With a year and a half to go before the 2016 elections, the House playing field is too small for Democrats to retake the majority. But there is time for the cycle to develop in favor of down-ballot Democratic candidates and for the number of competitive seats to grow. Democrats need a net gain of 30 seats to capture the majority, and we’ve listed 31 districts as competitive in our initial Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call ratings.
Considering Democrats currently hold eight of the 31 competitive seats (compared to 23 currently held by Republicans), Democrats can win every single race on the list (which is highly unlikely) and still fall seven seats short of the majority.
A Democratic majority next Congress isn't completely out of the question, but a swing of 30 or more seats in a presidential cycle is rare. It’s happened twice in the past 65 years (1964 and 1980).
The 1980 election is not a good model for Democrats, since Republicans gained 34 House seats because an unpopular Democratic president was seeking re-election. Democrats picked up 37 House seats in 1964 when Republicans nominated polarizing Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. That’s the road map Democrats are looking for in 2016, but it’s also beyond the control of House Democratic strategists.
Retirements could boost Democratic chances and cause potential recruits to take a second look at open seats. Currently 10 members are either retiring or seeking another office. Seven of those open seats are currently held by Democrats and three held by Republicans, but just three of them are likely to host competitive general election races. New York’s 19th and Pennsylvania’s 8th will be tough holds for Republicans, while Democrats will try to hang on to Florida’s 18th.
If history is a guide, there will be more retirements . Thus far, five members have announced they will not seek re-election or another office. From 1976 to 2014, the average number of House retirements per cycle was 22.
This is also the point in the cycle where we hear about “scenarios.” For example, after a decade of striking out against GOP Rep. John Kline, Democrats believe they have two quality candidates who could defeat the Minnesota congressman this cycle. We’ll see.
The current playing field is too small to talk about Democrats taking over the House. But we also don’t know yet what this election will be about and which party, if either, will have the wind at its back.
Democrats seem poised to gain seats, based solely on the party's current low point in the House. But it is too early for definitive projections.
Related: Roll Call House Race Ratings Map Elder Members Aren’t the Only Ones to Retire Roll Call Results Map: Results and District Profiles for Every Seat Be the first to know about Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call race rating changes with our new Roll Call politics app!