Blue takeover of Congress? At least 3 factors complicate that narrative for Dems in ’18

REUTERS/John Gress
The lesson of 2016 is that nothing is in the bag until they count the votes.

Heading into the 2018 election, Democrats have the wind at their backs. Republicans are stuck with an unpopular president, but are mostly afraid to distance themselves from him for fear of alienating “The Base.” All polling data, the evidence from recent special elections that Democrats have won in unlikely places, and the history of midterms (which show that the sitting president’s party usually loses ground in the midterms), all suggest that, if the election were held today, Democrats would be favored in a lot of races.

Without question, as of now, Democrats have a big lead in enthusiasm, which is evident not only in polling but in turnout for all the recent special elections, new registrations, appeal to young voters and others who have not always participated, and pretty much all the ways that political analysts attempt to discern the direction of the political winds.

If you aren’t cautious, you could convince yourself that Democrats are holding a pat hand. (That’s like getting dealt a straight or a flush in poker.)

But the Dems are not holding a pat hand. (In the fall of 2016, a lot of analysts thought Hillary Clinton was holding a pat hand. The excellent analyst Stu Rothenberg wrote in mid-October 2018 that Donald Trump’s path to victory was not “narrow,” but “nonexistent.”) I respect Rothenberg and often learn from his work, but in writing that particular column he went beyond mere analysis and convinced himself that he knew the future. He may be able to make better educated guesses about what will happen than I can, but neither he nor anyone else can see the future clearly.

Personally, in my little corner of the commentariat, I believe we should make clear that we don’t know the future. But if we did that, we probably wouldn’t get invited to be on the shows.

The lesson of 2016 is that nothing is in the bag until they count the votes. But, heading into campaign 2018, national generic ballot surveys (“if the election was held today would you vote for the Democrat or the Republican?”) look very good for the Dems (ranging from about a plus-five to a plus-11 points.)

At least three problems complicate the simple narrative of a great 2018 outcome for the Dems, leading to a blue takeover of Congress. The first I already covered: The future is unknowable. The second one is the U.S. House. The third one is the U.S. Senate.

The House: Dems need a net pickup of 24 seats

The problem in the House is that Democrats would need a net pickup of 24 seats (out of 435) to take control. (There are several open seats. For purposes of this calculation, I am treating those seats as if they are held by the party that last held them.)

It’s somewhere between a rule of thumb and an iron law that the party holding the presidency is likely to lose House seats in the midterm. It’s a very powerful tendency. In the last 20 midterms, the president’s party lost House seats 18 times. (OK, so it’s not an iron law. It’s a likelihood that occurs with about 90 percent frequency.

But the size of those losses for the president’s party is all over the map, from a minimum of four (in the 1962 midterm with John F. Kennedy in the White House) to a high of 63 (lost by the Democrats in 2010, the middle of Barack Obama’s first term, which led to Republican control of the House ever since).

Just based on the history of the recent similar cases, 24 is a gettable number but not an easy one. I looked just at post-World War II midterms occurring during the first term of a Republican president (which is what we have this year). There were six such examples, all coinciding with a Republican net loss in House seats in the middle of a Republican president’s first term, but in just two of those six cases was the net Republican loss in the midterm greater than 24.

I hear people who are hoping for that outcome talking about it with too much confidence. Given everything we know at the moment, it seems definitely possible, but hardly a cinch, that Democrats will accomplish a net pickup of 24 or more seats.

If you look at Real Clear Politics’ aggregation of eight recent polls that asked variations of, “If the election was held today, would you vote for a Democrat or a Republican for the U.S. House?” they all show an edge for the Democrats. But the size of the edge ranges from five to 11 percentage points.

Also, rather obviously, that question is not what voters will see on Election Day. They will face a choice between a specific Democrat and a specific Republican, and they haven’t all made up their minds about how (or even whether) they will vote.

The trouble with excessive certainty about the Dems’ chances of taking control of the U.S. House is that Democrats need a net gain of 24 specific seats, featuring not a generic Democrat versus a generic Republicans, but a specific Democrat and a specific Republican.

