drew 49% to 44% among registered voters in a Monmouth University poll released Monday, with the pollster noting that lead is within the margin of error. Nearly half of voters were bothered by Van Drew’s party switch, according to the survey. Still, Republicans contend that this working class district isn’t the kind of place moving in Democrats’ direction – let alone one that is ready to elect a Kennedy.

4. New Mexico’s 2nd District

Inside Elections rating: Tilt Democratic

Democratic Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, who won by less than 2 points in 2018, is in a rematch against Republican Yvette Herrell in a district Trump carried by about 10 points in 2016. It’s a rural district that doesn’t match the profile of many of the other districts Democrats flipped in 2018. And now that Torres Small has a voting record, Republicans are trying to tie her to Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Washington. The incumbent, who’s never shied away from firing a gun in her ads, is trying to inoculate herself from those attacks, claiming in one spot that she pushed her party to support Trump’s trade deal, with another ad featuring a Republican doctor who says, “This year, I’m voting for the person, not the party.”

5. Oklahoma’s 5th District

Inside Elections rating: Toss-up

Both sides agree this district – which shocked onlookers when Democrats flipped it in 2018 – is a tight race. But whereas many Republicans still believe it’s a fundamentally red, Trump district (he carried it by more than 13 points in 2016), Democrats see the Oklahoma City suburbs trending their way and believe Biden will do well here, if not win, allowing freshman Democratic Rep. Kendra Horn to hold on. Republican Stephanie Bice started the race at a big financial disadvantage after winning a late August primary runoff.

6. Nebraska’s 2nd District

Inside Elections rating: Toss-up

Republicans flipped this district in 2016, when Trump carried it narrowly. But this Omaha-area seat looks like Biden country now, with the former vice president leading Trump 48-41% among likely voters in a New York Times/Siena College poll from late September. That could make it hard for GOP Rep. Don Bacon, who was ahead 45-43% in the same poll, in a rematch against 2018 challenger Kara Eastman. Republicans are working hard to paint Eastman as a radical whose support for Medicare for All puts her to the left of Biden, but he endorsed her in September.

7. Utah’s 4th District

Inside Elections rating: Tilt Democratic

This is another Trump district that Democrats flipped in 2018. Burgess Owens, a former NFL player and Fox News commentator, is giving freshman Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams a competitive race. But Trump has never done as well in Utah as in other red states, which Democrats are hoping will limit the coattails Owens is able to ride. McAdams, the former mayor of Salt Lake County, had a profile here even before coming to Congress.

8. Indiana’s 5th District

Inside Elections rating: Toss-up

This district wasn’t even on the map in 2018. But now that GOP Rep. Susan Brooks is retiring and the suburbs north of Indianapolis are moving in Democrats’ direction, it’s become a real race. Trump carried the 5th District by nearly 12 points in 2016, but well-educated voters outside the state capitol aren’t likely to give him that kind of margin this year, which is making the seat more competitive for Democrat Christina Hale. She’s facing the Club for Growth-backed Victoria Spartz, who emerged from the GOP primary without the necessary money for a top House race. She’s getting outside help, but that may not be enough to save this open seat for Republicans with the presidential winds shifting against them here.

9. Minnesota’s 7th District

Inside Elections rating: Tilt Democratic

There’s no Democratic incumbent who represents a district Trump carried by a bigger margin than 15-term Rep. Collin Peterson. The House Agriculture Chairman who opposes abortion rights and voted against impeachment is widely regarded as the last Democrat who can defend this seat. But he may not be able to this year, even if Trump doesn’t carry it by as big a margin as the 31 points he did four years ago. Peterson narrowly held on against an underfunded GOP challenger the past two cycles. Former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach hasn’t proven to be a fundraiser powerhouse, but with national party backing and Trump still doing well here, she may not have to be to take out Peterson.

10. Ohio’s 1st District

Inside Elections rating: Toss-up

GOP Rep. Steve Chabot prevailed by about 4 points against a flawed challenger in 2018. But this time, it’s Chabot who’s being dogged by campaign finance issues that Democrats are attacking him on. Trump won here by single digits, but Biden’s competitiveness in the Buckeye State could help Democrat Kate Schroder – who’s outraising Chabot and leaning into a health care message – in this increasingly suburban district. First elected in 1994, Chabot lost this district in 2008 only to win it back two years later in a better Republican year, so there’s precedent for the national environment sweeping him out of office.