Six Texas races could determine whether Democrats flip the House

Photo by Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

Control of the U.S. House hangs in the balance of the outcome of dozens of races across the country, including a half dozen in Texas. For those who believe this election will in many respects be a referendum on the Trump presidency and who place great stock in the quality and ability of individual candidates to alter the course of a race, the prospects of flipping several Texas GOP-held seats are bright. But, for those who believe the partisan demographics of a district tend to be paramount and tend to discount the extent to which candidates can swim against a strong partisan tide in Texas, the GOP’s prospects of retaining at least five of the six seats are bright.

Democrats are hopeful President Donald Trump's unpopularity as well as the high quality of the Democratic candidates will help flip as many as six of the 25 U.S. House seats that make up the largest GOP state delegation in the House (Florida is next with 16). Republicans are hopeful the significant natural Republican advantage in five of the six districts combined with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's long coattails will help keep most if not all of these seats in GOP hands.

The table contains information on the six races identified by the leading Beltway pundits (CNN, The Cook Political Report, Inside Elections, Sabato’s Crystal Ball) as potentially in play, as well as lists the combined pundit rating for the district. In addition to the Republican and Democratic candidates’ names and incumbent status (I) the table provides four metrics useful in assessing the likelihood the district will turn blue in November.

Partisan Voting Index (PVI): The average difference in 2014 and in 2016 between the percentage of the vote won by the median Republican and median Democratic statewide judicial candidates in the district.

Trump Voting Index (TVI): Trump's margin of victory in the district over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Abbott Voting Index (AVI): Abbott's margin of victory in the district over Democrat Wendy Davis in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

Current Cash on Hand (R/D COH July): The ratio of the cash on hand held by the Republican to that held by the Democrat (negative values indicate the Democrat held the advantage by that ratio).

The Beltway Pundits believe CD-7 is the Texas GOP district most likely to flip in November, followed closely by CD-23. CD-32 is seen as the next most vulnerable, followed by a pair (CD-21 and CD-31) still projected to remain red, but where the GOP candidate is not out of the woods. CD-2 is seen as a safe Republican district by all but one pundit.

CD-7 is rated as heavily in play as a result of, among other factors, Clinton's defeat of Trump in the district by 1.4 percent. There’s also the high concentration of centrist Republican, college-educated Anglos who disapprove of the Trump presidency in the district and the accurate belief by the pundits that Democrat Lizzie Fletcher is a higher quality candidate than incumbent Republican John Culberson. The pundits tend to discount the district’s natural Republican lean (PVI of 22.9) as well as the reality that the 2014 AVI (21.8) and current gubernatorial campaign dynamics suggest Abbott will defeat Democrat Lupe Valdez in CD-7 by between 15 and 20 points. This built in GOP advantage and Abbott dominance suggest one out of every seven or eight Abbott voters will have to cross over to Fletcher if she is to defeat Culberson; this in a district where two out of three voters utilize the straight-ticket voting option.

Just as Michael J. Fox is the Anti-Elvis, CD-23 is the antithesis of CD-7, in that Republican incumbent Will Hurd is given a slightly better than even chance to win by the pundits in spite of the district's low PVI, Trump's loss by 3.5 percent, and the president's rising unpopularity with Latinos who account for half of CD-23’s voters. Contrary to CD-7, Hurd is accurately considered by the pundits to be a superior candidate to his Democratic rival, Gina Ortiz Jones, which they believe may allow him to survive in spite of the millstone Trump has placed around his neck.

CD-32, CD-7's DFW doppelgänger, is seen as having a potential to flip due to Trump's loss in the district in 2016 combined with its larger than average share of centrist college-educated Anglo Republicans. CD-32 has a lower PVI and AVI than CD-7, but is considered less vulnerable by the pundits based on the correct assessment that Republican incumbent Pete Sessions is a better candidate than Culberson and will have a greater campaign resource advantage over his Democratic rival, Collin Allred.

The pundits view CD-21 (Republican Chip Roy vs. Democrat Joseph Kopser) and CD-31 (Republican incumbent John Carter vs. Democrat MJ Hegar) as long shots for Democrats, but potentially winnable in a perfect storm due to the weight they place on the superior quality of the Democrat, especially in CD-31. From a pure district fundamentals perspective however, based on their PVI (22.1 & 23.9), TVI (9.8 & 12.5) and AVI (19.5 & 25.5), neither race should be considered in play. The most likely scenario is Roy and Carter win by double-digit margins.

Only The Cook Political Report considers the CD-2 faceoff between Republican Dan Crenshaw and Democrat Todd Litton to not be a lock for the GOP. The Safe Republican designation given by the other pundits stems from the overwhelming advantage any Republican would have in CD-2 (PVI of 27.2) combined with Crenshaw’s popular appeal due to his decorated service as a Navy SEAL and overall impressive resume (though Litton also is a compelling candidate).

Disclosure: Rice University and Joseph Kopser have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Mark P. Jones

Fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute