(Left to right) Ruben Kihuen, Democratic candidate for Nevada's 4th Congressional district, Stephanie Murphy, Democratic candidate for Florida's 7th congressional district, and LuAnn Bennett, Democratic House candidate in Virginia's 10th district.; Credit: /Bill Clark, Thomas McKinless, Al Drago/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images
Jessica Taylor | NPR Even if Hillary Clinton does win the White House on Tuesday, the tightening of the presidential race in the final week has been the most detrimental to Democrats' downballot hopes.
In mid-October, Clinton's campaign looked like it would easily cruise to a win. Then, rising ObamaCare premiums hit along with possible new emails that surfaced related to her private server. Subsequently, polls across the board began to show closer races. Even though FBI Director James Comey said Sunday afternoon that the FBI's original decision not to recommend charges against Clinton stands, any momentum Democrats hoped to get in House races from a big Clinton victory has now likely dissipated. And a fairly on-message, disciplined Trump in the final days has helped Republicans as well.
In itsinitial rankings of the top 40 competitive congressional districts two weeks ago, NPR wrote that a good night for Democrats would be flipping 20 districts. However, that still left them shy of the 30 seats they need to win back the House majority. Now, 12 to 15 seats would be a very good night, back to pretty much where it was when the cycle started. Democrats, though, hope the latest news in the FBI saga — again clearing Clinton — could boost them on Election Day. But even fewer Democratic gains are possible too.
Democrats' biggest problems remain that there simply aren't enough districts ripe for them to flip, and likely won't be until the next round of redistricting before the 2022 elections. And in some of the places where they have to pick up seats — like Upstate New York, Iowa, and more blue-collar areas of Michigan and Wisconsin — Trump remains relatively popular and isn't necessarily the drag on GOP candidates he is elsewhere in the country.
Trump does complicate GOP hopes in districts with heavy Hispanic populations in places like Florida, Texas and California. And several longtime Republican incumbents have simple been caught asleep at the wheel, not taking their races — and the impact of Trump in their district — seriously until too late.
But Republicans' "check and balance" argument also seems to be resonating with voters. The GOP hopes that even if Clinton wins, voters who may not like either candidate will split their tickets and make sure there is a check on a possible Clinton administration.
For a rundown of the particulars in many of these races, the summaries NPR did two weeks ago remain relatively unchanged. Below is a guide for which races to watch on Election Night, with pick-up targets for each party re-ranked in likelihood of which districts are most probable to flip.
Remember, Democrats will likely already net a total of at least two districts due to mid-decade court-ordered redistricting — two, possibly three, in Florida and one in Virginia. Republicans will also net one district in Florida.
Here are some of the big themes in congressional races and types of districts to keep an eye on Tuesday night:
1. GOP veterans in trouble
Some of the Republican incumbents most likely to lose may have themselves mostly to blame. Florida Rep. John Mica, for example, didn't take his redrawn seat with plenty of new territory into account, coupled with possible Trump backlash in a district with a growing Hispanic population. But he also didn't have the fundamental basics of a campaign either, and admitted just two weeks ago that he doesn't have a campaign manager or a full-time communications director. National Republicans have been forced to spend heavily to try and save the former House Transportation Committee chairman, but even that may not be enough. And even though his opponent Stephanie Murphy, a college professor and national security consultant, got a late start in the race, she's proven to be a very formidable candidate.
Former House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa also didn't look like he was taking his race seriously until very late either. The California Republican is the wealthiest member of Congress and could have spent unlimited amounts to save himself early on, but now he finds himself in a dogfight against retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate. His district is a volatile one anyway — Obama narrowly won it in 2008 but Mitt Romney carried it by almost 7 points — and its stretch from parts of Orange County to northern San Diego is certainly not Trump country. Issa's even been pointing out areas where he's agreed with Obama, which the president said was the "definition of chutzpah" from the dogged former chief House investigator who went after his administration.
New Jersey Republican Scott Garrett also finds himself in hot water because of comments he reportedly made last cycle disparaging the National Republican Congressional Committee for supporting gay candidates. That's hurt his ability to fundraise from his usual top financial firms. Meanwhile, his Democratic opponent, former Microsoft executive Josh Gottheimer, has outraised him and allowed him to point to Garrett's very conservative record that many voters weren't aware of. Democrats like their chances a lot here, while Republicans don't.
And then there's New Hampshire Rep. Frank Guinta, who's facing off against former Democratic Rep. Carol Shea Porter for the fourth time. They've traded this district back and forth since 2010, and now last year Guinta found himself embroiled in a campaign finance scandal. He narrowly won his primary, and Republicans really wish he hadn't. He was still doing surprisingly well at one point, but probably won't hang on.
2. Hispanic district headaches for Republicans
Some of Republicans' strongest incumbents come from districts with rising Latino populations, which makes this a nightmare year for them to try and overcome the top of the ticket. Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo is a rising GOP star, and in a normal year would again probably beat former Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, who has plenty of damaging baggage. Curbelo isn't supporting Trump, but it still might not be enough for him in his Miami district.
The same is true for Texas Rep. Will Hurd, one of just two African-American Republicans in the House. Hurd has also denounced Trump. The former CIA operative represents an expansive district, that reaches from El Paso to San Antonio along over 800 miles of the Mexican border. Former Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego is hoping Hispanic voters who didn't show up two years ago will help him win this seat back.
Several California seats are giving Republicans headaches, too. Rep. Jeff Denham wasn't a top worry earlier in the year, especially given that he beat his Democratic challenger Michael Eggman by 10 points just two years ago. But now their rematch in this 40 percent Hispanic district is much tighter than anyone thought it would be. However, this district also doesn't have a large share of college-educated voters either, so Republicans hope Trump won't be enough of a drag to hurt Denham. Still, there's no race at the top of the ticket in California to motivate GOP voters who may not like Trump to turn out anyway.
And Rep. David Valadao represents a Central Valley district that's over 70 percent Hispanic, which should make him ripe for a loss. The strong incumbent looked to be safe for a long time, especially since he was running against a weak challenger in Emilio Huerta, son of famed labor leader Dolores Huerta, who barely survived the primary and has also barely has any money. The Democratic superPAC House Majority PAC went in here late, hoping it was becoming more competitive, but it's still a long shot. It also illustrates that some of these contests could be much more competitive for Democrats with better candidates in some districts.
But Nevada could be the real place that gives Democrats at least one, maybe two, prime pick-ups, especially with encouraging turnout numbers for Democrats and Latinos on the final day of early voting. Veteran Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston analyzed the early numbers and predicted that freshman Rep. Cresent Hardy is likely toast. The open seat of GOP Rep. Joe Heck, who's running for Senate, may be as well, even though that one's more favorable for Republicans.
3. The election night bellwethers
Look at these districts to see just how big Democratic pickups will be on Tuesday night. NPR profiled the race in Virginia's 10th District, maybe one of the best bellwethers in the country to see whether Democrats' efforts to tie Republican incumbents to Trump will be effective and if real estate developer LuAnn Bennet can win this suburban Northern Virginia district.
The Philadelphia suburbs have also been challenging for Trump and for GOP Sen. Pat Toomey. Both parties think the 8th District open seat race between Brian Fitzpatrick, who's running to succeed his retiring brother Mike, and Democratic state Rep. Steve Santarsiero, could be one of the closest in the country on Election Night. Both these Virgina and Pennsylvania seats are the types of ones that Democrats can't afford to lose if they want to make significant gains.
Demographics and partisan breakdown alone show that GOP Rep. Mike Coffman, representing Aurora and the Denver suburbs, should be in trouble in Colorado, should be in trouble. But the four-term congressman worked to separate himself early on from Trump, and this one is harder for Democrats and challenger Morgan Carroll because of his strengths. Still, if Democrats flip this one, it's a good sign other races around the country may follow too.
4. Trump coattails?
One of the biggest problems for Democrats is that in some of the seats they need to win to even try and get to 30 seats, Trump isn't really that toxic. Take freshman Rep. Rod Blum — Obama won his Northeastern Iowa district by 14 points four years ago, and he's a member of the very conservative Freedom Caucus to boot. But the race is still very much in play in a place Democrats thought would be a relatively easy pickup. Trump is doing very well in the Hawkeye State and will likely win it. This is a heavily white district where less than a quarter of people have college degrees. Priorities USA, the main superPAC backing Clinton, made their only foray into congressional races here, and the fact they're spending in what should be a Democratic district shows it's far from a done deal.
On paper, New York districts should be ripe for Democratic pickups, too. There are five districts there held by Republicans that Obama carried in 2012, but Democrats would be lucky to even win one of them. Polls have shown freshman Republicans Lee Zeldin (Long Island) and John Katko (Syracuse) holding on. And late polls show Republican John Faso leading Democrat Zephyr Teachout in an open GOP-held seat in the Hudson Valley, too. Democrats' best chance for a pickup is in the open Utica-based 22nd District, and even then a victory would be largely because of a three-way race.
Democratic targets in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota are also much harder than they expected, because these are blue-collar, largely white districts where trade, one of the central issues Trump has seized on, is resonating and helping GOP candidates.
5. Wave districts to watch
Democrats continue to hope that some other suburban GOP-held districts could go their way if Trump collapses there, though at this juncture that looks increasingly unlikely. Keep an eye on Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen in the Twin Cities suburbs. Recent polls showed Clinton leading comfortably there, but so was Paulsen. Democrats have hoped to flip this one for some time.
Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton's massive western Colorado district is another GOP seat Democrats think could go their way if Clinton does incredibly well in the state, but that's again another longshot.
Rep. Kevin Yoder's Kansas City district is another one to keep an eye on. Democrats have hammered him on unpopular education cuts and tied him to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, whose approval ratings have cratered. Romney carried this district pretty comfortably, but John McCain only barely carried it in 2008. There are growing pockets of Latino populations here too.
6. Republican offensive opportunities
The GOP is almost entirely playing offense this year, which makes sense because they largely maxed out their conference with 247 seats after the 2014 midterms, hitting their largest post-World War II majority ever.
But there are a few Democratic-held seats that Republicans could flip as well on Tuesday. Atop that list is the northern Palm Beach County district being vacated by Rep. Patrick Murphy, who's running for Senate. This one performs better for the GOP in presidential years anyway, and Republicans have a great candidate in Army veteran Brian Mast, who lost both of his legs in Afghanistan and was awarded the Purple Heart. Meanwhile, Democratic nominee Randy Perkins, who owns an environmental clean-up company, has proven to be a very volatile and polarizing candidate, and most Democrats concede they'll probably lose this seat.
There are no other completely clear-cut wins, but some races are still in play. Nebraska Blue Dog Rep. Brad Ashford's own polling shows he's still winning this district, but Republicans have hope that retired Air Force Brigadier Gen. Don Bacon could pull the upset.
Clinton isn't popular in Minnesota's Iron Range, which makes Republicans optimistic about Republican Stewart Mills's chances in his rematch with Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan after he lost by just over 3,700 votes in 2014. Trump can certainly help Mills here, but Nolan survived in a good GOP year and remains relatively popular.
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