Democrats started the 2016 election cycle with pessimism about their chances of taking back the House of Representatives. For a few moments this autumn, they allowed themselves to think that there was a chance to win it after all, if Donald Trump melted down. Now, heading into a midterm that they expect to break a losing streak, Democrats are planning earlier than ever to take back ground, with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee veteran Kelly Ward signing up for a new project to win state legislatures.
Under the radar, however, the short-term prospects for Democrats in the House are bleaker than any time since 2010. Daily Kos, the progressive site that has a hard-working political news team, has begun compiling the vote totals (affirmed last week) in every congressional district. In the 41 states where data has already been crunched, Democrats became more competitive in districts with large Latino populations, but fell back in rural districts that had gone blue for decades. In several cases, the slide nearly cost them safe-looking seats.
In the count so far, which doesn't include Florida, New York, Pennsylvania or Texas, Trump carried 15 districts that Barack Obama had carried twice. He swept every Iowa district; Obama had carried three of them. He won Illinois' 12th and 17th districts, which Democrats held as recently as 2012. He won Maine's rural 2nd District by 10 points and New Hampshire's urban 1st District by 1.5 points. He took six of Minnesota's eight districts, losing only the districts centered around the Twin Cities, and took Wisconsin's 3rd District, which covers the state's rural northwest. He won south New Jersey's 2nd and 3rd districts, and Nevada's 3rd District, south of Las Vegas.
Few of these districts were drawn to elect Republicans. Iowa's redistricting process is left up to judges, while Illinois' was controlled by Democrats who wanted to maximize their number of seats. Minnesota's, New Jersey's and Nevada's were drawn by divided governments. On Election Day, Democrats won seven of the House seats in these districts, often helped by incumbency (like Minnesota's Tim Walz) or weak opponents (Nevada's Jacky Rosen).
Yet in the short term, all seven will get to enjoy status as targets for Republicans who want to reverse 2016's shrinkage in the House majority. They may have company from Democrats who watched the presidential margin tumble in their districts. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who just lost a challenge to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, watched the presidential margin in his Mahoning Valley district fall from 28 points for Obama to six points for Clinton. In Connecticut, Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) won reelection while Hillary Clinton won his district by three points; Obama had won it by 13.
In swing states, most of the places where Clinton improved on Obama's vote — or held even — were urban districts drawn by Republicans, designed to pack together Democrats and limit their electoral reach. But in the part of the map analyzed so far, Clinton did win eight House districts that Obama had lost. In Arizona, Clinton easily carried the district of Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who won reelection anyway. In California, Clinton carried six districts on the strength of a Latino turnout surge and a tumbling Republican vote — the 10th, 25th, 39th, 45th, 48th, 49th. In becoming the first Democrat since 1936 to carry Orange County, Clinton won the districts of Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
Every Republican in a Romney-to-Clinton seat won reelection. When the last mega-states are analyzed, Clinton is likely to have gained ground in urban Florida and Texas versus the Obama campaign and likely to have lost ground in New York and Pennsylvania. And in 2010, the district-by-district results provided clues — but not a complete preview — to what would and wouldn't be winnable for Republicans in the midterms. In the Midwest and Deep South, even districts where Obama had improved on the Democrats' 2004 vote became gettable for Republicans.
But President-elect Donald Trump will take office with a vulnerability that neither Obama nor any recent incoming president ever had. In many states and districts that he won convincingly, his favorable rating — and, by extension, his starting political capital — was in the 30s or 40s. Obama started high and had room to fall. Many of the Democrats who watched Trump win their districts, and nearly lost reelection as a result, will not find most of their constituents thinking highly of Trump.