House Democrats Pin Hopes on Late Western Votes to Avoid Further Losses

Just like in 2010, the West could act as a breakwater against the GOP wave in the House.

The midterms have already been labeled a Republican wave, but House Democrats are hoping that, once again, they can at least break that wave in the West, cutting off Republicans' majority at 246 seats.

Fortunately for the minority party, the final ballots in the seven remaining House races that are still undecided—five in California and one in Arizona, plus another one in New York—are breaking their way. Rep. Ami Bera, a California Democrat, is currently down by slightly more than 2,000 votes; in-state colleague Rep. Jim Costa trails by 736 votes, and Rep. Ron Barber of Arizona is behind by only 363 votes, and those gaps are narrowing as officials count early and absentee ballots, which are favoring Democrats.

Rep. Scott Peters, a Democratic freshman from San Diego who trailed on election night, took an 861-vote lead against his challenger as officials continued counting ballots at the end of the week. Rep. Julia Brownley, another freshman Democrat in California, holds a 530-vote lead over her challenger, and upstate New York veteran Rep. Louise Slaughter looks like she will eke out a narrow win, holding a 782-vote lead. The Associated Press has also not called California Rep. Jerry McNerney's race, but he appears to have some breathing room with a 2,360-vote lead.

These races all still have thousands of uncounted votes, but early ballots—and especially provisional ballots—tend to favor Democrats, while those cast on Election Day break for Republicans. And the early and provisional ballots are all that's left to count now.

In stark contrast with their results in other states, Democrats could potentially end up with a perfect record in California and Arizona, picking up one Republican-held seat and defending all of their incumbents.

That would echo Democrats' performance in 2010, when Republicans grabbed a 244-seat majority in the House but Democrats protected their incumbents in California, where Costa, McNerney, and others won reelection; and in Arizona, where then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords won by just a few thousand votes. Republicans haven't knocked off a Democratic member of Congress there since 1994, and they haven't netted seats in California since 1998, when Bera's opponent, former Rep. Doug Ose, first ran for Congress.

Bera is the most endangered incumbent remaining at this point, but even he still has reason to be optimistic, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, a California-based consulting group.

From Thursday to Friday, Bera's deficit dropped from 3,011 votes to 2,183 as officials counted more ballots. The Sacramento Bee reported there are still 70,000 remaining ballots in Sacramento County, but the county covers four districts and it's not clear how many of those ballots were cast in Bera's race. Mitchell said Bera should win the majority of the remaining ballots, and it's only a question of how many were cast in his district.

"When these flip, some people will be surprised, but these were close races, and traditionally the remaining ballots in close races favor Democrats," Mitchell said.

Barber is in an even better position than Bera. On Wednesday, Barber trailed by nearly 1,300 votes, but another round of ballot-counting cut his deficit to 363. There are still 24,000 ballots remaining from Pima County, which Barber won with 51.9 percent of the vote. The remaining Pima County ballots may well favor him even more because of Democrats' tendency to cast early or provisional ballots; in 2012, he won 53.8 percent of early and provisional ballots from Pima County. There are also 3,200 ballots left from Cochise County.

If Barber wins, it would be the second time he came from behind to fend off a challenge from retired Air Force fighter pilot Martha McSally, who nearly won the seat in 2012. In both cases, Barber has had a steep advantage among late-counted ballots.

In Arizona, those ballots tend to lean even more heavily toward Democrats than in other states, said Barber campaign consultant Rodd McLeod, because Democrats have focused heavily on early voting, and because, compared with other states, officials wait until after the election to count more early ballots. The first early ballots cast are counted beforehand, but as officials prepare for Election Day, they leave some early ballots for later; McLeod said this happens more than usual in Arizona. Combined with Democrats' focus on early voting there, that creates some unpredictable races.

"We Democrats have gotten very good at getting voters to vote early, so in this district, we basically lose the Election Day vote but win the early vote, and thus far have been winning it by, like, 54 [percent] and change to 45 [percent] and change," McLeod said.

Regardless of how many of these final races Democrats win, Republicans won't be too upset with the overall outcome. It speaks to the GOP's success this cycle that it could lose every targeted House race in two major states and still end up with a historic 246 seats.

"Already, the House Republican Conference will be historic in both size and regional diversity, with wins in every corner of the country," National Republican Congressional Committee press secretary Daniel Scarpinato said in a statement. "Additional races breaking our way will only strengthen our majority."