Republicans in Congress are still focusing on their legislative agenda, but soon enough, attention will turn from governing to campaigning. The 2018 midterm will be the first election since 2006 in which the GOP must face voters after having been in complete control of the government. It will be a challenge for the congressional GOP to win a vote of confidence from the people.
On the Senate side, the GOP has a nearly insuperable advantage. The seats up next year were contested in 2012, 2006, and 2000 — all of which were good cycles for Democrats. Accordingly, the handful of Republican seats that remain are quite solid, while Democrats must defend more than 20 seats. It is hard to imagine the Democrats’ gaining three seats to take the majority from Mitch McConnell.
The real action will be in the House of Representatives, where the GOP faces a genuine threat to its majority.
For most of the last century, the House has been a more or less static institution. Republicans took hold of the lower chamber in 1918 amid public frustration with the Woodrow Wilson administration and held it through the 1920s. That all changed with the Great Depression, when Democrats took control of the government. Between 1932 and 1992, they would lose the House only twice, in 1946 and 1952. Usually, the interesting question was not whether the Democrats would win but whether their majority would be large enough for the northern liberals in the caucus to seize control from the southern conservatives.
Since 1994, the House has been much more competitive, thanks to the bolting of conservative voters in the South to the GOP. In this period, the chamber has usually been narrowly divided, with an average of 225 GOP seats, just a little more than the 218 needed for a majority. Democrats nearly took the House in 2000. They did gain control in 2006, and they successfully defended their majority in 2008.
It should come as no surprise, then, that most analysts are expecting a competitive race next year. The Republican majority, standing at 241 to 194, is large but hardly overwhelming. A net pickup of 24 seats would hand the Democrats control of the chamber. Opposition parties usually win seats in a midterm election, and often they pick up more than 24. Democrats won 26 seats in 1982 and 30 seats in 2006. Republicans won 54 seats in 1994 and 63 seats in 2010. It would hardly be earth-shattering for the Democrats to win 24 seats next year.
Still, Republicans take some structural advantages into the contest. Their biggest edge is the distribution of their voters across the nation. Democrats dominate the large cities, so their voters tend to be concentrated in just a handful of urban districts. Additionally, the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act have since been read to mandate majority-minority districts, which has further inhibited the ability of Democrats to find voters across multiple districts. And as a result of the 2010 wave election, Republicans took control of many state legislatures in time to redraw district lines following the decennial census. It is easy to overestimate the effects of partisan gerrymandering, but on balance it has helped the GOP.
As a consequence, the House has a distinctly Republican tilt to it. Though Hillary Clinton won the nationwide popular vote by two points in 2016, the median House district voted for Donald Trump by three points. Likewise, Barack Obama won the nationwide popular vote by nearly four points in 2012, but the median House district voted for Mitt Romney by about one point. What this means is that the battle for control of the House of Representatives will mainly be fought in districts that supported Trump over Clinton. There are just 23 Republican-held districts that voted for Clinton in 2016, compared with twelve Democratic-held districts that voted for Trump.
Surprisingly, the state with the most pickup opportunities for Democrats is probably California — despite the fact that the party already dominates the Golden State’s congressional delegation. While Trump ran ahead of previous Republican nominees in the Midwest, he lagged badly in many parts of the West — especially California. Indeed, Clinton’s statewide vote share of 61 percent is the best any Democrat has done there since 1936. Trump’s unpopularity places several California Republicans on the hot seat. Dana Rohrabacher, Mimi Walters, Steve Knight, Darrell Issa, and Ed Royce all represent wealthy constituents in Southern California who were turned off by Trump.
Peter Roskam and Barbara Comstock, who respectively represent portions of the Chicago and Washington, D.C., suburbs, face a similar problem. Their affluent constituents did not care for Trump and voted for Clinton.
On the flip side, there are still a handful of Democrats representing predominantly white working-class constituencies that backed Trump last year. Cheri Bustos represents Illinois’s 17th congressional district, which includes parts of Peoria and Rockford. Obama won her district comfortably in 2008 and 2012, but last year it went to Trump. Iowa’s David Loebsack and Wisconsin’s Ron Kind are in a similar situation, representing districts in the upper Midwest whose working-class residents were drawn to Trump’s populist message. Carol Shea-Porter represents New Hampshire’s first congressional district, based around Manchester, one of the most competitive districts in the nation. Trump won it narrowly last year, after Romney and John McCain lost it.
