House Outlook: Can Republicans Reach a 70-Seat Super-majority?
The 18th, 62nd, 70th, and 75th are the districts to watch.
[Note: A companion post about the Louisiana Senate is available here.]
The most consequential question in this year’s elections for the Louisiana House of Representatives is whether Republicans will capture a two-thirds super-majority. Securing a super-majority in both chambers of the legislature would allow Republicans to override any vetoes from the governor. If Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards wins reelection, Republicans would be free to ignore him and pass their own agenda. The long-term stakes could stretch beyond the next four years. The legislators who win in 2019 will oversee redistricting in 2021, drawing boundaries that will affect Louisiana elections for a decade. A super-majority would allow Republicans to draw district maps to their maximum advantage.
It takes 70 votes (out of 105) in the House to override a governor’s veto (along with 26 of 39 in the Senate). In the House, Republicans currently have a 61-39 advantage over Democrats with another five seats held by independents. [Technically, Republicans hold only 60 seats after Nancy Landry resigned this summer leaving the 31st District vacant, but since it was most recently won by a Republican we will still count it.]
Republicans need a net gain of nine seats to secure a veto-proof super-majority.
With Election Day still six weeks away, we already know which party will hold 71 of 105 seats because either only one candidate is running or all the candidates in the race are from the same party (which Louisiana’s quirky election rules allow). The qualifying stage went well for Republicans. They have already locked up 43 seats in the next term, while Democrats have just 27. An independent has secured one.
More importantly, these seats include five pickups for Republicans – two Democratic seats (30th and 54th) and three independent seats (1st, 22nd, and 55th). The only blemish for Republicans so far is a loss of their hold on the 19th District, which they abandoned to longtime Democratic legislator Francis Thompson who is returning to his old House seat after 12 years in the Senate.
Without any ballots cast, Republicans already have a net gain of four seats – nearly half of the nine-seat gain they need to get to 70 seats.
This leaves just 34 districts in which candidates from different parties are contesting the election. [From this point, I use the term “contested districts” to refer to races in which all the candidates are not from the same party. In other words, I am not looking at races where all the candidates are Democrats or all the candidates are Republicans.] Republicans hold 22 of these contested seats going into the election, Democrats hold 11, and an independent holds one. Republicans must win at least five of these Democratic or independent seats if they are to reach a total of 70 in the chamber (more if they need to offset any loses from their own 22).
Can they do it? Yes.
Here is what to watch for:
1. Will Republicans sweep the four Trump districts where incumbent Democrats are not running?
Republicans may have more contested seats to defend, but Democrats are playing defense on far less friendly turf than Republicans are in 2019. President Trump carried 29 of the 34 contested districts. These 29 Trump districts include seven contested races in districts currently held by Democrats or independents (Republicans hold the remaining 22 contested seats in Trump country). Republicans’ path to 70 seats in the House runs through these seven districts. [Republicans are also contesting two Democratic seats in districts that Hillary Clinton carried - the 40th and 67th - but Clinton’s margin of 22 and 62 points in these districts, respectively, probably indicates they are out of reach for Republicans.]
Even better news for the Republicans is that four of these seven are open seats, that is, they have no incumbent in the race.
Republicans have had a lot of success contesting districts in Trump country when the incumbent Democrat (or independent) does not run for reelection. Since 2011, Republicans have won 12 of 19 elections of this type (63 percent). This rate of success far exceeds the average rate at which parties flip seats in the House over the same period (just eight percent).
The friendly turf has already paid off in 2019. The five districts mentioned above, which Republicans flipped without any voting, were all open seats in Trump country like these four.
This is the ripest territory for Republicans to grow their majority in the House, where they will have to pick up most of what they need to reach a super-majority. Picking up all four would put them within one seat of 70.
2. Will Republicans topple at least one of the three non-Republican incumbents seeking reelection in Trump districts?
Even if Republicans sweep the four open races in these seven districts, they will have to unseat at least one incumbent Democrat or independent in a Trump district to reach 70 seats in the House. The fact that Trump carried these districts in 2016 does not mean that Republican candidates for the House can easily win them. Historically, incumbents are strongly favored to win reelection in Louisiana House elections. Even when running in Trump districts, Republican challengers beat non-Republican incumbents in only 10 of 41 elections since 2011 (24 percent).
If Republicans sweep all four of the open seats mentioned above, however, they only need to win one against an incumbent. With three shots, there is a realistic chance they get one.
The graph on the left shows the estimated probability that Republicans win a particular number of seats out of these seven (the four open seats and the three with incumbents). The graph on the right shows the estimated probability win at least some number of seats.
Republicans have a 22 percent chance of winning at least five of these seven Trump districts, which puts them in range to secure a super-majority. In fact, the most likely way they would achieve a super-majority in the House is by winning exactly five seats (which they have a 17 percent, or nearly one-in-five, chance to do), the bare minimum necessary to reach 70 seats if they manage to hold on to their own seats.
These estimates are based on a simple model of legislative elections (since 2011) as a function of presidential voting in the district and whether an incumbent is running, incorporating uncertainty based on the relatively small number of elections in the sample and allowing for dependence across elections of similar types. It is important to remember that these are not predictions of competitiveness, just aggregate outcomes across a set of districts. It is also important to remember that this model oversimplifies legislative contests by ignoring characteristics like candidate quality as measured by polls, fundraising, or other indicators. For example, if the Democratic candidates in the four open races fail to run serious campaigns or if the two incumbents only elected this spring have yet to achieve full incumbency advantage, then this model would underestimate Republicans’ chances of winning five or more seats. Nevertheless, these two structural features - presidential voting and incumbency - predict outcomes pretty well and serve as a useful starting point for understanding the dynamics of the contests.
3. Will Democrats flip any of the Republican districts where Trump had his weakest showing?
Another way of thinking about this is that there is about a one in five chance that Democrats will need to flip a Republican district in order to block a 70-seat super-majority. It is a more difficult for Democrats to flip Republican seats than vice versa this year. Republicans are not defending any seats in districts carried by Hillary Clinton. There is only one Republican held Clinton district in the state (the 92nd), and Democrats did not even challenge there.
Instead, Democrats will have to flip a Republican seat in a Trump district. Can they do it? Yes. There is some evidence (albeit more muted) of the national “blue wave” even here in Louisiana. Since 2016, there have been eleven special elections for legislative seats contested by Democrats and Republicans. The Republican vote share in those districts has been, on average, six points lower than Trump’s vote share in the same district. Similarly, Republican vote share in the 2018 U.S. House seats in Louisiana was about eight points lower, on average, than is was in Republican vote share in congressional elections in 2016. In other words, Louisiana’s support for Republican candidates has weakened.
So, where can a Democrat succeed in a Trump district? First, it would likely need to be a district where Trump’s own victory was small enough that a six to eight point shift away from Republicans could put it in play. Second, it would also help if a district shows some propensity for even a modest “blue wave,” perhaps where support for the Trump era Republican Party is particularly weaker than its normal support for Republicans. Finally, as mentioned above, open seats help.
Few districts fit the bill. For example, Trump carried all but four districts held by Republicans by a margin of 25 points or more. Fortunately, for Democrats, they do not need to win many districts. In fact, they may need just one.
The 70th district is probably Democrats’ best shot to flip a seat because it best meets the three criteria. [For full disclosure, I know one of the candidates in that race personally.] First, Trump won by eight points, so a four to six point swing away from Trump’s share would make this district very close. Second, among all the districts Trump carried, the 70th is where he under-performed the most relative to Mitt Romney four years earlier. Finally, it is an open seat.
This is the kind of district Democrats need to flip, if they are to make inroads into Republican territory. There are three other districts that come to close to meeting all three criteria and may prove competitive. Of course, other districts beyond those may also come into play (Democrats are not shy about challenging Republicans in 2019, with candidates competing in 19 of these races). However, if Democrats struggle in the 70th, it is unlikely they will be more competitive in other Trump districts. And, with a near one-in-five chance that Democrats will need to flip one Republican seat to block a super-majority, the stakes are particularly high in the 70th district.