Voices & Choices

Will Republican retirements put the House in play?

Will Republican retirements put the House in play?

With the 2017 elections behind us, the season of speculation about the 2018 midterms has entered full force. FairVote’s own analysis shows that the Republican Party enters 2018 with a substantial advantage in any year where the national preference is closely divided, and FairVote has said as much consistently, since the days immediately following the 2016 election, when we wrote:

“[A] majority of the House (218 seats) are now held by Republicans who won by at least 12.7 percent. This year appears to be a somewhat Democratic year overall, and yet the median congressional district was won by a relatively huge margin by a Republican. That reinforces the plain fact that Democrats will have an extremely difficult time winning the House of Representatives for the foreseeable future.”

As we received more complete 2016 election returns in the days after the election, we determined that 2016 was actually a 50.5 percent Republican year overall. However, that has not changed the point about the landscape favoring Republicans. We continue to show that Democrats could not earn a single seat majority in the House without a truly historic partisan wave in their favor.

In the wake of the 2017 elections, some believe that to be in reach. A forthcoming blog will analyze just how big of a Democratic wave occurred in 2017 and what that might mean for 2018. However, the other source of evidence for possible change are the large number of Republican retirements, which chip away at their incumbency advantage.

 In our biennial project, Monopoly Politics, we make high confidence partisan projections for the upcoming congressional elections using only two pieces of data: the district partisanship (measured by how well each major party presidential candidate performed in the district compared to how they performed in the nation as a whole) and a measure of the candidate’s prior performance in elections called “performance over average candidate,” or “POAC.” When a candidate announces that they will not seek re-election, we adjust our projection for that seat by simply relying on district’s partisanship alone, ignoring any bonus the candidate might get from their own incumbency. Often the seat is determined to be still safe for the incumbent party, but not always.

In fact, our Monopoly Politics projections have changed due to recent retirements. Prior to this week, we said Republicans held 208 seats that were safe enough to warrant a high confidence projection in their favor. With the retirements of Frank LoBiondo in New Jersey and Ted Poe in Texas, however, we now only call 206 seats safe for Republicans.

Altogether, there are 36 open seats heading into 2018 (not including Tim Murphy’s seat, which is a safe Republican district that will be filled by special election next Spring). Of those, 25 were held by Republicans and 11 by Democrats. We can already project 19 for Republicans and 9 for Democrats. That means six are places where Democrats have an opportunity to pick up a seat, and two are places where Republicans have an opportunity to pick up a seat. Most of these seats were already in swing: there are only three districts total that we previously projected (all for Republicans), but which are now not projected. See the table below for summary numbers, and our projections for all 435 seats in our interactive Monopoly Politics spreadsheet.



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For now, at least, Republican retirements are not creating much in the way of significant opportunities for Democrats to win a majority of House seats. Our projections still show that Democrats would need more than 55% national two-party support to win a single seat majority - that would be a wave year like none seen in decades.

However, if these retirements prove to be merely the first part of a larger pattern, or if incumbency does not provide the kind of boost it historically as (as seems to have been the case in Virginia this year), then it may make a difference. Going forward, we will report on each new open seat and what it means for our 2018 projections. Here are all of the open seats and what kinds of opportunities they create for change in the overall partisan makeup of the House of Representatives (this table will be updated as new retirements are announced):


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