(An aside the improves the Dems’ chances: The new House district map in Pennsylvania, drawn by the courts after striking down the old map for excessive gerrymandering, could reasonably help the Democrats pick up three-to-six currently Republican-held seats, just in that state.) That could be a decent chunk of the 24 sets the Dems need to take over the House.

My advice: Between now and November, you may see many stories speculating on whether the Dems are likely to pick up a net 24 House seats. Keep your shirt on, cut the cards, and bear in mind that no one really knows. (Reminds me of an old crack from a Republican operative in Arkansas in my early days as a reporter down there. I asked him what was going to happen in a particularly close election. He replied: “No one knows that but me. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” A little googling suggests that this wisecrack goes at least as far back as “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”)

The Senate: There’s a catch

Now onto the U.S. Senate. The good news for Democrats is that (counting as Democrats the two independents who caucus with the Dems) the current division of that chamber, after the recent upset in Alabama, is just 51-49 in favor of the Republicans.

As you know, senators serve six-year terms but federal elections occur every two years. That means that in every federal election year, just one third of the Senate seats are on the ballot.

(Then you have to account for special cases, such as we have in Minnesota, where the appointment of interim Democratic Sens. Tina Smith to temporarily hold the seat vacated by the resignation of Democrat Al Franken generates an additional special election to fill that seat for the unexpired portion of the Franken term). Counting the two special elections (the other one is in Mississippi), there will be 35 Senate seats on the November ballot.

Still, a net gain of a just two Senate seats by the Dems in November would result in a 51-49 Democratic majority. And, as with the House, the party controlling the White House tends to do poorly in midterm elections for the Senate.

A net gain of two seats sounds a lot easier than the challenge facing Dems in the House. But there’s a catch, a big and obvious one, and I’m surprised at how seldom the pundits bring it up. It’s this: Because Democrats had a very good year in 2012 Senate races — winning an overwhelming share of the seats up that year, when Obama was also re-elected — there are just nine seats currently held by Republicans on the November ballot, compared with 26 seats on the ballot that are currently held by Democrats.

That’s why, although it’s true that the Dems need a net gain of just two, the New York Times recently run an article headlined: “Democrats Need to Win 28 Seats to Control the Senate. Republicans Need Only 9.”

That’s the same as saying that, because the Dems already control 26 of the Senate seats that will be on the ballot, they make no gains at all until they win a 27th race out of the 35 races on the 2018 ballot. Whereas Republicans will suffer no net loss at all if they win just nine of the 35 seats on the ballot. If they win just eight, that will create a 50-50 Senate, and Republicans will control a tenuous control because the vice president has the power to vote in case of ties.

Lastly, if you have digested the pure math that one could say favors the Republicans to retain control of the Senate, there’s the question of the lineup itself of the races that are on the ballot. I won’t try to capsulize 35 races. But consider this fact:

Only one of the incumbent Republican senators who are up in November represents a state that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. That would be Sen. Dean Heller, Republican of Nevada. Clinton beat Donald Trump by just 47.9 to 45.5 percent in Nevada, so it’s not exactly a solid blue state. It’s purple. The pundits who rate all the Senate races generally believe the Nevada Senate rate is “toss-up” at present.

So if the winds blow blue in November, the Nevada seat might be one of the two current Republican-held seats that Democrats need to flip to take over the Senate. Arizona is a state that Trump carried narrowly in 2016. And its Republican senator, Jeff Flake, is retiring. The pundits also rate that one a “toss-up.”

After that, the Democratic pick-up opportunities get slim. The seat in Tennessee, where incumbent Republican Bob Corker is retiring, seems the next most likely pick-up opportunity for Democrats. But Trump carried Tennessee by 61-35 percent, which illustrates how slim the pick-up pickings are for Democrats.

