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Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy

Wason Center

August 6, 2019

18 Top Targets for Democrats in the House for 2020

Elections / Legislative / National

Image of the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey indicating a switch in political party

In the wake of the 2018 Blue Wave it was clear that as predicted by my forecasting model, suburbia shifted sharply towards the Democrats in the Midterms. In a forthcoming analysis of the voter files in Arizona, California, and Virginia, I demonstrate that the vast majority of this shift comes from turnout surges among Democrats and Independents who sat out midterms during the Obama years, which had a dramatic transformation on the demographic composition of the midterm electorate. 

The main driver of the suburban revolt away from the GOP is college education. Although Trumpism has been an effective rallying cry for the GOP base, it has galvanized a previously complacent part of the electorate; white, college educated millennial women as well as all voters under age 40, who represent a far more diverse and liberal voter universe than their older counterparts. As such, any district with high levels of college educated voters was extremely vulnerable for Republicans in 2018, even those that had long been in the hands of the Republican Party such as the six Orange County districts in Southern California which my model was quite clear would uniformly flip to the Democrats. 

It's important to clarify one point, profoundly misunderstood, 2018 is a story of turnout and turnout was powered by one thing, and one thing only: Donald J. Trump. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Democrats did not flip these Republican districts via the support of moderate Republicans due to their focus on health care. Instead, I’ll show in a forthcoming analysis of the voter file that Democrats’ sharp reversal in their abysmal midterm electoral fortunes was powered by large turnout surges of partisan Democrats and Independents. This turnout surge had profound impacts on the demographic and partisan compositions of the electorates in the competitive districts, leading 40 of them to flip on Election Day. 

For better or for worse, American elections are low turnout affairs and it is increasingly clear that in the polarized era, as voters have become more entrenched in their respective parties, elections are increasingly decided by which party (and their Independent leaners) has a turnout-boosting enthusiasm advantage. Analyzed this way, contests are assessed by their turnout surge (or decline) potential. Using this metric, despite Democrats’ impressive 2018 performance, they left a half dozen seats uncontested in the 2018 cycle that may well have flipped if they had been identified as competitive by the Democrat’s campaign apparatus.  

The table below identifies these districts, as well as several others Democrats did contest but came up short in for the 2018 cycle. Nine of these districts are in Texas, which increasing looks like it should be Ground 0 of the Democrats’ 2020 efforts. However, actually flipping these districts would require a massive investment in an area Democrats have continually under-invested in: Latino turnout. Democrats’ success in increasing the size of their House majority will largely depend on whether they come to recognize the need to maximize turnout among Democratic-friendly constituencies such as college-educated women, Latinos, African Americans, and Millennials and in their ability to understand that it is fear of Trump, not policy, that will best motivate these voters to the polls, no matter what the voters themselves may think. Given the rampant misdiagnosis of how Democrats came upon their House majority in the 1st place (the turnout surge was about health care, not Trump and they won by wooing Republicans) I am certainly not arguing that Democrats will win these seats, only that demographically, they would be able to if they ran the right strategy. Between NY 24 and 27 Democrats and their allies spent $40 million dollars and came up short on both races. Reinvesting money like that in Texas has potential to yield them far greater seat gains. 

I’ll add, the four open seats all but certain to flip as is AZ 6 now that the party has come to realize how competitive it is. I also assume that the party will invest more heavily in NE-2 in 2020, regardless of whether they care for the nominee. That would give Democrats a bare minimum of an additional 6 seats from the cycle.

Here are the 18 most competitive seats currently held by the Republican Party.

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