5 House Races That Will Define the Midterms

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Five.

That’s the entire swing that has to happen for Congress to change its balance of power right now in a House that is divided 220-212 for the Democrats. In the grand scheme of things, it’s basically a rounding error. It’s why the nerds on the Hill are watching Succession in a non-ironic way, soaking up the infighting, rivalries, and internal strife onscreen as much as in real life.

If Republicans net five seats in November, they’ll have a majority. (There are also three vacant seats; two last occupied by Democrats and one by a Republican.) And with all 435 voting seats in the House on the ballot this fall, the odds aren’t as long as you might think to put the gavel in a Republican’s hands—even if that GOP lawmaker’s identity remains very much a TBD.

History is not on Democrats’ side. Since World War II ended, only once has a first-term president’s party fared well when it faced voters in the midterms, and that was in 2002 in the wake of 9/11. In every other mid-first-term report card, the party controlling the White House has lost, on average, 31 seats, ranging from John F. Kennedy’s loss of four House seats in 1962 to Barack Obama’s “shellacking” loss of 63 seats in 2010.

Democrats are realistic about their odds about holding their narrow majority in the next Congress. It’s part of the reason 31 of them decided to retire or seek other offices. Life in the minority isn’t fun at the Capitol, especially if House Republicans will be forcing Democrats to cast votes on measures assuredly facing a veto from President Joe Biden. Still, a subversive sect of Democrats are quietly telling reporters that polling has been woefully inadequate for years, and it’s entirely possible that Speaker Nancy Pelosi emerges once again as a survivor.

As the campaign hits its last month, The D.C. Brief is taking the measure of 15 races that may tell the story of politics in 2022, including these five House races.

Michigan: The Test-Case

Six months ago, Rep. Elissa Slotkin would have to admit she was destined to be moving home after this election. The Michigan Democrat won her 2018 race by a little less than 4 points, and won re-election by an even closer margin. Her redrawn district after the 2020 Census was now more rural and more Republican than before, and she wasn’t counting on any lucky breaks. If only the votes from 2020 were counted in the new district, she would’ve lost by 2 points.

Then, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization happened. The Supreme Court’s ruling to end Roe v. Wade’s federal protections for abortion rights reset the political landscape, reports TIME’s Charlotte Alter, and the legislature suddenly seemed like less of a lost cause for Democrats. Women from both parties were activated in a way unseen since the 2017 Women’s March. Suburban moms found their rage again. College students around Lansing were again a force.

Now, Slotkin has a fighting chance as she faces state Sen. Tom Barrett, who is in his eighth year representing his district in Lansing. Strategists in both parties see the race as a coin toss, even with about a two-point baked-in advantage for Republicans. It certainly is one of the most expensive races in the country. Neither party is arrogant enough to think they know how the winds will blow on Election Day, but the count there could be an early barometer of how Democrats broadly may fare.

New Hampshire: The Loyalists

In New Hampshire politics, the Pappas family is about as established as they come. Their family restaurant, the cheekily named Puritan Backroom, is legendary in a state known for its political must-stop venues, and its chicken fingers are such a staple that they won a James Beard award. Just about every candidate makes a stop there when going through Manchester, N.H., regardless of politics; then-VP nominee Paul Ryan and then-VP Joe Biden both went in 2012.

Rep. Chris Pappas is chasing his third term as a loyal member of the Biden wing of the Democratic Party. A Harvard-educated former state lawmaker and state and county exec, he was elected at age 38 in 2018 to a district that hasn’t really changed since the 1800s and is about as 50-50 as any spot in the country. His Republican opponent is Karoline Leavitt, a 25-year-old graduate of Saint Anselm College just outside of Manchester who worked in Donald Trump White House as a press aide. Her primary drew the support of her former boss, Rep. Elise Stefanik, and Sen. Ted Cruz, while her primary opponent was the preference for most of the GOP’s Establishment.

The Pappas-Leavitt match-up is going to be a race that tests the voting public’s appetite for a Biden-Trump rematch. After all, Pappas is a mainstream Democrat who keeps his nose down in Washington and has made fighting his state’s opioid scourge a top priority. His isn’t one for bombast and practically oozes Establishment credentials, having hosted White House hopefuls for decades at the restaurant. Leavitt is as Trumpy as they come, endorsing The Big Lie about election fraud, and calling the press her foes. She may prove the electorate’s patience for the burn-it-down posture in a state that seems to change by the month has a limit.

Ohio: The Misfire

Democrats had for months worried about the prospects for Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a member of the House since 1983 and one of the lawmakers most threatened by redistricting in the country. The 2020 map that sent her back to the House had been drawn to give Democrats about a 16-point advantage and she won it by 26 points; the new boundaries favor Republicans by 6 points. In other words, winnable, but it was going to be tough even before the national headwinds kicked in.

Then Republicans nominated a dark horse candidate. J.R. Majewski, who says he was at the Capitol during the Jan. 6 riots but left before things turned violent, almost immediately found himself facing scrutiny—including over his claimed military service that seemed to unravel when given a second look.

Republicans had hoped to use the state’s economic challenges, Biden’s low popularity, and an anti-spending message against Kaptur. But it’s tough to do that when the alternative is someone who at best was incomplete in accounting for his time in the Air Force and was incorrect in saying he served in Afghanistan after 9/11. National Republicans walked away from Majewski.

Kaptur may yet survive this and head back to Washington for her 20th term, not because of anything in her deep record, but because someone who joined Jan. 6 crowd may not have been Republicans’ best choice for the nomination. Then again, if Republicans decide that candidate quality is secondary to just having an R after your name on the ballot, it might be another sign that there could be sufficient numbers in Congress next year to start an Insurrectionist Caucus.

California: The Forgotten

David Valadao was one of just 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol. Only two of them will be on the ballots this fall, with the rest either losing primaries or deciding they shouldn’t even bother to try to keep their seats.

Oddly, Trump seems to have completely forgotten about the perceived betrayal. It was a rare primary where Trump didn’t endorse a challenger to someone who had voted for impeachment. Now it’s a head-to-head between Valadao and state Sen. Rudy Salas, without Trump’s thumbprint on the race.

The tweaked map gives Valadao’s boosters every reason to bite their nails. Under the old map, Biden won by 11 points; the new one would have given Biden a 13-point victory. Valadao ran ahead of Trump in the Fresno-area district, winning in 2020 by a narrow 1 point. He was just one of nine Republicans to win House races in Biden-backing districts. But that safety net is gone, and Valadao is in trouble. House Republicans’ official campaign arm is already in for seven figures of television ads to prop him up. And it’s lost on no one in California that Valadao’s district is due west of the home base of the Man Who Would Become Speaker, Kevin McCarthy; the Minority Leader isn’t likely to ignore trouble creeping in his own Bakersfield backyard.

Still, there are a few more weeks until Election Day, and Trump isn’t one to let perceived slights pass him by, even if it puts an endangered district in play. This is a race to watch to see how much of a leash Trump has put on himself. He already took out reliable conservative Liz Cheney, rising star Adam Kinzinger, and potential future mainstay Peter Meijer. What’s one more?

Texas: The Unicorn

Mayra Flores was an early warning sign for Democrats. The respiratory therapist and GOP insider won her majority Hispanic district in Texas for the Republican Party for the first time in a century. The race shocked leaders of both parties, who wondered if maybe Democrats’ hold on Hispanic voters was not as durable as long believed.

Now, five months after her surprise victory in a special election, Flores is running against incumbent Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who switched districts. Democrats publicly say Gonzales is safe, but they also thought the special election was safe, too. As TIME’s Jasmine Aguillera reports, the flaking Hispanic affinity for Democrats is more than a blip, and Democrats would do well to shore up that bloc before it slips too far away. The district may be the perfect crucible for that test, with major implications for 2024.

That said, the South Texas special election featured abysmal participation; just 7% of registered voters showed up. There is little chance that the numbers will be that low again, and the terrain is more blue than it was in June thanks to new maps. Democrats had largely ignored the special election and declined to match outside Republican spending. This time, they’re more plugged in. The race will be an early indicator of whether Democrats have their mojo with Hispanics, or if those voters are tired of feeling like they’re taken for granted.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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