USA: Democrats’ Midterm Elections Outlook; Bad But Better
Despite a very grim outlook for Democrats in midterm elections, recent developments suggest they aren’t as likely to face the political apocalypse that threatened them last year.
t’s a small comfort to Democrats who are watching their GOP foes measure drapes, plan policy strategies and plot ways to get back at Democrats who kicked Republicans off of legislative committees. But despite the very grim outlook for Democrats in the fall midterms, it could have been much, much worse for the party.
Virtually no one in either party talks with a straight face about the possibility that the Democrats will retain their narrow majority in the House. Historical trends, combined with the dampening effect of an unpopular Democratic president, mean the question is not so much whether Republicans will reclaim the majority in the House, but how big their gains will be.
But recent developments mean Democrats aren’t as likely to face the political apocalypse threatening them last year.
Redistricting – which could have delivered a death blow to Democrats for a decade, given the fact that there are more GOP-controlled state legislatures than Democratic-run ones – has turned out to be largely a wash. Legal challenges of maps in Ohio and North Carolina could limit GOP gains in those states, while a recent court ruling ordering Alabama to create another majority-minority seat could give Democrats a chance at a pickup.
Far more House Democrats (28) than Republicans (13) have announced their retirements or plans to run for other offices, a sign that Democrats believe they will be in the minority next year. But the vast majority of those seats are not in highly competitive districts, providing Republicans with fewer chances to flip the seats.
“I think Democrats are happy – well, maybe not happy, but relieved,” says Stu Rothenberg, a veteran political analyst and author of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Report. “It doesn’t change the fundamentals of a midterm cycle, particularly with a president whose approval rating sits at 40-44%. But the Democrats are relieved that the worst-case scenario didn’t occur,” Rothenberg says. “Some of them are really surprised they did as well as they did.”
The party of the president in power tends to lose seats in the midterm, with exceptions occurring just three times since 1910. President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings also hurt down-ticket candidates, Rothenberg notes, especially since Biden is facing criticism from both the progressive and centrist wings of his party.
But a 2010-style “shellacking,” as former President Barack Obama ruefully termed the loss of 62 Democratic House seats that year? Not likely, experts in both parties agree.
Republicans would consider an 18-seat pickup a “wave,” 30 seats a “hurricane” and 35 seats a “tsunami,” says a national Republican strategist. In 2010, “there was a lot of low-hanging fruit,” the strategist adds. “The 60-plus seats were possible only because the Democrats had a monster majority.”
For example, that year, Democrats held 45 House seats from districts GOP presidential candidate John McCain had won two years earlier, whereas this year only seven seats from districts that went for former President Donald Trump are now held by Democrats, the strategist added.
While redistricting is not finished, it’s appearing that there will be even fewer genuinely competitive House seats, experts say – something that will make it harder for either party in the next decade to build a commanding majority or claim a mandate.
An analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight finds that of 268 congressional districts drawn so far, 128 favor Democrats – meaning the party has an edge of 5 percentage points or higher – while 119 favor Republicans. Just 21 seats are “highly competitive,” meaning one party’s advantage is under 5 percentage points.
Politicians often draw lines that protect incumbents as well as their respective parties, redistricting experts say. So far this year, that has meant that less than 15% of districts will be competitive – meaning it would result in a race decided 53%-47% or more narrowly, according to Joe Kabourek, senior campaign director for RepresentUS, a group that advocates for non-gerrymandered maps.
So far, each party has a “significant advantage” in three states under redistricting. Republicans have a lesser advantage in two more states, and in three other states, neither party has an advantage, Kabourek says, citing the group’s analysis. The tally does not include New York, where a pending new map drawn by Empire State Democrats could net the party three more seats.
“When politicians are given the leeway to rig the maps, they’re going to do it,” says Ally Marcella, research analyst for RepresentUS.
In other high-profile races, the outlook for Democrats is less bleak than it is for the House. While Democrats will have to fight hard to maintain control of the governorships of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Kansas, they have good chances to flip Massachusetts and Maryland from red to blue. Democrat Stacey Abrams’ entrance into the Georgia gubernatorial race puts that seat in play as well.
In the Senate, where a nominal Democratic majority is due only to the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris, things look somewhat rosier for Democrats. They have fewer seats to defend – 14 to the GOP’s 20. Two vulnerable Democratic senators, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Mark Kelly of Arizona, are in better shape after their state’s respective GOP governors opted out of Senate runs.
Priorities USA, a Democratic SuperPAC, this week announced a $30 million investment in digital voter mobilization efforts – and the money is directed almost entirely at states where Senate and gubernatorial seats are in play. The cash is being spent in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona, New Hampshire, Georgia and Michigan.
“There are some structural things in our favor,” such as fewer gubernatorial and U.S. Senate seats to defend, says Nick Ahamed, the group’s deputy executive director. But there are also factors “not in our favor,” he says, such as an unhappy electorate and dismal historical precedent.
Ahamed said the group would focus on “new Biden voters” – those who voted for Trump in 2016 and switched to the Democrat in 2020. Priorities USA’s own polling shows that about 5% of new Biden voters are thinking about voting Republican this fall – a seemingly small but potentially election-deciding number.
Voters are also not aware of the things Democrats are proud of passing – such as the American Rescue Plan, he says. “They don’t know the details. We need to sell our accomplishments,” Ahamed adds.
Republicans believe Biden’s low ratings make that a tough task.
“Republicans are going to take back the House because voters are frustrated that Democrat policies caused soaring inflation, a massive crime wave, and a crisis on the southern border,” says Mike Berg, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Rothenberg cautions that things could change: If the pandemic recedes sufficiently, kids are in school, and families are having unmasked barbecues on Memorial Day weekend, Biden’s numbers may inch up. Further, a late spring or early summer Supreme Court decision on abortion – should it undo Roe v. Wade or severely restrict access to abortion – could motivate disaffected Democrats, he says.
Democrats are bracing for a big fall this autumn. But they have time, experts say, to avoid a wipeout.