If you are a Democrat or a liberal and are hoping that the 2018 midterms might put Dems in control of one house of Congress or the other, you might think that the bad approval numbers of President Trump (who is in some sense a Republican) and the difficulties that the Republican-controlled Congress is having accomplishing anything significant would be good for the Dems. And maybe it is, in some generic partisan sense.
But candidates don’t run as generic partisans. In terms of taking over either House of Congress, you have to look at two very daunting realities facing the overall Dem hopes, namely the lineup of Senate races that are up this year, which is pretty disastrous for the Dem pickup prospects, and the size of the Republican majority in the House, which is substantial.
First the size of the House majority: 241-194. That’s not huge by historical standards, but it would take a significant wind at the backs of Democratic House candidates to take over.
The Dems would need to pick up a net 24 seats to reach bare majority status. Bigger pickups have happened many times in congressional history. (The biggest was the 97-seat gain by Democrats in 1932). But such large swings may be an even bigger challenge in the age of computer-assisted gerrymandering, which in the present era seems to favor Republicans.
Turnout is always substantially – like about 20 percentage points — lower in a midterm year, compared to a presidential election year. And the challenge is bigger still given the historical tendency of Democratic turnout to decline more, compared to Republican turnout, from presidential election years to midterms. (Here’s a Washington Post piece that breaks down that tendency).
And there’s the Republicans’ success at preventing or repealing various measures that make it easier to register and vote, which they obviously believe stops more Democrats than Republicans from voting.
On the other hand, there is a somewhat offsetting tendency for turnout to rise for the out-of-power party relative the in-power party.
Here’s a Nate Cohn/New York Times piece, speculating that the Trump effect and some other factors might create a climate in which Democratic turnout will surge, relative to Republican turnout, in 2018.
To be clear, I don’t doubt that the Democrats may make gains in 2018. I do struggle to comprehend the enduring strength of the president and his party, so it’s hard to think clearly about what might undermine or counter that strength. But, at this ridiculously early point, a 24-House-seat Dem gain in 2018 strikes me as a heavy lift.
But, to get to the granular race-by-race level, I’ll go over the ratings of “Inside Elections” editor Nathan Gonzales and his crew. They are similar, but not identical to, the other pundits who attempt to handicap every race, and you’ll begin to see how heavy a lift it will be.
Inside Elections (IE’s overview of the race for House control is viewable here) rates just seven of the 435 House races as toss-ups (two of them are from Minnesota, which I wrote about previously). Of the seven, four are already held by Democrats, so if a strong blue wind blows next November and the Dems win all the closest toss-up races, they would net just three pickups of the 24 they need.
The next two categories are those that IE says “lean Democratic” (of which three are held by Democrats and one by a retiring Republican) and those that are “likely Democratic” (of which all five are already held by Dems). So again, if we assume a high blue tide is washing in and the Dems hold all their vulnerable seats and pick up one that leans their way, they are at a net of plus four.
But from this point forward, we are dealing with seats in which IE currently believes the Republicans are at least somewhat more likely to hold than to lose.
The next IE category is called “tilt Republican,” of which there are six, all currently held by Republicans. A tilt is just a tilt, and just a rating category by an outfit that tries to follow 435 races. But if these guys know much, the Dems would be having a very good year if they turned all six of those red seats, that currently tilt red, into blue seats. But that still gets them only to a net gain of 10. They need 24.
The next category “lean Republican,” are those that are somewhat in play but are viewed as safer for the Repubs than those that only tilt. These 21 Republicans (including Minnesotan Erik Paulsen) are favored, but not rated as safe. But if every race in every category I’ve mentioned so far, including the tilts, goes blue, the Dems would net a gain of 31 seats and they would take control of the House with a few seats to spare and without having to win any of the seats currently rated “likely” or those that are considered so safe that they are not rated at all.
I can imagine a tide that strong, but since I didn’t foresee Trump’s victory last year, my instincts or ability to see the future can be ignored. Still, that picture of the present is what I called the “daunting reality” for Dems in their efforts to take over the House.
In the U.S. Senate, it’s not the numbers that are daunting. It’s the lineup, and I don’t see enough attention being devoted to the Dem’s lineup problems. “Daunting” may be too weak a word for the challenge faced by Democrats in their quest to take majority control of the Senate.
Democrats (plus the two independents who caucus with them) already hold 48 seats.
The Dems would need a mere three pickups, on net, to take control, which would put them in a position to block a great many things that Democrats disdain, or perhaps use their increased leverage to negotiate changes that would represent progress for each party’s agenda.
In the Senate, as you know, not all seats are up every cycle. In 2018, 34 seats will be on the ballot. But here’s where the issue of the Dems’ extremely difficult “lineup” comes into play.
Of the 34 seats that will be on the ballot in 2018, 25 are already held by a Democrat (or one of the two independents who caucus with them). That means that even if they can retain all 25 of the seats they now hold that are up next year — which is a tall order since Republicans will obviously hit the weakest incumbents with everything they have — they would have to pick up three of just nine of the seats now held by Republicans. Three out of nine is very high ratio when it comes to knocking off incumbents. (They won’t all be incumbents. Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee have announced, flipping the bird at Trump as they did so, that they would not seek another term. At this point, all of the other Republican senators whose terms expire in 2018 are seeking re-election.)
Well, there’s one more category, namely the Alabama seat. That one was vacated by Republican Jeff Sessions when he became attorney general, then filled by appointee Luther Strange. But then Strange lost a primary to keep his seat to the odious, twice-defrocked Judge Roy Moore. (A few instances to justify the “odious” word choice here.) Moore will have to run in a special election in December. But, despite all these problems, Alabama is so red that IE rates the seat as “likely Republican.”
And another six seats held by Republicans that are up in 2018 are likewise in such red states (Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wyoming) that IE rates them all “solid Republican,” which is their strongest way of saying “not in play” (unless something happens later to cause us to reclassify the race).
So, although the Dems would need just three pickups, they can’t pick up any of the 25 that they already hold (and could lose some). And of the nine that are now held by Republicans, seven are in deep red states. That’s the essence of the challenge for Democrats in the Senate.
There are two other currently Republican-held seats that IE rates as toss-ups, both in instances where the incumbents are not seeking another term. Those are the Jeff Flake seat in Arizona and the Bob Corker seat in Tennessee, which I mentioned above. But four other races, with Democratic incumbents are likewise rated as toss-ups.
The ratings will likely move around as those races develop, but if the Dems held all four of their own toss-ups, and won all the seats (including three “tilt Dem” seats, two “lean Dem” seats, and one “likely Dem” seat) that are now occupied by Democrats, then the Senate in 2019 would be divided 50-50 and the Constitution establishes that in case of tie votes in the Senate, the tie-breaking vote is cast by the vice president, Republican Mike Pence.