By contrast, there are seven – yes, seven – states that Trump carried in the presidential race where Democratic senators are up for re-election this year. The senators are:

  • Claire McCaskill of Missouri (who is generally rated a “toss-up” bet for re-election);
  • Jon Tester of Montana (generally favored by the raters, but far from safe);
  •  Debbie Stabenow of Michigan (rated safe to likely for re-electon);
  •  Joe Donnelly of Indiana (rated a “toss-up” by all the raters, Trump carried Indiana by 57-38 percent);
  • Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota (Trump by 63-27 percent in North Dakota, Heitkamp is rated a “toss-up” by all);
  •  Sherrod Brown of Ohio (Trump won Ohio by 52-44; Brown is favored, but only slightly, by the raters);
  • Bill Nelson of Florida (Trump won Florida by 52-44; the raters call Nelson’s re-election either a toss-up or leaning toward Nelson).

Comments (35)

  1. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/05/2018 - 11:14 am.

    McCaskill and Heitkamp are hugely unpopular at home, thus are probably toast.

    Flake is just as reviled for being a turncoat, so it’s highly likely conservative voters will turn out nicely to punish him by electing a real conservative.

    Smith is presented with a similar scenario, where MN leftists are miffed about Franken getting the boot, but there is a spoiler for her. The Iron Range, which used to be reliably Democrat is now trending towards the GOP. Smith should worry about that.

    Finally, the economy is booming, and the tax cuts will have started being seen on checks by election time. Trump shocked the world with his election, he could just as easily shock us again by dragging in a larger GOP majority.

  2. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 04/05/2018 - 11:17 am.

    Pelosi

    I do think Nancy Pelosi is and has been an effective leader. It is also undeniable that she will be trotted out by the R’s in every competitive race as “it’s the same old, same old, don’t be fooled”.

    She is 78 years old. She should be congratulated on a fine career. She should continue to represent her district for as long as she can be re-elected. She also should tell us how she has developed the next generation of D leaders and is proud to pass the leadership banner on to them.

  3. Submitted by David Markle on 04/05/2018 - 11:18 am.

    Missed one

    The above list of vulnerable incumbent Democratic senators should also include Joe Manchin of West Virginia: a state where Trump won by a landslide.

  4. Submitted by Paul John Martin on 04/05/2018 - 11:49 am.

    Gerrymandering

    All those complications, and still there is another: the fact that, although both parties have gerrymandered the House districts where they can, many more seats in large, purple states are slanted heavily towards the GOP. This tilts the incline more against Democrat gains.

  5. Submitted by Jonathan Eisenberg on 04/05/2018 - 04:01 pm.

    Also keep an eye on Senator McCain’s seat in Arizona, as he may or may not ever return to Washington. If not, that will be another special election seat Rs will have to defend.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 04/05/2018 - 06:48 pm.

      Maybe

      May 30 is a critical date. As I understand it, if the seat is vacant before may 30, it’s on the ballot. Otherwise an appointee holds the seat until the 2020 election.

  6. Submitted by Keith Dawson on 04/05/2018 - 05:27 pm.

    I could tell you

    A supercut demonstrating just how hoary that quip is:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuE_jqYNi3c

  7. Submitted by John Evans on 04/05/2018 - 06:00 pm.

    Tina Smith

    Smith is by no means a shoo-in. Her seat is practically open and her only really enthusiastic supporter seems to be Mark Dayton. Hausley or any other competent politician has a fair chance against Smith, who has never run for office before. Her brief incumbency means practically nothing, and may even be turned into a negative. I think Hausley may have a slight advantage.

    This is a continuing repercussion of the Democrats’ choice to knife Franken early, rather than allowing a seasoned, popular politician to defend himself. This seat would not be open otherwise. That’s why the dream of a Democratic majority in the Senate may well die in Minnesota.

  8. Submitted by Brian Simon on 04/05/2018 - 06:55 pm.

    Overall…

    As I understand it, due to all the challenges for the dems outlined by Eric & in comments above, Dems have to run way ahead of HRC’s numbers, or any midterm election. The problem for Repubs is dems have been doing exactly that in special elections for the last year or more. To be sure, dems haven’t won them all, but they have definitely run way ahead of normal. Looking at the historical record, I don’t believe the political scientists have a comparable election cycle to which they can make comparisons.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/06/2018 - 01:11 pm.

