The magic number of seats Democrats need to hit to win back the House majority is 23. But in reality, it’s almost certainly a much smaller number.
Several GOP-held seats are seemingly already in the bag, meaning Democrats likely need to take a smaller number of competitive seats — perhaps as few as 15 — to return to the majority for the first time since 2010.
It’s all making Republicans nervous — even before Tuesday’s special election in Ohio, where a Republican candidate appears to have just scraped by in a district that has been in GOP hands since 1983 and that President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE won two years ago by 11 points.
“I don’t think there is necessarily a blue wave, but what concerns me is suburban districts in New Jersey, Philadelphia, New York, Illinois and California — those are not good for us,” said one House Republican from a blue state.
“Educated women, young people independents — they are energized. I clearly think [Democrats] have enough to win over 24 seats.”
Democrats, for their part, are taking nothing for granted, saying it’s well too soon to divert resources from any districts.
“The biggest strategic challenge [Democrats] have will come in September and October when they’ve got to make a decision whether some races are now in the safe column and they can divert resources to lean-Republican races,” said former Rep. Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelAnthrax was the COVID-19 of 2001 The lessons of Afghanistan are usually learned too late Do not underestimate Kathy Hochul MORE (D-N.Y.).
“It’s way too early to make those decisions,” added Israel, who led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) from 2011 to 2014.
According to campaign prognosticators, the GOP seats most likely to flip are held by three retiring Republicans.
The first, a New Jersey seat being vacated by longtime Rep. Frank LoBiondoFrank Alo LoBiondoVan Drew-Kennedy race in NJ goes down to the wire Van Drew wins GOP primary in New Jersey Amy Kennedy wins NJ primary to face GOP's Van Drew MORE, has a GOP nominee seen as exceptionally weak. The House GOP’s campaign arm rescinded its support after reports that the nominee had shared racist articles on social media. The Cook Political Report rates it as "likely Democratic."
Cook also lists seats being vacated by GOP Reps. Pat MeehanPatrick (Pat) Leo MeehanBottom line Freshman lawmaker jokes about pace of Washington politics Many authors of GOP tax law will not be returning to Congress MORE and Ryan CostelloRyan Anthony CostellloRep. Brendan Boyle decides against Pennsylvania Senate bid Pennsylvania's Democratic lt. governor files to run for Senate Bottom Line MORE in Pennsylvania as "likely Democratic." Both Republicans saw their districts redrawn in favor of Democrats in a gerrymandering court case this year.
Four more seats are listed by both Cook and Sabato’s Crystal Ball of the University of Virginia, another handicapper, as "leaning Democratic." All were won by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE in 2016.
The four GOP seats are held by Reps. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockThe Memo: Never Trumpers sink into gloom as Gonzalez bows out Sunday shows preview: States deal with fallout of Ida; Texas abortion law takes effect The Memo: Trump pours gas on tribalism with Jan. 6 rewrite MORE, who represents a blue-tinged Northern Virginia district outside of D.C.; Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyFive takeaways from Arizona's audit results The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Senate passes infrastructure bill, budget resolution; Cuomo resigns Schumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up MORE (Ariz.), who’s running for the Senate; and retiring longtime Reps. Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaHow lawmakers aided the Afghan evacuation Dozens of Sacramento students remain in Afghanistan after US pullout, district says Seven San Diego-area families evacuated from Afghanistan after summer trip abroad MORE (R-Calif.).
The three other GOP seats listed by Cook as "leaning Democrat" are in New Jersey, where Rep. Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenBottom line Republican lobbying firms riding high despite uncertainty of 2020 race Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm MORE is retiring, and in Pennsylvania, where the redistricting decision is adding to the GOP’s problems.
One open seat in Pennsylvania now held by Democrats is rated as "likely Republican" because of the redrawn districts.
The Ohio race, coming on the heels of Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb’s March victory in a deep-red Pennsylvania district, has Democrats believing the battlefield is expanding quickly in their favor.
