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Six House Races to Watch for a Democratic Wave

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Democrats need 23 seats to take control of the House. They are about there with likely pickups of suburban seats across the country, from Pennsylvania and Minnesota to Colorado and California. Most of these districts tilt blue, or Democratic, and were carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

But to produce a blue wave, gaining 35 to 40 seats, Democrats have to capture Republican-held seats in red-tinted small towns and rural America that haven't been friendly in recent years.

Six difficult, though competitive, districts illustrate the challenge: Maine's second district comprising most of the state geographically; New York's 22nd along the Mohawk River Valley; West Virginia's third in the heart of coal country; Illinois' 12th district in the southern part of the state; Kansas's Second, which includes Topeka and the university town of Lawrence but is otherwise rural; and Washington's Fifth, covering the entire less populated eastern slice of the state.

Two of the districts have open seats; the others are defended by incumbents. All of them are predominantly white. Except for the Illinois district, less than 10 percent of the voters are African-American or Latino. The income and education levels are below the national average. If that sounds like Trump country, it is; he carried all these places by double digits.

Republicans had been concerned about lethargy in these districts, they said, but now insist that the bitterly partisan hearings over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh energized their base. Trump's active campaigning and messaging in the next three weeks will make a difference in the contests, Republicans believe.

Democrats counter that the Kavanaugh effect was primarily in a few Senate races and has dissipated since he was confirmed. They contend an important indicator is their growing support among non-college-educated white women who have been voting Republican.

In the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, white non-college-educated women, over four years, had given the GOP a 10-point advantage on which party they favored to control Congress. Last month the poll flipped as these women preferred Democrats by five points.

There is no competitive House race where Trump isn't a factor; to see which way this cuts, just look at whether he's cited more by the Republican candidate or the Democratic one.

The six red-tilting battlegrounds in this analysis are all Democratic priorities, among the 84 seats on the party's Red to Blue target list. (The Democrats probably have a private list about half that length, and the six are on that one, too.) Republicans are pulling resources out of more than a half-dozen suburban seats to focus more on districts like these.

For all their demographic similarities, these contests (like most contests) are affected by the quality of the candidates and extraneous factors, like who is on the top of the party's ticket in those states in races for the U.S. Senate and for governor. In general, these considerations are working to the Democrats' advantage in tough territory. 

In the Northeast, the Democrats have recruited two attractive state legislators in their 30s: Anthony Brindisi in New York and Maine's Jared Golden, who is a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. The central New York seat has a six-point generic Republican advantage, but incumbent Representative Claudia Tenney, a vocal Trump supporter, is to the right of the district’s electorate.

In both West Virginia, where Trump remains very popular, and Kansas, the Democrats have fielded strong candidates that suit their districts. Richard Ojeda in West Virginia may be helped by a strong showing in Democratic Senator Joe Manchin's re-election bid. In Kansas, Paul Davis ran a close race for governor four years ago and carried the House district where he is running this year. He also may be helped by an ideological struggle in the state Republican ranks.

The two most difficult races for Democrats of the six in this analysis may be against Republican incumbents Mike Bost in Illinois and Cathy McMorris Rodgers in Washington state. Both contests provide openings, however.

Bost is running against Brendan Kelly, who Bost charges has "spent his career" supporting House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic speaker of the Illinois state house. Kelly, a Navy veteran and prosecutor the past eight years, has never served in either legislature, and he opposes Pelosi for House speaker.

In her race, McMorris Rodgers, who is chair of the House Republican conference, is accused by her Democratic opponent, former state Senator Lisa Brown, of lacking convictions. McMorris Rodgers praises the huge federal tax cut, while claiming to worry about the ballooning U.S. deficit, and she supported Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, yet said she found Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused him of sexual assault, "credible." 

All districts are unique. Yet looking at the results on Nov. 6 in these half-dozen seats across the U.S. will provide a reliable guide to the new House of Representatives. If the Democrats get shut out in these races, they'll be lucky to have a bare majority. If they win two or three of the six, look for an overall gain of 30-plus members. Four or five victories would signal a 40-seat edge.

If they sweep, it's a blue tsunami.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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