      The Tea Leaves of Special Elections

      The head line of who wins of loses any particular special election means little. Special elections are best dissected as a group. Is one party running ahead of the partisan lean of a particular district? And is that true across the board?

      When taken in aggregate, special election results have proven to be very reliable indicator of mid term elections. Of course, past results are not a guarantee of future results.

  9. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/05/2018 - 08:18 pm.

    Yes, there are complicating factors but there are a lot of events to come before the election with potentially very negative factors for the Trump-infused GOP.

    An immediate instance, potentially another $100 B in tariffs announced in the “not a trade war” tonight.

    Won’t take too many events like this for people to forget the $1.50 per week increase in take-home pay due to the tax gut that Ryan was so effusive about.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/06/2018 - 01:02 pm.

      Oh, You Mean Things Like

      Today’s March jobs figures. Jobs in March were up by 103,000; barely above the 90,000 needed just to keep up with population growth. And wages for production and non-supervisory employees (70% of the labor force) were “up” by only an annualized rate of 2.2%, just matching inflation. This means another month of stagnant wages, a problem that has largely persisted since the 70’s) under administrations both D & R) and shows no sign of improving.

      • Submitted by Tim Smith on 04/06/2018 - 01:55 pm.

        One month

        on a job report doesn’t mean much, like taking one days temperature and trying to prove or disprove climate change. The economy is very strong and wages are starting up more than they have in a while. Wages will not improve a great deal until productivity increases accordingly.

        http://money.cnn.com/2018/04/06/investing/jobs-report-reaction/index.html

        • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/06/2018 - 02:34 pm.

          No direct linkage between productivity and wage increases…

          …From 1973 to 2016, net productivity rose 73.7 percent, while the hourly pay of typical workers essentially stagnated—increasing only 12.5 percent over 43 years (after adjusting for inflation). This means that although Americans are working more productively than ever, the fruits of their labors have primarily accrued to those at the top and to corporate profits, especially in recent years….

          https://www.epi.org/productivity-pay-gap/

          Just work harder and they’ll pay you more ???

        • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/06/2018 - 02:49 pm.

          Wage increases for production/non-supervisory workers rose faster with Obama than with Trump

          https://www.motherjones.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/blog_real_wages_production_nonsupervisory_2014_2018.gif

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/07/2018 - 12:12 pm.

          You Are Joking, Right?

          Cherry picked? Ha, that’s a good one. Conservatives only discovered stagnant wages in 2008, when it’s been a problem since the days of RR, a pox on both houses. Similarly, deficit spending is only a problem when a D is in the White House. When it’s an R, they can’t print the money fast enough. Though a few conservatives tsk tsk the spending, it’s all just for show and the Tea Party is griping about something else.

          Same deal for the Obama stock market rally, established in March 2009. Conservatives, who fancy themselves knowledgeable about the economy, had no clue about it until November 2016. Just a snap shot in time of course, but the market is down year to date. Same for soy beans. But we shall see.

    • Submitted by Stephanie Kahlert on 04/06/2018 - 07:19 pm.

      Ha ha! Hopefully more Americans will wake up from their deep sleep (or are they seriously mentally impaired?)
      … and realize $1.50 a week increase isn’t QUITE worth it….

  10. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/05/2018 - 08:49 pm.

    Hope is not a method

    The current iteration of the GOP is essentially a cynical fraud, plus a lengthy list of other unsavory characteristics, led by a con man the likes of which we’ve not seen on the national stage for decades, going back to Huey Long in Louisiana or Spiro Agnew, Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon’s attack-dog Vice-President, who had ethics similar to the Current Occupant. Agnew took kickbacks and other payments (read: bribes) while he was Governor of Maryland, those kickbacks continuing while he was V.P. He eventually resigned in disgrace after a plea deal with the U.S. Attorney that (just barely) kept him out of prison.

    Both Agnew and Nixon still had supporters **after** they resigned their office(s) in disgrace, as have plenty of other historical figures on the political stage who’ve proven themselves to be dishonest to a fault. The corrosive ideology fueling the current Republican Party will eventually run its course, and Minnesota hog and soybean farmers will eventually figure out that they’ve been taken for a ride by a city slicker who never viewed them as anything more than rubes to be played, but in both historical and current cases, plenty of damage to individuals and to our society will have been done by the time that awakening takes place.

    Many of those people who’ve been shamelessly played by #45 will still support him – and his party. I’d like to believe that Democrats will gain control of one house or the other of Congress in November, but given what I’ve seen of the staunch denial of reality demonstrated by loyal Republican voters in the past couple years, I wouldn’t bet $10, much less serious consideration of our collective futures, on any sort of Democratic “wave” in November. I’d like to see it, but I’m at least as cautious about the Congressional races as Eric seems to be at this point.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/06/2018 - 10:10 am.

    Rothenberg et al

    Those who didn’t recognize the fact that Clinton was in serious trouble before she even got nominated are obviously not a source of political wisdom or foresight. If you weren’t worried about that election outcome you were simply not paying attention. Warning signs were abundant and deafening. The fact that so many Democrats, American “liberals”, and media analysts missed those warning signs when they constructed THAT false narrative certainly gives us pause when looking at the NEW narrative of a “blue wave”.

    The ghost of the the 2016 election is the fact that one of only two major political parties in America put an incredibly and deeply flawed candidate at the top of their ticket and turned the presidential election into an unpopularity contest. If Clinton had won, she instead of Trump would have been the most unpopular and distrusted candidate to have ever stepped into the White House. The fact that so many democrats actually thought it made sense to elect a president like that haunts them to this day. And it was yet another confirmation of the decades old truism that no one knows how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory like Democrats.

    I hope against hope that the Democrats have learned some lessons but I’m not convinced. All over the country they’ve sat out winnable contests rather than support progressive candidates. In some cases candidates have gone on to win those contests despite the DNC, in others they lost winnable contests. The neoliberal overlords still cling to their presumption of expertise despite their spectacular failures, and all over the land are pushing back against popular liberal candidates. This could end up giving voters another slew of mediocre and uninspiring choices in close races all over the map, if they bother to run candidates at all. Republicans will certainly lose seats, but they may lose fewer than they could were it not for centrist tendencies of the Democrats.

    The biggest problem with the blue wave narrative is the notion that it’s the blue wave, not a new and better agenda for America that will drive voters towards Democrats. Many of us tried to warn the Democrats the last time around that Party affiliation won’t win elections. A clear majority of Americans are NOT Democrats, they’re not interesting in keeping things blue, or turning them blue just for the sake of being… “blue”. Nor are voters particularly interested in simply voting against Trump, they want to vote FOR something, not just against something. There has to be a long game beyond simply winning the election at hand, voters aren’t interested in simply celebrating Party victories. Concrete agendas need to dominate the ticket, and most popular agendas are: Single payer, $15 minimum, gun control, etc.

    Another problem the Democrats have is trust. We’ve all seen centrist candidates tack to the left during campaigns just to return to station once elected, that’s what Obama did, and it’s certainly what Clinton would have done. So even if one can argue the the Party has moved to the left, we won’t know if it really has moved to the left until these guys take office. We have a boatload of liberal policies and agendas from women’s rights to labor that Democrats always talk about during campaigns, but take off the table the minute they get into power. If voters see the same old bait and switch again whatever gains Democrats may make in terms of seats, won’t be sustainable and they’ll start losing again in subsequent contests.

    We shouldn’t actually be reading or writing articles about “blue waves”, we should be talking about what Democrats are going to DO if they elected, what is their agenda for America? THAT narrative will drive voters to the polls as long as it’s a popular narrative that voters believe the Democrats will fight for.

    • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 04/06/2018 - 11:59 am.

      “Concrete agendas need to dominate the ticket, and most popular agendas are: Single payer, $15 minimum, gun control, etc.”

      I’m hoping with everything I’ve got that leftist candidates believe that statement, and run with it sincerely and honestly.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/06/2018 - 12:43 pm.

        Uh huh, me too

        48% of Americans support a switch to single payer, while 35% appose.
        66% support raising minimum wages, and 48% support $15.
        68% support stricter gun control while only 25% oppose it.

