2020 election: The 7 most interesting battlegrounds for control of the US House

Griffin Connolly
·11-min read
New Jersey Congressman Jeff Van Drew pledged his ‘undying support’ to Donald Trump last December, changing his party from Democrat to Republican. Now, he’s behind in the horse race for his re-election. (Getty Images)
New Jersey Congressman Jeff Van Drew pledged his ‘undying support’ to Donald Trump last December, changing his party from Democrat to Republican. Now, he’s behind in the horse race for his re-election. (Getty Images)

With Donald Trump all but certain to lose the national popular vote at the presidential level, that portends an uphill climb for House Republicans on Election Day.

The House GOP must pick up a net gain of 18 seats to reclaim a chamber majority, but they’ve largely been on defence this cycle.

The class of Democratic freshmen hailing from what were considered swing districts just two years ago in 2018 have by-and-large solidified their holds on their districts, through relentless campaigning and impressive fundraising that has allowed them to flood local airwaves and digital advertising spots down the home stretch.

The GOP is in damage control as Mr Trump’s flagging presidential campaign has dragged down several vulnerable incumbents’ odds, most notably in Texas.

While the president has predicted Republicans will win back a House majority at multiple campaign rallies over the last week, top elections experts in the country predict Democrats will add anywhere from 12 to 22 seats to theirs.

Here are the seven most interesting House races to watch on Election Night:

1. New Jersey’s 2nd District — Jeff Van Drew (R)

Mr Van Drew might have the biggest target on his back of any Republican in the House this cycle.

The congressman from Atlantic City pushed his political chip stack all in last December when he switched parties from Democrat to Republican, blindsiding Democratic leaders who just days earlier had spoken at a fundraising luncheon on his behalf.

Mr Van Drew did not feel comfortable with House Democrats’ efforts to impeach Mr Trump for putting his personal political interests before US national security interests in Ukraine, and after a secret hour and a half-long chat with the president, agreed to stage a photo-op where he pledged his “undying support, always” to him.

“I was not a happy camper, as you can imagine,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told CNN this week. Mr Hoyer had previously donated the maximum amount of money to Mr Van Drew’s campaign and urged Democratic donors to do the same.

Since mid-summer, Mr Van Drew has trailed in most public polling in the 2nd District to Democrat Amy Kennedy, a former school teacher and the wife of former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, the son of the late Massachusetts Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy.

Ms Kennedy has raised more than $4.2m this cycle, roughly $350,000 more than Mr Van Drew.

Inside Elections with Nathan L Gonzales shifted the race from a Tossup to Tilts Democratic on Wednesday.

2. Nebraska’s 2nd District — Don Bacon (R)

There’s a lot going in this Omaha-based district, to put it mildly.

First, Nebraska is one of two states to split its electoral college votes by congressional district, presenting Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to scoop a rare electoral vote in an otherwise ruby-red state.

Next, there’s Mr Bacon, a retired US Air Force officer who hasn’t shied away from criticising the president over his impulsiveness on foreign policy during their four years in office together.

That’s especially true on Mr Trump’s actions in the Middle East. When the president gave the green light to Turkey last fall to steamroll Northern Syria, slaughtering some of the US’s Kurdish allied forces, Mr Bacon was one of more than 100 Republicans to call him out.

The congressman, who fought alongside Kurdish allies as part of the invasion of Iraq in the early-2000s, told CQ Roll Call at the time that the Kurds were “the one group you could have behind you and not worry about your back.”

Mr Bacon has a 2020 rematch with Kara Eastman, the Democratic social worker he beat by 2 percentage points in 2018.

Ms Eastman, an unabashed progressive, has been endorsed by Justice Democrats, the same group that backed New York Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ insurgent campaign  to oust longtime Democratic establishment figure Congressman Joe Crowley in a 2018 primary.

