Rothenberg’s Dangerous Dozen Open House Seats

by Stuart Rothenberg May 14, 2018 · 11:37 AM EDT

Yes, it’s time for another of my “dangerous dozen open House seats” columns, which I have been writing since shortly after the establishment of the Jamestown Settlement (or so it seems).

This cycle’s version has a plethora of seats to choose from, given the 38 Republican and 19 Democratic seats where an incumbent is not seeking re-election, either because he or she is retiring or running for a different office. (The number does not include those districts where a special election has already filled a vacancy or will be held before November.)

Those 57 total retirements are the second largest since 1930, surpassed only by 1992, which had a total of 65 open seats.

Here is my list, in descending order of vulnerability.

The first 10 districts on the list look very likely to flip party control.

After that, things get a bit murkier.

1. Pennsylvania’s 5th (Patrick Meehan, R)
Meehan’s suburban Philadelphia district has been completely redrawn by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, going from a very competitive district that voted for Hillary Clinton by 2 points in 2016 to one that would have backed her by 28 points under the new lines.

Meehan, who recently resigned from Congress, had his own problems anyway, but the new lines guarantee the Republican will be replaced by a Democrat.

2. Pennsylvania’s 14th (Conor Lamb, D)
Pennsylvania’s old 18th District has been chopped up a number of ways. Lamb has decided to run in the redrawn 17th District, where Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus will also be seeking re-election.

That means that the redrawn 14th, much of which is in now in Lamb’s district, won’t have an incumbent on the ballot in the fall.

The redrawn seat went for President Donald Trump by 29 points, making it an almost certain Republican takeover in the fall.

3. Florida’s 27th (Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R)
Ros-Lehtinen proved her political appeal in 2016 when she won re-election while Clinton was carrying her district by 20 points. But now that the Republican congresswoman is retiring, the heavily Hispanic district looks poised to flip party control.

4. Pennsylvania’s 6th (Ryan A. Costello, R).
Costello went back and forth about seeking re-election under the new lines. Clinton carried the old district by a single point but took the redrawn seat by 9 points.

The congressman finally announced that he would not seek re-election, and that almost certainly ended GOP chances of holding this suburban Philadelphia seat.

5. New Jersey’s 2nd (Frank A. LoBiondo, R)
LoBiondo’s district is a contradiction. Trump carried it by 5 points, but President Barack Obama carried it twice, by 8 points each time.

The Republican incumbent lost his first bid for Congress in 1992 but hasn’t had a close contest since he won the open seat in 1994.

The favorite for this year’s open seat is Democrat Jeff Van Drew. National Democrats have wooed the moderate state senator to run for years, but he waited until the seat became open. Smart move.

6. Arizona’s 2nd (Martha McSally, R)
McSally is running for the Senate in what could be a terrible Republican year, both in her state and nationally. While she is a strong candidate, her exit creates a huge hole for Republicans in a district Clinton carried by almost 5 points.

Divisions within the state GOP and a relatively weak Republican showing in Arizona’s 8th District special election last month suggest serious problems for McSally’s party.

7. California’s 49th (Darrell Issa, R)
Issa barely edged out Democratic challenger Doug Applegate two years ago and decided not to try his luck once again. Both parties have multiple hopefuls running, and the top-two open primary complicates any analysis.

But the district has been moving toward the Democrats, and Trump’s unpopularity — Clinton carried the seat by more than 7 points — and Democratic enthusiasm makes this district a prime takeover target. If a Democrat makes the top two, the district will flip.

8. California’s 39th (Ed Royce, R)
Clinton carried Royce’s district by 9 points so it isn’t surprising that this open seat is at great risk. Uncertain GOP turnout in the state, partially a function of Trump’s weakness, adds to Republican woes. Again, if a Democrat makes the top two, the district is likely to flip.

9. Pennsylvania’s 7th (Charlie Dent, R)
Dent has been an extremely popular and savvy officeholder, which has masked the competitiveness of this district. His retirement, and a redrawn district map, combine to make this vacant seat a Republican headache. Trump carried the old 15th District by 8 points, but Clinton carried the redrawn seat by a point — which is why the eventual GOP nominee will be an underdog.

10. New Jersey’s 11th (Rodney Frelinghuysen, R)
Frelinghuysen was first elected to Congress in 1994, a huge Republican “wave” year, and he is retiring in what could become one of the larger Democratic waves in recent memory.

The pragmatic Republican hasn’t been tested in years, but Trump carried his educated, upscale Republican-leaning district by less than a point.

The likely Democratic nominee, Mikie Sherrill, is a Naval Academy graduate, former Navy pilot, former federal prosecutor and a woman. Looks like a giant migraine headache for GOP strategists — and a Democratic pickup.

11. Michigan’s 11th (David Trott, R)
This suburban district located northwest of Detroit usually leans Republican, but Obama carried it in 2008. Trump won it by a bit over 4 points, hardly an overwhelming margin. Both parties have crowded primaries that include current and former candidates and B-team hopefuls.

12. Minnesota’s 1st and 8th (Tim Walz, D/Rick Nolan, D)
Trump carried both of these districts by about 15 points, but both voted for Obama twice. They both have a substantial chunk of rural and blue-collar voters, giving the eventual Republican nominees the opportunity to flip a Democratic seat even while the national trend is going very much in the opposite direction. But since I’m not certain which is more likely to flip, I’ll put both on the list for now.

This list almost certainly will change as primaries play out, general election races engage and polls show how voters are reacting to the nominees and the broader political environment.

Honorable mentions
Keep an eye on a handful of races that just missed being included on my list but could be added later.

Those open districts include Washington’s 8th (Republican Dave Reichert), North Carolina’s 9th (Republican Robert Pittenger) and Kansas’ 2nd (Republican Lynn Jenkins). And even the open seat of Speaker Paul D. Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st District bears watching.