Why the Fight for the House Was Surprisingly Competitive

Democrats’ unexpectedly strong performance in the 2022 election revealed that widely held assumptions about the demise of competitive House districts due to aggressive redistricting may be greatly exaggerated.

Those same maps, however, could also help Republicans in 2024, as President Joe Biden’s party now has to defend more of those competitive seats.

There were at least 35 House races decided by fewer than five percentage points this year, according to unofficial election results analyzed by Bloomberg News. That’s similar to the number of competitive races two years ago and far more than pre-election predictions that partisan gerrymandering had reduced the number of districts with a meaningful choice between the political parties.

Before the election, studies and news reports had warned that the new congressional district lines drawn by Republicans and Democrats after the 2020 census — often through gerrymandering — would lead to fewer competitive House races. Election results showed that didn’t happen.

Though votes are still being reported in some 2022 races, there were far more competitive races this year than in some recent elections. In 2016, there were only 15 competitive House districts. In 2004 there were 10, the fewest in any election since 1978.

Pre-election forecasts also predicted that Democrats could lose 30 or more seats — though estimates were closer to 15 to 20 as Election Day neared — a typical outcome historically for the president’s party in their first midterm election. Biden’s low approval rating and inflation near 8% provided even more headwinds for his party.

Instead, Democrats outperformed expectations, exploiting a more competitive map by campaigning on issues like abortion and voting rights, wooing independent voters. For the third consecutive national election they were also able to harness angst around former President Donald Trump. When all the races are called, Democrats can expect to lose about nine seats.

“The maps were an incredibly important part of why Democrats did so well, because before any vote was even cast we eliminated the structural advantage Republicans had on the map because of their gerrymandering,” said Kelly Ward Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “It’s nearly gone. That created an even playing field where Democrats could compete and win fairly. You can’t underestimate the importance of that.”

Drawing districts to favor one party over another, a process known as gerrymandering, is as old as the Republic itself. But hyper-partisanship, a growing urban-rural divide and more sophisticated data-driven mapping techniques have allowed map-makers — usually state legislatures — to be even more effective in carving out a partisan advantage.

One of the most effective techniques works like this: Pack your opponent’s voters into as few districts as possible, giving them huge majorities in those districts but diluting their voting power elsewhere. Then draw more districts for your party with smaller — but also safe — majorities. Republican-controlled Florida and Democratic-controlled Illinois are just two examples of partisan gerrymanders from this cycle.

Conventional thought prior to the 2022 midterms was that both parties gerrymandered maps so much that there were fewer opportunities to flip seats.

But a number of redistricting reforms over the past decade put the power to draw district lines into the hands of independent commissions or other bipartisan mechanisms. Sixteen of the most competitive districts this year came from states with independent redistricting commissions.

“There are reasons to view what happened as pretty positive,” said Sam Wang, a neuroscientist who heads up the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which grades the competitiveness of congressional maps. “Broadly some trend lines have moved in the right direction.”

Perhaps most competitive of all was New York, where an independent commission drew lines that the Democratic legislature rejected — only to have the Democratic map thrown out by the courts and replaced by one drawn by a special master. Five of New York’s 26 seats are now competitive, and Republicans picked up four of them — defying the national trend.

That special master, Jonathan Cervas of Carnegie Mellon University, said competition is just one of many factors in drawing fair maps — and there remain limits on how many competitive districts can be drawn as long as Republicans and Democrats tend to live in very different places.

“This idea that the competitiveness of individual races is a quality we really care about, in some respects that’s certainly true,” said Cervas. “But you could create a lot more competitive districts by destroying communities. You could put 50% of urban voters and 50% of rural voters in a district and create a competitive district. Under whose definition is that a desirable outcome? Fifty percent of the voters aren’t going to feel represented by whoever wins.”

To be sure, the issues and candidates make elections competitive, not just maps. And congressional races across the country each had their own dynamics.

In New York, the issue of crime helped Republicans pick up three seats, albeit by narrow margins. In Pennsylvania and Michigan, two states where abortion was a dominant issue, Democrats won in Republican-leaning districts — or at least made them competitive.

And then there was the Trump factor. The former president endorsed candidates in Republican primaries who would espouse his unfounded theories of a stolen election.

In Washington State, for example, Republicans lost a seat they held for 12 years after Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler, who voted to impeach Trump, lost in a primary election. The Trump-endorsed Republican who replaced her, Joe Kent, lost to Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez.

Lauren Boebert, a conservative firebrand from Colorado running in what was considered a reliably safe Republican district, finds herself leading by just 0.2 percentage points in a race likely heading to a recount.

Some solid Democratic districts became unexpectedly competitive, too. Most notable was a seat held by Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, a New York Democrat who as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee quarterbacked the party’s effort to win competitive seats. He lost to Republican Mike Lawler by 0.8 percentage points in a Hudson Valley district that was supposed to be a safe haven for him.

Democrats also waged a risky, but successful gambit in which allies spent $36 million in 13 Republican primaries for ads to help elevate candidates they determined would be weaker opponents in the general election, particularly those who were most ideologically aligned with Trump.

But Biden’s performance in 2020 might have been an outlier, making it difficult to predict how competitive districts were until they actually held elections. “We all know that the 2020 election was not typical,” said Adam Kincaid, president of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, which coordinates data and litigation for Republican map-makers. “People forget that politics in this country is fluid. Races are competitive in some cycles that are not competitive in other cycles.”

And Kincaid is bullish on Republicans’s chances in 2024.

“What we’re going to find — once they’re done counting all the ballots in California — is that Republicans missed out on significantly more seats by a small number of votes,” he said.

Still, fewer than 40 competitive districts out of 435 leaves more than 90% of the country with little more than a long-shot chance of electing a representative from the opposing party.

Those voters may be happier with their representation, said Heather Evans of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and author of “Competitive Elections and Democracy in America: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” After all, representatives from heavily Republican or Democratic districts are more likely to reflect the partisanship of their voters. And competitive elections see more negative ads and mudslinging.

But competitive elections also lead to more accountability, she said. “At the end of the day, when people are more engaged, they know more about their representatives, they know more about government,” she said. “Representatives who are about to face a competitive election think very hard about how best to represent their district. All of that is positive.”

Almost all the competitive House seats this year were labeled by the Cook Political Report as toss-ups or leaning toward one of the major parties, with the exception of two considered as solid seats: Florida’s 23rd district, which incumbent Democrat Jared Moskowitz won by only 4.7 points, and Boebert’s district in Colorado.

It’s ultimately these seats, some decided by mere hundreds of votes, that will decide the balance of power and continue to loom large in the coming cycles.

“Given that the House is so closely divided and is about to remain closely divided, voters in those districts will actually have more power to determine the future of the country,” Wang said.