Republicans need to pick up at least five seats to take back the House in the midterm elections, and three structural advantages have made them favorites all along: redistricting, Democratic retirements and candidate recruitment.
But as the abortion issue and a renewed focus on former President Donald Trump have awakened and energized Democratic voters, the fight for the House has become increasingly competitive.
Those structural factors once looked like a small component of potential big gains for the GOP in a “red wave” scenario. Now, they look like a valuable insurance policy for Republicans in a fluid political environment, without which House control might be a toss-up.
Republicans’ structural edge
The post-2020 census redistricting process was akin to asymmetrical warfare: Republicans held the power to gerrymander far more states than Democrats.
Thanks to reforms passed by voters, many heavily blue states employed bipartisan redistricting commissions that produced neutral or only marginally Democratic-leaning political maps — including in California, Colorado, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington. And state courts in Maryland and New York struck down Democratic legislatures’ attempted gerrymanders.
By contrast, Republicans were able to manipulate congressional maps in their favor in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas, among others, and the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court blocked lower court orders to draw new Black majority districts in Alabama and Louisiana.
In Florida alone, Gov. Ron DeSantis overpowered his own Legislature to pass a map that adds an additional four GOP seats.
Nationally, Republicans are likely to net three to four House seats from new maps alone — most of the five seats they need to regain the majority.
Open seats also play into Republicans’ advantage. There are 36 House Democrats not running for re-election, mostly because many opted to retire rather than risk serving in the wilderness of the minority.
Of those, 14 seats are vulnerable to GOP takeover — including seats left open by popular moderates such as Reps. Cheri Bustos (Illinois’ 17th District), Conor Lamb (Pennsylvania’s 17th District) and Ron Kind (Wisconsin’s 3rd District).
By contrast, there are 28 House Republicans not seeking re-election, but only six of those seats are vulnerable to takeover by Democrats.
Finally, unlike in the Senate, House Republicans mostly succeeded in recruiting strong candidates for swing seats who have appealing personal stories and don’t look or sound like Donald Trump.
Of the GOP nominees running in the 47 most vulnerable Democratic districts, 45% are military veterans, 34% are women, 23% are nonwhite — and 70% fall into at least one of those categories.
These include Jennifer-Ruth Green, a Black airline pilot who served as a mission commander for counterintelligence activities with the U.S. Air Force in Iraq and is challenging Democratic Rep. Frank Mrvan in northwest Indiana. And there’s state Sen. Jen Kiggans, a nurse practitioner and former Navy pilot challenging Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria in Virginia Beach.
In 2020, the same recruitment strategy spearheaded by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy proved effective: All 16 Republicans who flipped Democratic seats that year are women and/or minorities.
However, there are also exceptions: GOP primaries in roughly seven districts won by Joe Biden produced “MAGA” true-believers who could prove cultural mismatches for their areas: Kelly Cooper (Arizona’s 4th District), John Gibbs (Michigan’s 3rd District), Sam Peters (Nevada’s 4th District), Bob Burns (New Hampshire’s 2nd District), Sandy Smith (North Carolina’s 1st District), Bo Hines (North Carolina’s 13th District) and Yesli Vega (Virginia’s 7th District) could all weaken GOP prospects of flipping otherwise winnable seats.
The six types of races that will decide the House
At a time when both parties’ bases are energized and independent voters are torn between Democrats’ warnings on abortion and Republicans’ overtures on inflation, crime and immigration, the House is far from a foregone conclusion.
To wrest back the majority, Republicans will need to win at least nine districts Biden carried in 2020 — including some held by their own vulnerable incumbents.
And it’s still possible Democrats could buck the historical trend of large losses for the president’s party in the midterm elections.
The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter currently rates 212 races as at least leaning toward Republicans, 192 races as at least leaning toward Democrats and 31 toss-ups.
In other words, the House’s fate will come down to a very narrow cross-section of the country. Here’s a breakdown of the six types of competitive races to watch:
In 2018, Democrats rode an anti-Trump revolt in highly college-educated suburbs to the House majority. In 2022, many of these same Democrats — in districts ranging from suburbs of Minneapolis, Kansas City and Seattle to Des Moines — are vulnerable.
Some, including Reps. Sharice Davids (Kansas’ 3rd District) and Tom Malinowski (New Jersey’s 7th District), saw their seats become less friendly after redistricting.
All are hoping the overturning of Roe v. Wade awakens the same kind of activism among suburban women that powered their victories four years ago.
Ranging from Gary, Indiana; Flint, Michigan; Toledo, Ohio; and Scranton, Pennsylvania to northern Maine, these strongholds of organized labor and heavy manufacturing have steadily moved away from their Democratic roots.
All of the Democratic incumbents below ran significantly ahead of Biden in 2020, but their ability to defy gravity will be more severely tested amid high inflation and with the president’s approval in the low- to mid-40s.
Hispanic majority battlegrounds
Trump performed much better with Latino voters in 2020 than he did in 2016 by painting Democrats as the party of socialism and “defunding the police.”
Republicans hope to carry that momentum forward in 2020, and there are five up-for-grabs House races in Hispanic majority districts.
Two are in the Central Valley of California — where Democrat Rudy Salas (California’s 22nd District) is vying to become the first Mexican American elected to the House from the region, and three more are in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
MAGA primary takeovers
In a handful of races, Republicans have nominated hardcore pro-Trump candidates who could jeopardize their ability to win swing seats.
In Alaska, former Gov. Sarah Palin lost an August special election to Democrat Mary Peltola and could lose a rematch for the full term in November.
In Michigan, Trump-endorsed former Housing and Urban Development official John Gibbs’ defeat of pro-impeachment Rep. Peter Meijer gives Democratic immigration attorney Hillary Scholten an excellent chance to pick up a seat in the Grand Rapids area.
Vulnerable GOP incumbents
Although Democrats are playing most of the defense this cycle, Republicans must defend a handful of their own at-risk incumbents.
Reps. David Schweikert (Arizona’s 1st District), Mike Garcia (California’s 27th District), Yvette Herrell (New Mexico’s 2nd District) and Steve Chabot (Ohio’s 1st District) all wound up with bluer seats after redistricting.
Omaha Rep. Don Bacon (Nebraska’s 2nd District) also faces a much tough Democratic challenger this November after twice narrowly beating a weak progressive activist in 2018 and 2020.
For Democrats, picking up a handful of GOP seats would be essential to keeping the majority.
Hotly contested open seats
Redistricting and retirements have spawned 21 competitive races with no incumbent on the ballot.
Republicans hope to nab House seats in western Rhode Island, where popular Democratic Rep. Jim Langevin is retiring, and suburban Portland, Oregon, where moderate Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader lost his primary to a progressive activist.
Democrats are vying to pick up a seat in Syracuse, New York, where pro-impeachment GOP Rep. John Katko is retiring, as well as in Colorado’s brand new 8th Congressional District — a result of the 2020 census.