Off to the Races

What’s at Stake in the Midterms

Majorities in both chambers hang in the balance, with huge implications for the agenda ahead.

President Trump shakes hands after addressing a joint session of Congress on Jan. 30.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
May 3, 2018, 8 p.m.

This 2018 election is a relative rarity. Sure, congressional elections come every two years, but it is really unusual for the majorities in the House and Senate to actually be teetering on the edge.

Usually one party goes into an election with a strong, if not prohibitive advantage, but with a change in power fairly unlikely. Control of the House has flipped three times in the past 25 years, a period encompassing a half-dozen midterm and presidential elections each, with all three party changes occurring in midterm years. Democrats lost their 40-year majority in President Clinton’s midterm election of 1994. Republicans then held it for 12 years until they lost it in the 2006 midterms under President George W. Bush. Democrats held on for just four years, losing their majority in the 2010 midterms under President Obama. GOP control is now in its eighth year.

In the Senate, Democrats entered the 1994 midterms having held majorities for 34 of the preceding 40 years. The six years of GOP control during that period followed Ronald Reagan’s landslide win over President Carter in 1980, a rare instance of control switching in an presidential-election year. Democrats had a brief edge in 2001-2002, when previously-Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords effectively changed parties and broke a 50-50 Senate tie. The GOP recovered their majority in 2002, and Bush had a 63-percent Gallup job approval rating going into that midterm, held just 14 months after the 9/11 attacks. Republicans lost their Senate majority in 2006 and regained it in 2014, so the current GOP majority is four years old.

What happens now? A micro-political, race-by-race House analysis suggests that Democrats are headed for pretty substantial gains, perhaps in the 30-seat neighborhood (30 seats would be seven more seats than they need to get to 218). The limitation is that the micro approach works well in normal “all politics is local” elections, but it chronically understates party gains and losses in wave years—when the political sum is greater than the parts. It dramatically understated Republican gains in 1994 and Democratic gains in 2006, for example; when dominos start tumbling in wave elections, they have a cascading effect. A more macro-political analysis, factoring in national and statewide polling and what appears to be a wave, suggests something more like a 40-seat Democratic pickup.

Obviously six months is a long time and much can and will happen, but the trajectory seems to be in a single direction and consistent with the party holding the White House losing seats in 35 out of 38 (92 percent) midterm elections since the end of the Civil War. In midterms with a president having job-approval ratings in the mid-40s or less, losses are typically in the 40-seat range. It is premature to say that the GOP majority in the House is toast, but is it in very serious danger? Absolutely.

Patterns aren’t nearly as strong in the Senate, where which third of the chamber is up—which specific seats—matters. The White House’s party has lost seats in 19 out of 26 (73 percent) midterm elections since we started the direct election of senators in 1913, an impressive pattern but nowhere near the House averages. The math and the map benefit Senate Republicans much more than their House counterparts.

What are the policy implications of these odds? The best-case scenario for Democrats in the House, a gain of 40 or 50 seats, would give them roughly the advantage that Republicans have had for the past two years, when they could pass some things, but even something that unified the majority as much as repealing and replacing Obamacare only passed on the third attempt. The best-case scenario for Republicans would probably be losing 10 to 20 seats, holding onto their majority by their fingernails. In the Senate, a best-case scenario for Democrats might be a net gain of three seats, giving them a scant 52-48 seat majority, while a best-case scenario for Republicans might end up with the GOP gaining three or four seats, putting them at 54 or 55 seats.

Putting all that together, giving the difficulty of getting anything controversial through the Senate (except under budget reconciliation, when a simple majority is sufficient), between filibusters and President Trump’s veto pen, it’s hard to see the next two years being any more productive than the last two. Judicial nominations surely matter, particularly if there is a Supreme Court vacancy coming along, as many suspect. Legislative inertia seems likely until one party is in a position to break things open and score really big gains. Ironically, given midterm election patterns and the specific group of Senate seats up in this cycle, had Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote win also translated into an Electoral College victory, we might well be talking today about how close to a 60-seat supermajority that Republicans could get in this election.

But majorities matter, and not just on the power to subpoena and judicial nominations, because they will set the stage and the policy debate going into the 2020 presidential campaign. The uncertainty in this election certainly beats the norm.

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