Against the Grain

The Five Biggest House Bellwethers

Track these races closely to determine whether Nancy Pelosi will become House speaker in 2019.

Rep. Peter Roskam
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Jan. 16, 2018, 8 p.m.

The conventional wisdom on whether Democrats could retake control of the House has shifted dramatically since last year. After President Trump’s election, Democrats were focused on fighting gerrymandered districts, publicly downplaying their chances of winning back control of the House because of partisan line-drawing. As Trump’s standing worsened throughout the year, Democrats later grew cautiously optimistic.

Now, with a flurry of GOP lawmakers announcing early retirements and Democrats holding historic advantages in congressional polling, Democrats are close to re-anointing Nancy Pelosi as House speaker. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently raised the specter of a “bloodbath” election to the president, noting parallels that indicate this year’s midterms could be a 2010-in-reverse for Republicans.

There’s no doubt the environment is dismal for the GOP, but a lot can happen in 10 months. It’s important to pay attention to the ups and downs of the individual campaigns along with the big-picture indicators. For those who want to get a good sense about which party holds the edge in 2018, these are five bellwether contests to track. If Democrats hope to win the 24 seats they’ll need to retake the majority, these are the members of Congress they’ll need to oust:

1. Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois

This district is a classic bellwether. Roskam is a politically savvy Republican who survived his first election (against now-Sen. Tammy Duckworth) in an epic Democratic wave. His suburban Chicago district was redrawn to protect him from competition—until the suburban backlash against Trump was so fierce that the district went from a solid Mitt Romney stronghold in 2012 to one Hillary Clinton carried by 7 points.

One senior GOP House strategist put it bluntly: “If Roskam hangs on, we hold the House.” The same strategist shared internal polling that showed Roskam leading a generic Democrat, but only hanging around the mid-40s in a ballot test. Those were the type of numbers that many Democratic members had in 2010 before being swept up in that year’s wave. Democrats have not coalesced behind a preferred candidate, with financial adviser Kelly Mazeski looking like the early front-runner in a crowded field.

2. Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania

Suburban Philadelphia is a perennial political battleground, with three House Republicans facing tough challenges in the region. But Costello’s reelection bid is the most instructive, as his sharp political instincts are being tested by one of the Democrats’ leading recruits, military veteran Chrissy Houlahan.

Costello has shown a willingness to break with President Trump occasionally, from his opposition to the GOP health care repeal-and-replace efforts to a vote against a gun measure. These are moves that typically insulate members from tough challenges, but if a tidal wave hits the House, even battle-tested members like Costello can end up falling.

3. Rep. John Culberson of Texas

Ask Republican officials which of their members aren’t doing enough to prepare for a tough campaign, and Culberson is at the top of everyone’s list. Despite representing a district that (narrowly) backed Clinton, Culberson took a while to take his race seriously. He picked up his fundraising efforts in the just-completed quarter, but his slow start already leaves him with less cash on hand than one Democratic rival.

If the GOP brand is tanking in the suburbs, Culberson will be badly exposed. His Houston-area district backed Romney by 21 points in 2012 before tilting towards Clinton by a point in 2016— one of the largest swings away from the GOP of any district. And Democrats believe their leading challengers—attorney Elizabeth Pannill Fletcher and nonprofit executive Alexander Triantaphyllis—have the profiles and fundraising ability to mount aggressive campaigns.

4. Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York

Zeldin’s Long Island district backed Trump by a double-digit margin, but the political winds have shifted significantly since then. Trump’s tax legislation will undercut the GOP’s standing in affluent, high-tax districts like his.

At the same time, Zeldin hasn’t done much to distance himself from the more controversial elements of the Trump White House. He held a fundraiser with Steve Bannon last December, one that he defended even as it drew controversy. More recently, he was one of only a few Republicans to defend Trump for crudely criticizing immigrants from poor countries, a curious move for a congressman representing a swing seat.

5. Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska

In what would be one of the few rematches in 2018, Bacon is expected to face off against his 2016 nemesis, former Rep. Brad Ashford. Bacon won by just 3,464 votes in 2016, and he is facing a much tougher political environment this time. But he’ll also have the advantage of incumbency in a district that leans slightly towards Republicans.

The cash-flush, Paul Ryan-affiliated Congressional Leadership Fund set up shop in this district before anywhere else, a sign of the race’s significance. If their vote-targeting and get-out-the-vote efforts can reelect Bacon, it would give Republicans hope that outside spending and opposition efforts can make the difference in other close races.

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