“The conventional wisdom up until several months ago was that it was fairly easy to find 20 seats that were low-hanging fruit for Democrats, but those final four or five that they needed required a reach,” Israel said. “When you are competitive in Ohio-12, and you’re winning districts like Conor Lamb’s, that suggests that you’re not going to have to reach that high to find those five seats.”
Publicly, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (R-Wis.) and his leadership team are predicting that Trump’s tax cuts and the strong economy will help them stave off a Democratic wave.
Privately, Republicans are more nervous — though they think that whoever has the majority will win it by just a few seats.
“It’s 50-50,” said the GOP lawmaker. “And whoever wins, it’s going to be a very small governing margin.”
History and math are not in the GOP’s favor. The party that controls the White House typically loses dozens of seats during a president’s first midterm election. And President Trump’s approval rating is in the low 40s, a drag on Republicans in districts leaning toward the Democrats, like Comstock’s.
On top of that, a wave of GOP retirements, some unexpected, have put Republicans in the unenviable position of having to defend 42 open seats this cycle, eight of which are in districts that Clinton won in 2016 and more than a dozen others in districts that Trump barely won.
The spate of GOP retirements creates more uncertainty and gives Democrats defending half as many open seats more paths to the majority.
“We have a lot of members who would retain their seats if they had stayed, but instead of having a member who raises their own money and wins their race, you replace that with a newcomer,” Rep. Daniel WebsterDaniel Alan WebsterLaura Loomer says she's tested positive for COVID-19 How Donald Rumsfeld helped save the presidency Gun deaths surge in Iowa ahead of loosened handgun restrictions MORE (R-Fla.) told The Hill. “It’s making it very difficult from a financial standpoint. We have to go out and hold on to the seat instead of counting it as an automatic.”
Even well-known, politically powerful GOP incumbents are struggling. More than 50 of them were outraised by Democratic challengers in the second fundraising quarter of 2018 that ended June 30. They include veteran Rep. John CarterJohn Rice CarterBottom line READ: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit MORE (R-Texas) and Rep. John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonNASA's Europa Clipper has been liberated from the Space Launch System Texas Republicans sound post-2020 alarm bells 2020 Democratic Party platform endorses Trump's NASA moon program MORE (R-Texas) — both senior appropriators — House Small Business Committee Chairman Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotLiberal group launches campaign urging Republicans to support Biden's agenda Blinken grilled in first hearing since Afghanistan withdrawal Bipartisan group of lawmakers call on Biden to ensure journalists safe passage out of Afghanistan MORE (R-Ohio) and Rep. Leonard LanceLeonard LanceKean Jr. to run against Malinowski: report Thomas Kean wins GOP primary to take on Rep. Tom Malinowski Gun debate to shape 2020 races MORE (R-N.J.).
Still, Democrats face plenty of challenges of their own. They're defending two open Minnesota seats this fall that went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016; Cook and Sabato have put them in the “toss up” column.
Former Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D), now the Chicago mayor, told Democrats in a briefing earlier this year that the political environment is similar to that of 2006, when he chaired the DCCC and the Democrats took control of the lower chamber.
But Emanuel also warned that the congressional map has shifted sharply in the GOP’s favor since 2006, creating a much steeper climb for Democrats.
“Without the redistricting firewall that they built, Republicans would probably lose 60 seats in this kind of cycle,” Israel said. “As a result of the redistricting firewall that they built, they could lose about half of that.”
Senior Republicans like Chabot said they are taking their races seriously but don’t think they’ll be ousted in November. The GOP chairman believes voters are reaping the rewards from a GOP-controlled government with tax and regulations cuts and an improving economy, and that they’ll stick with Republicans this fall.
“Most of us are doing the things necessary to be able to prevail in this kind of environment,” said Chabot, who represents most of Cincinnati and some suburbs. “If we were asleep at the switch and didn’t see this coming, it could be a real problem. But I think many of us are ready."