Off to the Races

The Contours of the Next Congress

How each party wields power in the coming two years will depend on the raw math of seats won and lost in November.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Oct. 18, 2018, 8 p.m.

With three weeks to go before the midterm elections, minds are already starting to turn toward what the next two years will be like. So what is the most plausible situation in January, when the 116th Congress is sworn in?

Democrats look likely to pick up between 20 and 40 House seats next month, with 23 the number they need to take the majority. It’s a decent bet right now that Democrats will gain roughly 30 seats. Counting all currently vacant seats with the party that previously held them, Republicans now hold 240 seats to 195 for Democrats. A gain of 30 seats would get Democrats up to 225 seats and the GOP down to 210; a 40-seat net pickup for Democrats would get them up to 235, Republicans down to 200. It would take a Democratic gain of 46 seats to get them up to a majority of the same size that Republicans have today, so 23 and 46 are numbers to keep in mind on election night: The first number gets Democrats the chamber, committee and subcommittee gavels, and the power to convene oversight hearings and issue subpoenas, while the second number starts getting them a little room to pass legislation, though obviously what happens in the Senate and when President Trump decides to wield a veto pen matters. Given that not every Democrat can or would vote for impeachment, if Democrats were to decide to take that, in my opinion, highly ill-advised route, a bigger margin gives them more latitude for defections. It’s ironic that a small House win for Democrats might save them from pursuing a pointless fight over impeachment.

Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination fight probably hasn’t hurt Democratic chances of capturing a House majority, but it probably has put or lowered a ceiling on the number of seats they can win; the odds of them scoring a net gain of 40 seats or more is way down from where it was in August. To a certain extent, it was natural for some Republican voters to “come home.” Kavanaugh just expedited it, but it certainly galvanized many Republican and GOP-leaning independents, getting their partisan juices flowing and hurting Democratic chances of expanding the playing field of seats where they have a good chance of winning.

In the Senate, the most likely outcome is between no net change and a GOP net gain of two seats. If there is no net change, even after over $1 billion spent on Senate campaigns this cycle, Republicans would remain in the majority with 51 seats, while a gain of two seats would get them up to 53, dropping Democrats to 47. Two months ago, no net change was an extremely plausible outcome for this election, as Democrats picking up a seat or two was about as likely as Republicans gaining a seat or two. Now, post-Kavanaugh, no net change is probably the best-case scenario for Democrats. There might be a 10 percent chance that Democrats can pick up a seat or two, but nothing like before. The chances for Republicans gaining a seat or two is very real—in fact, a GOP gain of three or four seats is about as likely as that of Democrats picking up two or more.

Legislatively speaking, an outcome of no net change or Republicans picking up a seat or two is not as big as if either chamber were to flip, but it might well matter a lot in the out years as Republicans have 20 seats up in 2020, while Democrats have just 11 seats. In 2022, there are 22 Republican seats up, Democrats just 12. Suffice it to say, Republicans are more likely to be playing defense those years, though for the most part, their exposure is not nearly as great as what Democrats have to deal with this year.

With these outcomes, expect the hand-to-hand combat in Washington to continue. Obviously if Democrats capture a majority in one or both chambers, the question is how they wield that power: Do they engage in petty, partisan towel-snapping, as many House Republicans did when they had majorities in the last six years under President Obama? Or will they be a bit more judicious, playing more cautiously to optimize their chances for a big win in 2020? Many Democrats want a pound of flesh, so the temptation will be great.

As this column has noted, from a policy standpoint, it is the gubernatorial and state legislative elections that may have the greatest import. There are quite a few chambers and governorships in states in a position to flip from Republican to Democrat. That has serious redistricting implications, as congressional and state legislative boundaries for the next decade could be drawn by the state legislators and, in some states, the governors elected in this midterm. As Democrats painfully learned with their massive losses in 2010, losing governorships and state legislative chambers in the last midterm election before redistricting is the defeat that keeps defeating, for the rest of a decade. So on every level, this is a really big election.

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