And get this: Ms Eastman’s progressive platform is so controversial among some Democrats in the district that the former Democratic congressman who lost the seat to Mr Bacon in 2016, Brad Ashford, has endorsed the Republican incumbent.

Ms Eastman spoiled Mr Ashford’s comeback attempt by vanquishing him for good in the 2018 Democratic primary.

Many elections experts believe if Mr Ashford had been the nominee in 2018, Democrats would have reclaimed the seat that year.

Yet another X-factor in the race is Libertarian Tyler Schaeffer, a bar owner and personal trainer who has polled anywhere from 2 per cent to 6 per cent over the last few months.

Mr Schaeffer’s campaign could have the effect of siphoning away votes from Mr Bacon, who needs them now more than ever, with Inside Elections rating his race this time around Tilts Democratic.

3. Virginia’s 5th District — Open

Currently held by Republican Congressman Denver Riggleman, Virginia’s 5th District is one of the most improbable Democratic targets of the cycle.

Former Liberty University official Bob Good is running as a “bright-red biblical conservative” and warning voters in the overwhelmingly white, rural 5th District they’re in imminent peril from radical leftist rioters who hate the police and socialists who want to take away their economic freedom.

Mr Good decided to challenge Mr Riggleman after news reports emerged of the congressman officiating a gay marriage in 2019 for two men who had worked on his campaign. Hyper-conservative GOP county chairs in the district whipped up enough fervor among party activists for Mr Good to secure him the nomination at a highly controversial convention nominating process that has left many GOP operatives and pundits in the state bitterly opposed to him.

That resentment appears to have trickled down among many Republican voters in the 5th District, which broke for Mr Trump over Hillary Clinton by 11 percentage points in 2016.

But now several of the top national election handicappers rate the race a Tossup.

Mr Good is facing his diametric opposite: Democrat Cameron Webb, a 37-year-old black physician who is running one of the strongest, best-organised campaigns in the country.

Pushing a moderate, public option-based health care plan and stressing his bipartisan experience as a medical fellow in both the Obama and Trump administrations, Mr Webb is counting on two sets of voters to show up in force at the polls:

  • rural blacks from the middle and southern portion of the district, and

  • college students and highly educated professionals in Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia as well as Mr Webb’s campaign headquarters.

The 5th District race is a litmus test for whether a professional, moderate Democratic campaign can overcome structural disadvantages in a mostly rural, white part of the country.

4. California’s 48th District — Harley Rouda (D)

In the 2018 midterms, Democrats won all six California House seats incorporating sections of Orange County, the former Republican stronghold that had mostly stuck with the GOP since the Ronald Reagan era.

Of those six seats, only one is competitive this time around, even though four were decided in 2018 by single-digit margins.

That lone competitive race is in the 48th District, where Democratic freshman Harley Rouda faces off against Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel.

Mr Rouda is favoured to win. Inside Elections and the Cook Political Report rate the race Leans Democratic.

But Ms Steel has raised eyebrows with her defiant approach to the coronavirus pandemic: opening up beaches, calling for local businesses to reopen their doors for business-as-usual, and staging photo-ops without a mask at political fundraisers and events with first responders.

An upset victory for Ms Steel could inspire hope among old-guard Republicans that there’s still a place for them in Orange County.

Repeat success for Mr Rouda would prove Southern California Democrats are the real deal.

5. Virginia’s 7th District — Abigail Spanberger (D)

In each of the last two cycles in Virginia’s 7th District, the Republican nominees haven’t been running against Ms Spanberger so much as they’ve been running against two other House Democratic women: Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Ms Ocasio-Cortez, the liberal New York firebrand.

“Abigail Spanberger is my name,” Ms Spanberger reminded then-GOP Congressman Dave Brat at their 2018 debate. Mr Brat had invoked Ms Pelosi’s name 21 times over the previous hour and a half in an attempt to tie Ms Spanberger to the speaker’s “liberal agenda.”

