Races for the U.S. House of Representatives in Alaska and Montana are usually of interest to local voters and political junkies, if that. But these obscure contests are among a small bunch that could end up determining whether President Donald Trump wins a second term or Democratic nominee Joe Biden sends him packing.
While this scenario might seem unlikely, it was predictable enough to be included in the Constitution. And it could arise again in this election.
The races would take on uber-relevance if there is a 269-269 Electoral College tie.
In that far-from-far-fetched scenario, the Constitution transfers the decision of who becomes president from the voters to the House. As members are expected to back their party’s nominee, that development might seem to favor the Democrats, because they hold a sizable House majority now and probably still will in the next session — the one that determines the presidency in the case of an Electoral College tie.
But that assumption would be wrong. The Constitution’s 12th Amendment, which spells out how the president and the vice president are elected, stipulates that the House vote for president be taken according to state delegations — as in one vote per state, reflecting the party affiliation of the majority of representatives in the state.
So states with a sole representative are worth the same in the House presidential ballot as the 45 Democratic members of Congress from California or the party’s 21 from New York. As it stands now, Republicans have a 26-23 edge in those delegations. (Pennsylvania’s state delegation is tied at nine Democrats and nine Republicans, meaning it would be sidelined.)
Still, Trump is far from certain to be chosen president in the case of an Electoral College tie — because Democrats are fighting hard in a handful of little-watched House races that could flip delegations to the left when a new Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3, three days ahead of a House presidential vote.
A bit of quick math shows there’s a nontrivial chance of an Electoral College tie. Trump won 306 electoral votes in 2016, or 36 above a majority of the 270 needed to win. Biden now leads in two longtime Democratic states that Trump nabbed four years ago: Michigan, with 16 electoral votes, and Wisconsin, with 10. Biden victories there would reduce Trump’s electoral edge to 280.
In Arizona, which has 11 electoral votes, polls mostly give the former vice president a small but consistent lead. A Biden win there would bring Trump’s electoral total down to 269. In that case, the new Congress elected next month would be charged with breaking the stalemate. So it’s imperative that Democrats shave Republicans’ state delegation edge by at least one to pick the next president. Because a clear majority is needed to choose the president, holding only 25 would deny GOP lawmakers the chance to elect Trump.
To try to do that, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in September told her rank-and-file members that they should put extra effort into winning seats they would otherwise pay little attention to because they are held by longtime incumbents.
House Democrats are already in good shape to expand the House majority they won in 2018, based in part on Biden’s lead over Trump in the national election — which can trickle down to help other Democrats on the ticket — and the many swing state polls that show the left likely picking up seats.
When it comes to winning seats that would change the composition of delegations, Democrats’ best targets are small-population states that send only a single member to the House, like Alaska and Montana.
In Alaska, Democrats are trying to take down Don Young, who is the House’s most senior member. Young, 87, has drawn scorn for decades over a string of incendiary and politically incorrect comments, but he has overcome each brouhaha. Education activist Alyse Galvin hopes to change that. A poll in July by the House Democrats’ campaign arm showed Galvin and Young neck and neck.
Since then, there hasn’t been much survey data. Democrats, though, do have room for optimism about down-ballot coattails for Galvin, because Trump leads Biden in Alaska by a smaller margin than Republican presidential nominees usually get and the Democrats’ Senate hopeful, Al Gross, is within striking distance in his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan.
Political dynamics are different in Montana, where there’s an open House seat. The Democratic nominee, former state Rep. Kathleen Williams, faces Republican state Auditor Matthew Rosendale. Recent surveys show that the race is tight, with Rosendale having a slight edge. Yet Democrats remain hopeful, because Montana’s traditionally strong report for GOP presidential candidates can splinter in congressional races.
From there it gets tougher for House Democrats to flip state delegations. Florida would seem an obvious target, because Republicans hold a narrow 14-13 edge. However, only one race is reasonably competitive, in the 15th District, in Central Florida, where a mid-October poll showed Republican Scott Franklin leading Democrat Alan Cohn by 48 percent to 45 percent.
And in Texas, Democrats conceivably could win five House seats to overcome Republicans’ 22-13 edge, because they are already likely to pick up an open West Texas district. They also have a decent shot at flipping another open seat in the Houston suburbs. And several Republican incumbents are vulnerable — Biden is even threatening to be the first Democratic presidential nominee since 1976 to win the Lone Star State.
Of course, if Democrats flip just one of these states (as opposed to three, which would give them an outright majority of state delegations), there wouldn’t be a majority winner from the first House presidential vote. In that case, the House would hold continual votes until a winner was chosen, a scenario lending itself to palace intrigue and the possibility of horse trading and political favors to flip one partisan to the other side of the aisle. And indeed, that’s what happened in the 1824 race, which eventually saw John Quincy Adams emerge as the winner.
So while this scenario might seem unlikely, it was predictable enough to be included in the Constitution. And it could arise again in this election.