The Amazingly Static House Playing Field

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 19, 2014 · 9:37 AM EDT

After a year of campaigning, television ads, a government shutdown, and a botched rollout of, the House playing field is virtually unchanged from where it was 12 months ago.

We recently updated the Rothenberg Political Report ratings in seven House districts. Arizona’s 1st District, Maine’s 2nd District, New Hampshire’s 1st District, and New York’s 21st District all moved incrementally toward Republicans. Ohio’s 6th and 14th districts and Pennsylvania’s 8th District also moved toward the GOP but to currently Safe.

By dropping the trio of races from the list of most competitive races, the total number of competitive seats (seats that have a chance of changing partisan hands) dips to 48 seats. That is remarkably similar to last September, when we listed 49 seats on our competitive race chart.

Even the partisan makeup of the districts in play is virtually the same. In September 2013, there were 23 Republican-held seats at risk compared to 26 Democratic seats. Right now, we believe 23 Republican-held seats are at risk compared to 25 Democratic seats.

There is one minor difference. The current list does not include North Carolina’s 7th District and Utah’s 4th District, where Democratic incumbents retired last winter. Those two are not even on the list of competitive races now because we consider them to be Safe for Republicans.

A field of 48 competitive House races is down from the 68 seats rated as competitive prior to the 2012 elections and less than half of the 109 competitive seats in 2010. But it is closer to the three elections that began the previous decade. In 2000 and 2002, 54 races were rated as competitive. In 2004, at the same point in the redistricting cycle as this year’s races, there were just 38 competitive seats.

In 2006 and 2008, more than 60 races were listed as competitive, and in 2010, the House playing field ballooned to 109 seats. National wave elections developed in all three contests, and each time the party on the receiving end of the wave had a substantial number of districts at risk.

The relatively small number of competitive races this cycle reflects the combination of the anti-President Barack Obama environment and the small number of Republican opportunities in the House. With the GOP starting the cycle holding 234 seats (far more than the 178 they held starting the 2010 cycle) and having limited targets due to the high number of safely Democratic seats, a large, wave-like GOP House gains is all but impossible. You can read more in my piece, “Putting House Expectations Into Context,” from the recent edition of The Rothenberg Political Report.

Obviously the size and shape of the House playing field could change over the final weeks of the campaign depending on the strength and weakness of Obama, strength and weakness of Democratic campaigns, and breaking news events of the day. But in this era of nonstop political coverage, it’s important to remember that everything is not a game-changer.

Here are the details of the recent Rothenberg Political Report ratings changes:

  • Arizona’s 1st District from Tossup/Tilts Democratic to Pure Tossup
  • Maine’s 2nd District from Democrat Favored to Leans Democratic
  • New Hampshire’s 1st District from Tossup/Tilts Democratic to Pure Tossup
  • New York’s 21st District from Pure Tossup to Tossup/Tilts Republican
  • Ohio’s 6th District from Republican Favored to Currently Safe Republican
  • Ohio’s 14th District from Leans Republican to Currently Safe Republican
  • Pennsylvania’s 8th District from Republican Favored to Currently Safe