Last summer, we sat down with top Republican and Democratic operatives who know every corner of the House battlefield to get their take on the districts that would tell a bigger story about the fight for the House — and about how America is changing in the Donald Trump era.
Where should we look to determine whether moderate suburbanites are really abandoning Trump’s Republican Party? How do we gauge whether Democrats who voted for Trump are staying in the GOP fold? Which districts are unlikely to be in play — unless a Democratic wave is coming?
The Ground Game project was born, and we’ve spent more than a year obsessing over the ups and downs, the fundraising hauls and the poll numbers, in the districts we identified (read our coverage here).
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In the final hours before polls close, we know that we’re in an uncertain environment — and we know better than to make predictions! But we have learned a lot from reporting extensively from these six districts at a pivotal moment in our country’s history.
Here’s where things stand.
Democrat Katie Porter vs Republican Mimi Walters
For much of the year, many Republicans were still skeptical that this affluent, suburban Orange County seat would really break away from the party. After all, incumbent GOP Rep. Mimi Walters won re-election easily in 2016 despite President Donald Trump’s unpopularity. And Orange County still sat behind the so-called “Orange Curtain,” where the GOP had dominated politics since World War II.
Many Republicans don’t think that way anymore.
Few House races this year have undergone a more dramatic shift in perception than this one: Whereas Democrats and Republicans alike once thought it would take a true blue wave for the seat to switch parties, now both think that Walters could lose even if the GOP keeps its majority.
That’s life in 2018 for Republican incumbents who represent well-to-do suburbs, whose voters revile Trump and have turned their animus toward the GOP lawmakers they think enable him.
Democratic nominee Katie Porter’s brand of liberal economic policy might yet give Walters a chance to win, but for now, polls show her trailing.
Democrat Josh Harder vs Republican Jeff Denham
Jeff Denham’s agrarian, Central Valley district in California voted for Barack Obama in 2012, and the GOP incumbent still won. Four years later, it voted for Hillary Clinton, and Denhan won again.
But in wave elections, even the battle-tested incumbents can lose.
Denham’s matchup against Democratic nominee Josh Harder is a great test of several important, broad factors that will shape the midterm elections. It will test whether the Latino vote will truly turn out, and if it does, if it will vote big for Democrats. It will also test how much it matters when Democratic nominees raise incredible sums of cash.
But it will mostly test whether an incumbent like Denham, who has done almost everything he can as a Republican to carve out an independent reputation, can buck the national political environment in the Age of Trump.
Both parties see this as a very close race.
Democrat Matt Cartwright vs Republican John Chrin
In a better environment, this was the sort of district Republicans thought they could make a run at. Trump won it by 10 points in 2016, and the Democratic incumbent, Rep. Matt Cartwright, carried some liberal baggage. The Republican, John Chrin, was wealthy enough to plow some of his own cash into the race.
But it hasn’t been a better environment for the GOP.
The race in this working-class district in northeast Pennsylvania, one that includes the city of Scranton, has faded from the electoral map in recent weeks. Polls showed Cartwright up big, and the incumbent Democrat has attacked his GOP foe hard over his recent move to the district and his position on entitlement programs such as Social Security.
That said, even if it’s not an opportunity this year, look for the GOP to try again in 2020 — this time with Trump on the ballot.
Democrat Dan McCready vs. Republican Mark Harris
When we first started talking with top party officials about this project in the summer of 2017, no one expected districts like North Carolina’s Ninth to be competitive—unless a Democratic wave was coming.
The Ninth, which starts in moderate enclaves of south Charlotte and stretches east, backed Trump by nearly 12 percentage points in 2016 and it’s been a Republican stronghold at the House level for decades. Harris, a conservative and a former pastor, is running against McCready, a Marine veteran who has worked aggressively to distance himself from the national Democratic party. There are a lot of Democratic candidates in McCready’s mold, and this race is a great test of whether people are still voting largely on party lines, or if someone with a compelling biography can make typically partisan voters switch sides.
The latest New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll, from last week, shows virtually a dead heat.
We don’t know whether that means a wave is coming. What we do know is that traditionally red districts like the Ninth, from Kentucky’s Sixth to Utah’s Fourth, remain very much in play with hours until polls close.
Democrat Brendan Kelly vs. Republican Mike Bost
In 2016, 21 districts that had voted for Barack Obama flipped to Trump.
Democrats are well-positioned to win some of those voters back this time, in districts from New Jersey to Iowa.
But districts like Illinois-12, a Belleville-area southern Illinois district not far from St. Louis, Mo., illustrate the challenge in bringing all of those voters back to the Democratic fold at a time when the president is dominating the political environment. Kelly is considered a strong Democratic recruit, but Bost, the incumbent, is a charismatic Republican with deep family ties to the district, and Trump recently rallied with him.
The latest New York Times/Siena poll, from mid-October, had Bost up 48 percent to Kelly’s 39 percent, with 11 percent of voters undecided. The national environment for Democrats has improved since then, but if Republicans such as Bost do hold on, it will help to build the case that the Trump coalition — and the anti-Trump coalition — of 2016 were less an aberration than they were the beginnings of a political realignment.
Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell vs. Republican Carlos Curbelo
There are 23 districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 where Republican members of Congress also survived. The path to a Democratic majority starts in these seats, where voters have already proven that they are willing to pull the lever for Democrats, even if Republicans have held on in the past.
Indeed, in the homestretch of the campaign, many of those districts now look to be within Democratic reach, from the Third District of Kansas to the Sixth District of Colorado.
But Florida always manages to keep things interesting, and that’s the case in the Miami-to-the-Keys 26th district. It is the most Democratic district held by a Republican who is seeking reelection, and it still appeared to be in play for both sides in the homestretch of the race.
Curbelo’s opponent, Mucarsel-Powell, didn’t enter the race with the same name ID or defined personal brand that Curbelo enjoys, and even though the district is one Democrats should pick up based on the political dynamics of the area, as late as September she appeared to be behind in the polls.
Curbelo, meanwhile, has carved out a reputation as a more moderate Republican on issues such as immigration and climate change and counts some Democrats as supporters. He also hasn’t hesitated to rebuke Trump.
But Mucarsel-Powell, an immigrant from Ecuador, is running on a traditional Democratic platform that focuses heavily on health care, and she outraised Curbelo in the third quarter of the year. The latest New York Times poll shows her up one percentage point, which is a virtual tie within the margin of error, but also a sign that she has gained ground since September.
The outcome in this race will reveal the extent to which a carefully cultivated personal brand can withstand a rough political environment — and how much any moderate Republican can really distance him or herself from Trump.