If Democrats lose the House next week, it won’t necessarily be because their members of Congress lost their seats.
It will primarily be because they lost competitive races in open seats. That is: races in districts where there is no incumbent, and each party — not just the challenger — has to start from scratch.
Gerrymandering has whittled down the number of truly competitive seats this year to just 59 out of 435 total, according to the Cook Political Report’s latest ratings. And of those, 19 are either open seats or new seats formed by the most recent redistricting cycle. Remember: Republicans need to pick up only five seats to retake the House.
Cook also lists five open seats in its “likely Republican” category, which it does not consider competitive. Democrats previously held four of those five seats, which suggests that Republicans will start the election night vote-counting needing just one pickup elsewhere in order to win the majority.
Or take the next tier down: races Cook says “lean Republican.” Two of the three open seats in that category, in New York and Washington State, are held by Republicans. But the third, Arizona’s newly redrawn Sixth Congressional District, is held by Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat who is retiring. If Republicans pick off that seat, that will make five.
That’s a steep deficit to overcome. In 2020, in a year when Democrats took the presidency and won back the Senate thanks to a pair of Georgia races that went their way, nearly every competitive House race broke toward Republicans. And judging from the flurry of advertising spending over the last week or so, Democrats are playing defense on open seats further down in Cook’s ratings — even in blue bastions like Rhode Island.
That daunting picture has left Democrats scrounging for a few open, Republican-held seats as pickup opportunities.
My colleague Grace Ashford wrote about one in New York State, the Syracuse-area seat held by Representative John Katko, who is retiring.
Another is the North Carolina seat just south of Raleigh-Durham, where Wiley Nickel, a criminal defense lawyer and state legislator, is facing Bo Hines, a 27-year-old former high school quarterback I wrote about in May.
In Illinois, because of an aggressive redistricting push, there’s a chance Democrats could pick up the seat held by Representative Rodney Davis, who lost a Republican primary for a different seat.
Democrats also think they have a slight chance of taking Washington’s Third Congressional District, where Joe Kent, a far-right former Green Beret, defeated Representative Jamie Herrera Beutler in a heated three-way primary. His Democratic opponent, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, got the most votes in that matchup — but Kent needs to consolidate only some of the more moderate Republicans who backed Herrera Beutler in order to win.
Elsewhere, Democrats are hoping to knock off a few Republican incumbents: David Valadao in California, Steve Chabot in Ohio, Don Bacon in Nebraska and Yvette Harrell in New Mexico. And in Texas, they have a good shot at picking up a seat in the Rio Grande Valley that Republicans won in a special election a few months ago.
But as my colleague Shane Goldmacher wrote last week, the battle for control of the House is overwhelmingly being conducted on Democratic-held turf. And open seats are a major reason.
The trouble with open seats
Why are open seats so hard to defend?
There are a few reasons. One is that incumbents already have name recognition in their districts. They have their own brands. And for all the complaints voters might have about Congress in general, they tend to like their own lawmakers.
Incumbents also find it easier to raise money, because they can tap into their networks. They already have a campaign apparatus and a trusted staff ready to go. And they usually don’t have to worry about swatting away a primary challenger, whereas open seats often set off a primary free-for-all.
The State of the 2022 Midterm Elections
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“Candidates in open seats don’t walk in with any definition,” said Jesse Ferguson, a longtime Democratic strategist, “which makes them vulnerable to being defined by their opponents.”
All of that means that the national political environment can be decisive in open races. There are fewer true swing voters than ever. But this dwindling number of swing voters, who pay less attention to politics and don’t have the fixed ideologies that hard-core partisans do, usually pull the lever based on the economic conditions of the moment. And we all know how voters feel about the economy right now.
Because they’re new to voters, the contenders for open seats function more like generic Democrats or Republicans. You might have heard of Marjorie Taylor Greene or Marcy Kaptur, but what about Christopher Deluzio or Mike Erickson? You’re probably more likely to pay attention to the party label next to the names of the latter two.
The ads in these races tend to be pretty generic, too, even when the candidates are not.
Deluzio is a lawyer and cybersecurity expert who was deployed to Iraq while he was a Navy officer — the kind of profile that candidate recruiters love in places like Western Pennsylvania.
He’s running for the suburban Pittsburgh seat vacated by Representative Conor Lamb, but on themes similar to those of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Pennsylvania. He is campaigning against what he has called “a system that is rigged against working families, from lousy trade deals and far-flung supply chains, to union-busting corporations and outsourcers making record profits being protected in Washington.”
One of the Republican ads attacking Deluzio could be cut and pasted from anywhere. But it seizes on comments that Deluzio, who was a delegate for Senator Bernie Sanders at the 2020 Democratic convention, made about how he was “taking my cues” from Sanders and from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to push President Biden on progressive priorities.
“What’s scarier, though, is what his extreme views would mean for us: skyrocketing prices on food and gas, higher taxes, defunding our police,” the narrator says in the ad.
Democrats have fired back with ads depicting his opponent, Jeremy Shaffer, as doing the bidding of China — as they have done to their Republican opponents in heavily blue-collar districts and states across the country.
Shaffer, who has a doctoral degree in engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, founded a company that makes software to inspect bridges and other transportation infrastructure. Democrats have tried to turn Shaffer’s business into a vulnerability, seizing on the fact that his company had overseas customers. It’s not subtle.
“Maybe Jeremy Shaffer should be running for Congress in Peking,” a silver-mustachioed chap in a hard hat says in one ad from House Majority PAC.
Trying to overcome gravity
Where Democrats think they have a shot at defending open seats, it’s usually because the underlying characteristics of the district are tilted in their favor, or because their candidates are already relatively well known.
Emilia Sykes, for instance, is the Democratic candidate in Ohio’s 13th Congressional District, which is Representative Tim Ryan’s seat. Ryan is running for Senate. Her parents are longtime Democratic politicians, and she was the minority leader in the Ohio House.
In Michigan’s newly redrawn Third Congressional District, Democrats have benefited from some old-fashioned skulduggery: They propped up John Gibbs, a far-right commentator who defeated Representative Peter Meijer in the Republican primary. Gibbs has raised just $1.2 million. At the same time, the Democratic nominee, Hillary Scholten, previously ran in 2020, so voters may know her name.
Democratic groups have often swooped in to help newbie candidates in open races, but not always. In Oregon’s Fifth Congressional District, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a progressive who defeated Representative Kurt Schrader in the Democratic primary, has been left largely to fend for herself in the campaign’s closing weeks even as the Congressional Leadership Fund, a group close to Representative Kevin McCarthy, has poured millions of dollars into of negative ads.
Democrats are more optimistic about Oregon’s new Sixth District, which includes Salem and some suburbs of Portland. Andrea Salinas won a fierce Democratic primary against a more progressive candidate with the help of millions of dollars in donations from a group linked to Sam Bankman-Fried, the cryptocurrency billionaire.
But the overall math for House Democrats looks daunting, and open seats are a major reason.
“You spend the election cycle trying to overcome gravity,” Ferguson said, “but oftentimes it can’t be done.”
What to read
A handful of Republicans in New England are making headway in traditionally Democratic strongholds by distancing themselves from the right wing of their party, Stephanie Lai reports from Rhode Island.
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