This year’s GOP nominee, state Delegate Nick Freitas, is using a similar playbook, but with Ms Ocasio-Cortez in place of Ms Pelosi.

The attacks illustrate the political reality Ms Spanberger faces in a district with a roughly 60-40 split between suburban voters from Henrico County on the outskirts of Richmond, and rural voters in Orange and Culpeper Counties to the north.

The 7th District broke for Mr Trump by 7 points over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Ms Spanberger has worked hard to curate a voting record that shows she is not just another Pelosi stooge at the Capitol, despite joining with six other moderate Democratic freshmen with national security backgrounds to pen an op-ed in 2019 backing Mr Trump’s impeachment.

The former US Postal Inspection Service agent delivered on her promise not to back Ms Pelosi for the speaker’s gavel, casting a vote instead for Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, who represents a quite similar suburban-rural district in Illinois.

Ms Spanberger and Mr Freitas’ race could be an East Coast, Election Night harbinger for several other suburban battlegrounds across the country where Democratic freshmen are looking to dig deeper into their 2018 footholds.

Other races to watch in this mould are Oklahoma’s 5th District, where Democrat Kendra Horn is in a Tossup race against GOP state Senator Stephanie Bice; and Georgia’s 7th District, where Democratic nominee Carolyn Bordeaux is running it back in the northern Atlanta suburbs after losing to Congressman Rob Woodall last cycle. She’ll be facing retired US Navy officer Rich McCormick, the GOP’s choice to replace the retiring Mr Woodall.

6. New York’s 11th District — Max Rose (D)

With no independent public polling in New York’s 11th District all cycle, it could be the most unpredictable race in 2020.

Without any outside data to browse, Inside Elections and Cook both rate freshman Congressman Max Rose’s matchup with Republican state Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis a Tossup.

On top of all that uncertainty, the race is heated, with each candidate channeling the pugnacious, no-frills demeanor of their Southwest Brooklyn and Staten Island constituents, many of whom work in law enforcement and fire departments.

It’s a district where anti-politics outsiderism is a must.

“Bill de Blasio is the worst mayor in the history of New York City — that's the whole ad,” Mr Rose says in a six-second ad that has gone viral for its aggressive simplicity.

He and Mr de Blasio are from the same political party.

In an election where Republican challengers have tried to link moderate Democratic incumbents to the liberal fringe issuing calls to “defund the police,” the 11th District’s first responder-heavy constituency could shed light on whether that messaging actually resonates with many men and women in blue.

7. Texas

Yep, Texas.

All of it.

The Longhorn State’s transition from the deep-red backbone of the Republican party to a presidential swing state that could deliver a relatively early electoral college victory to Mr Biden on Election Night has ramifications all the way down the ballot.

Either nine or 10 of Texas’ 23 GOP-held seats are in play this cycle, depending on which elections analyst you ask.

That count includes three Tossup races in the 21st, 22nd, and 24th Districts, encompassing the suburbs of Austin, Houston, and Dallas-Fort Worth, respectively.

Democrats are expected to finally nab Texas’ 23rd District along the southwestern sweep of the Texas-Mexico border with the retirement of moderate GOP Congressman Will Hurd, a strong, no-nonsense campaigner.

If Democrats flip the El Paso-based seat, it will fortify their complete takeover of the nine congressional districts along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border.

More remote pickup targets for Democrats are Texas’ 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 10th, 25th, and 31st Districts, all either rated Leans Republican or Likely Republican.

Meanwhile, freshman House members Lizzie Fletcher (Houston) and Colin Allred (Dallas), who entered the 2020 cycle as the two most vulnerable Texas Democrats, have fortified their holds in the 7th and 32nd Districts.

Inside Elections rates those races Likely Democratic and Solid Democratic, respectively.

If Democrats want to pull even with Republicans, 18-18, in the 36-member Texas House delegation, they must flip Mr Hurd’s open seat, all three GOP-held tossup seats, and one of the six seats in the Leans/Likely Republican category.

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