Ultimately, these factors probably cancel one another out, meaning that the race will turn on the public mood and the state of the Union. Right now, those indicators suggest a very tight contest indeed. Political scientists have built econometric forecasts that estimate the aggregate House results based on broad parameters, such as the generic party preferences of polling respondents and the state of the economy. One model — designed by Edward Tufte of Yale University and modified by Gary Jacobson of the University of California, San Diego — predicts House elections based on presidential job approval and disposable income and currently finds the Democrats picking up seats in the range of 20 to 30 on net. An alternative metric — designed by Alan Abramowitz of Emory University — uses the generic ballot to predict shifts in the partisan makeup of the House. Right now, it finds a roughly similar result.
A major factor in all of this will be President Trump. To a large extent, that is inevitable, for midterm elections always hinge in part upon the president’s standing. But Trump is unique. He inherited a growing economy and a nation basically at peace. With past presidents, this has usually translated into strong job-approval numbers, but not with Trump. He entered office with historically low numbers, and his antics over the last several months may have further alienated voters.
As it stands right now, Trump is a drag on the Republican ticket, but that need not remain the case. The president received generally favorable reviews for his response to the hurricanes in Florida and Texas, the public applauded his bipartisan negotiations with congressional Democrats, and overall his job approval has ticked up a few points in the last month. Moreover, the selection of General John Kelly as chief of staff has brought a measure of order to a previously unruly West Wing staff. If Trump became acclimated to the task of governing, his numbers would continue to stabilize, if not improve, to better reflect the generally good conditions in the country. Unfortunately for the GOP, Trump also created needless controversy with his remarks on the rallies in Charlottesville and the protests in the NFL. He seems intent on remaining unpredictable and controversial.
From the congressional GOP’s perspective, it would be good for Trump to settle into the task of governing. Now is the time when incumbents are making their decisions about whether to seek reelection and potential challengers are eyeing a bid for the House. The party leadership wants to minimize the number of Republican retirements, which tend to make prime pickup opportunities for Democrats, and is encouraging its top-tier talent to challenge Democratic incumbents. If the nation has more confidence in Trump, vulnerable GOP incumbents will breathe easier about next year’s campaign, and GOP challengers will feel bolder about jumping into the race.
So far, GOP retirements have been kept to a relative minimum — just four open seats are real pickup opportunities for Democrats. In Florida’s 27th congressional district, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is retiring after 15 terms in Congress. Her heavily Latino Southern Florida district backed Obama and Clinton, suggesting it is a major midterm opportunity for Democrats. Dave Reichert of Washington’s eighth congressional district is also stepping down, after seven terms. His suburban-Seattle district went for Clinton by three points last year. Fortunately for the GOP, state senator Dino Rossi has declared his intention to run. He came just 129 votes short of winning the governorship in 2004 and was within five points of Patty Murray in the 2010 Senate election — impressive, considering the Democratic tilt of the state. The GOP also has to defend open seats in the Detroit and Philadelphia suburbs, where Trump support has been relatively soft.
Still, the party is not out of the woods just yet. Retirement announcements tend to come all at once, and there have been rumors that many Republican incumbents are getting ready to hang up their spurs. The more who decide to give up politics, the more likely Democrats will be to take the House.
While it is too soon to say which party will control the House, it is clear that the majority will be quite narrow. If the GOP manages to hang on, it will probably be by a very slender margin, maybe even leaving it with fewer than 220 seats. On the other hand, Democrats would really need to score an electoral blowout to win a comfortable majority, and whatever majority they cobbled together would more probably be built upon districts that have historically voted Republican, putting pressure on party moderates to buck their liberal leadership. Meanwhile, the closely divided Senate will probably remain so. And even if the Democrats do manage to take both chambers of Congress, they will still have to contend with President Trump’s veto pen.
So, while the particulars of the 2018 midterm are too hazy to predict, the broad outline is fairly clear. Gridlock will continue to dominate Washington, D.C., just as it has for most of the last decade. Both parties have won electoral victories since 2010 because voters have vacillated between the left and the right. Neither side can claim to have a majority of the people truly behind it, which is a prerequisite in our system for actual governance. In all likelihood, the policy logjam of the last ten years will continue well past the 2018 midterm, enduring so long as neither side is able to formulate a program that truly appeals to the electorate.
– Mr. Cost is a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard and the author of A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption.