The 2018 prospects for controlling Congress are daunting for Dems, despite Trump’s unpopularity

MinnPost file illustration by Jaime Anderson

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.

Senate overview

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.

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Comments (46)

  1. Submitted by William Lindeke on 10/26/2017 - 09:53 am.

    Gerrymandering is the GOP elephant in the room

    5 of 8 Minnesota congressional seats are “in play” on this list. One thing we can say with certainty is that, if all US states had districts drawn to be as competitive as Minnesota’s are, both the political conversation and the democracy of the country would be far better off.

  2. Submitted by John Webster on 10/26/2017 - 11:15 am.

    Trump is unpopular, but….

    Trump has low approval ratings, but those ratings are misleading. There are many millions of people who (if surveyed) would say they disapprove of Trump’s performance but who would vote for him anyway if the 2016 election were done over today. Those millions don’t like the way Trump usually conducts himself, but they like Democratic policies and politicians even less. In a do-over (or in 2020), they would vote for Trump and simultaneously gag in the voting booth, just as millions of Hillary voters did in 2016.

    BTW, it bears repeating that Republican candidates for the U.S. House collectively received 1.4 mllion votes that did Democrats in the 2016 election, so in a proportional representation parliamentary system like Israel has, Republicans would still be the majority party controlling both the legislative and executive powers.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/26/2017 - 03:42 pm.

      I hear the screams

      of numbers being twisted.
      The facts remain that Clinton received three million (3,000,000) more votes than did Trump, and that while the Republicans received 1.11% more votes for Congressional seats, they gained 11% in seats.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/26/2017 - 09:18 pm.

        Clinton won 4 million more in California because Republicans didn’t vote there…

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/27/2017 - 02:52 pm.

          This doesn’t make any more sense

          than it did the last time that it was posted.
          No one barred Californians from voting for Republicans — they chose not to.
          Same thing happens in all noncompetitive races.

        • Submitted by ian wade on 10/27/2017 - 04:22 pm.

          Last I heard,

          California is still part of the United States.

        • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 10/27/2017 - 07:17 pm.

          The world is run

          by those who show up.

          What’s your point?

          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/29/2017 - 09:15 pm.

            My point is that bringing up popular vote results is totally irrelevant. In California, unlike in other states where presidential election was noncompetitive, all races were noncompetitive so there was no reason for Californian Republicans to go to voting stations at all. If presidential elections were decided by popular votes, they would have voted and the results could have been totally different…

            • Submitted by Nick Foreman on 10/30/2017 - 02:46 pm.

              Last sentence

              Highly doubtful

              • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/30/2017 - 02:55 pm.

                It’s just as likely

                that even MORE dems would have bothered to vote if the outcome were in doubt.

              • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/30/2017 - 09:59 pm.

                In other parts of the country both D’s and R’s had reason to vote, in California R’s didn’t…Of course, there is no way to know what the results of the popular elections would have been but that is just another reason not to bring up the popular vote results.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/27/2017 - 04:27 pm.

      Hey, Wait a Minute

      Conservatives have been telling since last November that it doesn’t matter who gets the most votes.

      Which is it? Does the popular vote matter or not?

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/26/2017 - 11:17 am.


    …with both Bill Lindeke and Eric. Yes, I’d like to see many Congressional Districts (and states, for Senators) “in play” all over the country, for every election. In that scenario, presumably (no guarantee) House and Senate members would pay more attention to their constituents and be more…um… transparent about what they’re doing than they are now. My bias, then, is that we’d be better off if districts were generally more competitive, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen. In the meantime, I think Eric is quite correct in asserting that a “blue wave” in next year’s off-year election is highly unlikely. Were I a betting man, I wouldn’t put even a dollar on that sort of outcome in 2018.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/26/2017 - 03:22 pm.

    “Will of the people….”Does

    “Will of the people….”

    Does that phrase even mean much anymore?

    The was strong bipartisan support among voters for the right to sue banks and other financial entities rather than being strong-armed into one-sided arbitration arrangements. Yet in an era of sluggish/nonexistent movement of legislation,in the era of massive fraud by Wells Fargo and massive carelessness by Equifax, the measure was passed (with the help of Pence’s vote).

    “Draining the swamp” and “consumer protection” would seem to go hand-in-hand, yet they were defeated handily by a dismissive legislative and executive branch.

    This is not good for popular democracy.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/27/2017 - 04:47 pm.

      When you say “consumer protection,” do you mean safety regulations or allowing to sue the companies?

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/28/2017 - 07:03 pm.

        Well, if you think that what Wells Fargo or Equifax did is best addressed by mandatory arbitration procedures in which the arbitrators and arbitration rules are captive to Wells Fargo or Equifax, then you really don’t care about draining the swamp, the “little guy”, or consumer protection.

        • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/29/2017 - 09:16 pm.

          I really don’t think that having jury, most likely swayed by clever attorneys and feeling sorry for that little guy, award $100 million punitive damage actually helps the little guy who gets $100 while attorneys get $10 million…

          • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/30/2017 - 07:51 am.

            At least you are consistent in protecting the poor, tender corporations–the newest child of the legal world. The issues arise in class-action lawsuits as well as individual lawsuits. Egregarious violations of law are passed over with little or no penalty. The real reason for forcing arbitration is that true legal action has cost the businesses a thousand time more than the arbitration process. If the cost of “doing business as usual” is so low as compared to returns, of course the corporations will continue on.

            The goal of the modern “conservative”–remove regulation and eliminate the ways to redress wrongs or punish the powerful violators.

            • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/30/2017 - 10:01 pm.

              “The real reason for forcing arbitration is that true legal action has cost the businesses a thousand time more than the arbitration process.” Of course, so we will all pay for that in higher prices like we do for drugs where even the fear of lawsuits adds costs (do you see all those commercials on TV?). Let’s advocate for fairer arbitration process, not for huge legal fees which don’t help the little guy at all.

              “The goal of the modern “conservative”–remove regulation and eliminate the ways to redress wrongs or punish the powerful violators.” If the death penalty does not deter people from crime, paying money will not deter big companies from trying to get the most profit – they will find the way to get it from you and me which is fine with me so long as I get what I want. The right thing to do is to compensate the victims.

          • Submitted by Nick Foreman on 10/30/2017 - 02:55 pm.

            You clearly have no understanding about

            Civil trials; corporations have attorneys too. Furthermore corporations prefer to screw the “little guy” in forced arbitration (see small print in credit cards routinely).

            • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/30/2017 - 07:17 pm.

              In fact

              Corporations can usually afford better legal representation than consumers, particularly since the ‘arbitration’ clause decision made class action law suits virtually impossible.

            • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/30/2017 - 10:01 pm.

              Of course, corporations have attorneys but generally juries are on the little guy’s side… who ends up getting his or her $100 while attorneys get millions and you and I are paying for that…

              • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/31/2017 - 09:37 am.

                Even civil trials

                seldom end up with juries.
                It fact, most cases never go to court; they are settled with a plea bargain.

              • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/31/2017 - 10:05 am.

                His or Her $100

                That is why we have class actions–to make it economically worthwhile to pursue smaller claims.

                There is a lot of hand-wringing over the unfair burden imposed on companies who are called to account for their wrongdoings. Wouldn’t it just be easier and more economical for business to follow the law in the first place?

                • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/31/2017 - 10:32 pm.

                  “That is why we have class actions–to make it economically worthwhile to pursue smaller claims.” Exactly – economically worthwhile for attorneys. The Little Guy still gets next to nothing which would be the result of arbitration anyway (actually, it may be more due to saving on attorney’s fees).

                  “Wouldn’t it just be easier and more economical for business to follow the law in the first place?” I would guess it would be but apparently for some it is not. Doesn’t it apply to all crimes?

                  • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/01/2017 - 10:53 am.

                    Economically Wortwhile

                    “Exactly – economically worthwhile for attorneys.” Yes, but also economically worthwhile for their clients (who are actually the ones who share in any punitive damages, FYI). Attorneys’ fees are a separate part of the award, and not directly paid by the client.

                    Why would a fear of attorneys (still a lawful profession, last time I checked) lead you to allow lawbreaking businesses to continue operating with impunity?

                    “I would guess it would be but apparently for some it is not. Doesn’t it apply to all crimes?” I suppose so, although I don’t see what you’re getting at. It makes more sense economically for an unskilled laborer in Honduras to come into the US illegally and work without lawful permission, gambling against the possibility of being caught. Does that excuse them?

                    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/01/2017 - 09:58 pm.

                      “economically worthwhile for their clients (who are actually the ones who share in any punitive damages, FYI)” You mean $100 per person when all class action participants are considered? How is it economically worthwhile?

                      “Why would a fear of attorneys (still a lawful profession, last time I checked) lead you to allow lawbreaking businesses to continue operating with impunity?” I do not have any fear of attorneys nor do I advocate for allowing lawbreaking businesses to keep doing it. All I am saying is that arbitration will most likely result in the same amount awarded to the victims, if not more, without making us pay the price of it. On the other hand, if the law is constantly broken, maybe there is something wrong with the law?

                    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 11/02/2017 - 09:06 am.


                      “All I am saying is that arbitration will most likely result in the same amount awarded to the victims, if not more, without making us pay the price of it.” What you are saying is dead wrong. Studies have shown that arbitration–even when it is resorted to by consumers–typically results in a win for business.

                      “On the other hand, if the law is constantly broken, maybe there is something wrong with the mindset of the business world?” Fixed it for you.

                    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/02/2017 - 09:25 pm.

                      “Studies have shown that arbitration–even when it is resorted to by consumers–typically results in a win for business.” Do you mean that businesses buy arbitrators? Or maybe because in most instances businesses really didn’t do anything wrong?

                      “”On the other hand, if the law is constantly broken, maybe there is something wrong with the mindset of the business world?” Fixed it for you.” Thank you for correcting me. Now the next logical step is to get rid of businesses altogether and let government do everything… How did it work in the Soviet Union or Cuba?

              • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 10/31/2017 - 11:56 am.


                Plaintiffs win a higher percentage of civil cases decided by judges (about 66%) versus juries (about 53%), per the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

  5. Submitted by John Appelen on 10/26/2017 - 07:22 pm.


    I guess I am curious what platform Democrats will run on???

    Will they stick with their tired old… regulate more, tax more, grow government, grow public employees unions, redistribute more, hold people accountable less, protect more people, handout more “fish”, etc?

    Or will they change it up some?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/27/2017 - 04:36 pm.

      Whoa Whoa There!

      During the Bush 43 administration, there was a special one time reduction in the tax rate fro corporate taxes that had been held overseas. The barons of the board rooms told the one time Texas guv that if he did this favor for them, why they’d be able to raise wages and invest in their US operations. And there’d be more jobs to boot! A win for stock holders and those on the factory floor.

      Sound familiar? It should. That’s we’re being told the same song and dance today. But what happened the last time we gave in to our corporate overlords? Let’s check the record.

      Bush was sorely disappointed that the vast majority of the windfall went to stockholders. He’d been had by those who he literally called “my base”.

      So if the GOP is so interested in “holding people accountable”, why are they shilling for the corporate types again? Are they that gullible? Are they forgetful? Or are they just interested in shilling for the point one percent?

      Responsibility my eye.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 10/30/2017 - 12:47 pm.

      Teaching people to fish

      Glad I can count on your support for universal, free vocational education.

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 10/27/2017 - 08:02 am.

    GDP is 3%, (an impossibility according to

    Obama administration), ISIS has lost their caliphate territory in 9 months with a simple change of “rules of engagement “ (remember according to last administration this was impossible), looking like we will lower the corporate tax rate by 15% and stimulate the economy even more, reductions in regulations to help USA workers and the DNC is broke and in the red, while RNC is doubling up the fund raising. Those are the facts for non left leaning folks who voted out 1;000 Dems, turned both Houses over to GOP, voted in 34 Governors and elected Trump since 2008. Most of us folks “clinging to our guns and bibles” don’t worry about transgender bathrooms, not worried if France doesn’t like us, think using our own oil makes sense, want border security, support LEGAL immigration and will continue to vote for folks who feel the same.
    As I have said many times, the Dems are hanging their hat on the ACA, Iran nuclear deal, Dodd/Frank as Obama’s legacy. Most voting informed folks are not that impressed!!!

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/27/2017 - 01:31 pm.

      Not surprising

      …that the GDP is up more than expected (what are your sources for that information?). My guess is that a business-friendly, low-tax president and an even more business-friendly, and even lower-tax friendly cabinet, might have that sort of effect even if the Current Occupant had a stroke and never signed another bill or typed another tweet. Business leaders like being praised almost as much as the Current Occupant.

      Sort-of agree about ISIS, though I confess I’m not up to speed on current “rules of engagement” or the change of which you speak. I wonder how much of that can be attributed to the president, and how much to changes in military and diplomatic leadership, but I’m willing to give both the benefit of the doubt. It does seem like ISIS has had to crawl back under the rock from whence it came, at least for the time being.

      As a mountain of research since the end of WW2 has shown (the most recent experiment being Kansas), lowering corporate tax rates does nothing to stimulate economic activity. Individual and corporate federal tax rates were far higher in the first couple decades after WW2, often regarded as an economic high point.

      Reductions in regulations might help American workers if those regulations are, in fact, stifling job creation, but I’ve seen no evidence that that’s the case. Recent elimination of financial regulations will do nothing, for example to create jobs with a living wage, but will put—once again—the financial sector, and the economy as a whole, at risk. We have ample proof, only about a decade old, that financial companies do a terrible job of self-regulating. Wells Fargo has proven that big banks are not trustworthy. And so on. Regulations are not put in place to purposely stifle the economy. They’re almost always the result of complaints from people who are being harmed (or at least claiming to be harmed) by a more laissez-faire environment.

      No surprise that the RNC is getting plenty of contributions. The GOP has turned into the party of the plutocrats and their sycophants, and every historical period has seen people with money and privilege work hard to maintain that money and privilege. If I were in the 1% instead of the 99%, I’d likely support the party that promised to maintain my wealth and privileges, too.

      Using our own oil does make sense, but oil is a fungible commodity, and if oil companies can make more money sending our oil elsewhere, they’ll do so. Reducing out dependence on oil is an even better idea, so I’m more in favor of investing in, and experimenting with, alternative modes of transit that don’t rely on oil. Bike if you can, but if you can’t, much, much better mass transit and electric automobiles strike me as a better solution to oil troubles, and that transition would bring with it quite a few jobs paying a living wage, as well.

      I don’t worry too much about transgender bathrooms, either, if by “worry too much” you mean it’s one of my top priorities. It isn’t. Instead, reducing our knee-jerk reactions to gender seems to ma a more fair and equitable approach. Just sayin’…

      I’m in favor of border security and legal immigration, as well. The evidence that Congress (Republicans and Democrats alike) is interested in something approaching fairness on these issues is slim to none, so far, however. Much of the rhetoric around immigration leans either too far to the left and “identity politics,” or too far to the right and racism in the guise of cultural suspicion.

      I’m waiting, as are many others, for the Democrats to devise a coherent message that speaks to fairness for, if not everyone, then as many as possible. So far, I’m not seeing or hearing that. It’s not a case of “Obama’s legacy,” at least not for me. I thought Obama, while president, was an articulate and principled moderate Republican, in the guise of a mainstream Democrat. The current GOP’s right wing strikes me as neofascist, so I can’t support most of what it advocates, and I’m reasonably well informed. I’m not impressed (that’s as politely as I can phrase it) with either the Republican Congress or the Current Occupant, but there’s plenty of room for improvement on both their parts.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/31/2017 - 10:34 pm.

        “The current GOP’s right wing

        “The current GOP’s right wing strikes me as neofascist,” Can you please provide examples of their actions that led you to this conclusion?

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/30/2017 - 12:28 pm.

      Obama HAD 3% Growth Too

      Mr. Smith, Obama also had 3% GDP growth. At least for a few quarters. His best quarter in the second term was over 5%.

      Come back and talk to me when Trump has sustained growth of 3%. Given the stagnant US population, the odds of us seeing growth like that are somewhere between slim and none. Slim just got deported, and none decided to emigrate to Canada.

  7. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/30/2017 - 09:38 am.

    Depends on

    whether they nominate Trump or Pence.
    I’d bet about 50/50 right now.

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