Why House Races Still Matter (Even in Safe Districts)

by Nathan L. Gonzales December 21, 2015 · 8:30 AM EST

The media is laser focused on Donald Trump and the presidential race and any scraps of attention are given to the fight for the Senate majority, while House races are deemed irrelevant.

But even though the majority is not in imminent danger, there are at least three reasons to pay attention to House races.

1. The majority matters: It should go without saying, but the House will have a major impact on how easily the next president will be able to implement his or her legislative agenda.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, or even Trump may ride into office with all the hopes and dreams in the world, but the partisan control of the House will validate or exterminate those plans.

Democrats are unlikely to gain the 30 seats necessary to win the majority, but it’s not impossible. Depending on the mood of the country and whom Republicans nominate for president, a Democratic majority can’t be completely ruled out.

Democrats are hoping for a repeat of the 1964 election, when Republicans nominated Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater for president and Democrats gained 37 House seats.

2. The margin matters. If Republicans lose a significant number of seats next November, but still retain the majority, it could strengthen the House Freedom Caucus because those members would be more necessary for Speaker Paul D. Ryan to pass legislation and constitute a larger proportion of the GOP conference. On the other hand, if Republicans retain something close to their current majority, it would make Ryan’s job a little easier.

The margin after the 2016 elections is also important because 2018 will likely be a challenging election for the party in control of the White House.

Democrats could gain a dozen or so seats in 2016 and put a dent in the GOP majority. But if Clinton is elected president, 2018 would be the third consecutive midterm with a Democratic president, and Democrats would likely lose seats. The president’s party has lost seats in eight of the last 10 midterm elections, and the average loss was 27 seats.

That also means the Republicans need to win as many House seats as possible in 2016, because if the GOP wins the White House, 2018 could be a difficult year for the party.

3. Primaries matter: One primary in a safe Republican seat in June 2014 turned the entire House Republican Conference on its head.

College professor Dave Brat’s defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia’s 7th District last year interrupted the House leadership succession plan, which was years in the making. It impacted the exit timing of Speaker John A. Boehner and emboldened anti-establishment candidates across the country.

Primaries are the most important election in the vast majority of districts, considering about 400 of 435 House districts are either safely Democratic or safely Republican. But even though partisan control is not at stake, each of those primaries will have a winner who will become part of one of the party’s conference.

There is a dramatic difference between adding a member to the House Freedom Caucus or a leadership ally, or whether Democrats add a moderate Blue Dog or another progressive activist from the Bernie Sanders wing of the party.

Apart from their influence within their respective conferences, some Members will go on to be senators, governors, and even presidents.

President John F. Kennedy represented a safe Democratic seat in Massachusetts before getting elected to the Senate and the presidency. More than half of the current senators and more than a handful of sitting governors served in the House and most of them came from safe districts.