        Be careful what you wish for. I know conservatives like to tell themselves they’re a majority, but they’re not. I’ll try to remember your wishes after the mid-terms.

        • Submitted by Tim Smith on 04/06/2018 - 02:04 pm.

          the same ol problem

          most dem voters come from urban districts and are more liberal than the average voter. You could get them to vote in favor of those three items, but the further you get from the urban core the less likely you are to win votes on that agenda. In other words, Betty Mcollum and Ketih Ellison would win, but you probably wouldn’t win any other congressional seats in Minnesota with that agenda.

          48% support single payer, right. Until they see the details of course.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/06/2018 - 02:59 pm.

            The more people see details regarding single payer the more they’ll want it, especially rural voters. It’s not clear where all the assault rifles are, but it’s not safe to assume that rural voters who hunt with rifles and shotguns are big assault rifle owners since you can’t hunt with those guns. And the minimum wags issue might well be stronger out-state since the farm industry relies heavily on processing plants and those who work in them to keep the supply chain functioning.

            You’re not ever going get strong Republican votes, but you don’t need them to win elections, and Centrist Democrats are the only ones who seem to delude themselves into running Democrats who they think Republicans will vote for.

            • Submitted by Tim Smith on 04/06/2018 - 03:23 pm.

              Please run on those issues

              a nice opinion in favor of your folks, but don’t see any real world evidence to support it. Only Blue State dems have hopped on board Bernie’s single payer train.why no one else? If wages and gun contrrol(confiscation?) were such great rural issues, why are no dems running on them?

              Dems and their media allies love to rave about Conor Lamb winning in Pennsylvania. He ran as a conservative, pro NRA, anti abortion and vowed not to vote with Nanacy Pelosi. Why not on your agenda?

              • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/07/2018 - 09:42 am.

                Evidence…

                You have to be looking for evidence in order to find it most of the time. At least 25% of Republicans support these three measures, it’s not just blue state Democrats. And again, thems who gets with the votes wins the elections, it’s a math thing. For the same reason Democrats aren’t a majority neither are Republicans, so we don’t need republican votes anyways, we don’t need YOUR vote, there are more than enough votes and support among independents and Democrats. And we don’t have to win EVERY election THIS year in order to build majorities and capture governors around the country.

                Another historical problem with centrist Democrats (and current Republican’s who hope Democrats run on liberal agendas) is the presumption of rigid popular opinions, as if people never change their minds. Centrists Democrats have mistakenly walked away from a variety of policies over the decades under the assumption that there was no popular support. We saw this locally with the marriage and voter I.D. amendments. Democrats were willing to walk away from these battles until popular resistance drew them in. The truth is popular opinion is malleable, whatever support you may have today can increase or decrease tomorrow if you’re trying to build support. Centrist Democrats have lost popular support over the decades because they always base their agenda on snapshots of popular opinion rather than establishing an agenda and building support over time.

                Single payer sells itself, but someone has to put in on the table. Despite the fact that both parties have worked to keep single payer off the table somehow a majority of Americans have ended up supporting it. Imagine what will happen when someone actually starts promoting it as an agenda!

                Look at it this way: Single payer and $15 minimum have been Sanders’s basic platform all along, and he’s the most popular politician in America among both Democrats and independents. He wouldn’t be THAT popular if those agendas were unpopular.

                • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/08/2018 - 07:16 am.

                  Malleable Opinion

                  Trump single handedly turned the GOP base in favor of Russia and Putin.

                  And you are correct, the MNDFL looked at the polls and walked away from the voter suppression amendment in a move that was tantamount to malpractice. Keith Ellison was the only DFLer that put shoe leather into the effort.

                  • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/08/2018 - 10:55 am.

                    Exactly!

                    Eventually Steve Simon took on the voter suppression amendment here in MN but elsewhere in the country Democrats walked away, and they’ve paid a heavy price for that in subsequent election cycles. It’s like a wise man once said: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”.

        • Submitted by Stephanie Kahlert on 04/06/2018 - 07:22 pm.

          yah! Somebody’s awake and paying attention!!

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