Friday, January 19, 2018

Taking Back the House

Democrats face a similar situation to the one Republicans faced eight years ago. In 2010 Democrats held the White House and both chambers of Congress. Today Republicans do.

Granted, the Democrats had larger majorities in both the House and Senate — and they had a more popular president, too — in 2010. Yet they still managed to lose their advantage in the House when Republicans gained a net of 64 seats that year. They lost ground in the Senate and eventually lost that majority as well.

Today many political observers are convinced that the tables have turned — which is based on solid historical data. This is a midterm year, and midterm years almost always go against the party in the White House. That has been true whether the incumbent was popular or not.

Indeed, presidential approval ratings play an important role in midterm elections, but the responses have become increasingly polarized over the years. In the 1950s, for example, an average of nearly half of Democrats said they approved of the job Republican Dwight Eisenhower was doing as president. In the 1980s, an average of less than one–third of Democrats approved of the job Republican Ronald Reagan was doing, and in the 1990s, slightly more than one–fourth of Republicans approved of the job Bill Clinton was doing.

Clinton's successors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, failed to average even that much support from the opposing party.

But Bush's Republicans benefited electorally from the terrorist attacks of 2001. They might have been expected to lose ground in the midterm elections of 2002; instead, they gained ground in both chambers, the first time a president's party accomplished that in a midterm election in nearly 70 years.

(It is unwise to ignore the influence that circumstances can have. At the same time, though, it is not wise to expect too much from things like scandals. The Iran–Contra scandal dropped Reagan's approval rating below 50% in January 1987, but he rebounded to higher than 60% by the time he left office two years later.)

I have a theory about that trend. When it is a president's first — and, in many cases, it has been a president's only — midterm, that president is two years removed from winning the presidency, and his supporters are complacent while his foes are energized. When it is a president's second midterm, his supporters are generally demoralized by something, a scandal or whatnot, and the rest of the country, from those who are indifferent to long–time detractors, is just weary.

It takes truly unusual circumstances for any incumbent to overcome that, and so far such circumstances have not materialized in this election. But it has been observed frequently that the 2016 elections rewrote the rules so I wouldn't rule it out.

In 2018 Democrats need fewer than half as many seats as they lost in 2010 to claim a paper–thin majority in the House. That sounds plausible — and it is — but there is something that is worth remembering.

Unlike Senate seats, which are decided every six years, House seats are on the ballot in every election. There have been 22 elections since Watergate, and a single party has gained that many House seats (or more) in four of them. The rest of the time the gains were less than 24.

It's a tall order — but not one that is impossible to fill.

As Kyle Kondik of Sabato's Crystal Ball recently noted, there is already an unusually high number of House incumbents not seeking re–election — twice as many Republicans as Democrats.

In fact, there are enough open seats in Republican–held districts for Democrats to entertain thoughts of capturing the majority in the House by winning most of them — but that would be a foolish strategy. It ignores the fact that not all districts are created equal.

Some districts have long histories of voting for one party or the other. Like mine, for instance. I live in Texas' Fifth District. It has been represented by Republican Jeb Hensarling since 2003. The only time he was held under 60% of the vote was when he was originally elected in 2002 — and he received 58% in that election. He announced a couple of months ago that he would not seek re–election.

Hensarling is not leaving because he anticipates a tough election. He is highly regarded here and would be sure to win another term if he wanted one. Whoever wins the Republican nomination will be a heavy favorite to win the general election — if he/she is even opposed.

If the voters in this district elect a Democrat to succeed Hensarling, it will be a clear indication that a wave election is underway.

Democrats are more likely to gain ground in districts like Arizona's 2nd District, which was represented by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords before she was shot in 2011 and had to retire. One of Giffords' aides was elected to fill her vacancy in 2012. Voters narrowly chose the loser of the 2012 election — Martha McSally — in a rematch in 2014. McSally was re–elected with 57% of the vote in 2016 and now is running for Jeff Flake's Senate seat.

Democrats are favored to win that House seat this November.

Other open districts are just as evenly divided — and could be prone to flip in the next election with no incumbent on the ballot. The power of incumbency, as I have noted here before, is considerable.

But it is not absolute.

Open seats do present opportunities for the party that does not occupy the White House, but Democrats have to be selective about which ones they pursue. Kondik says they need to net at least half a dozen Republican–held open seats to be on track to seize the majority in the House. The rest, he wrote, will need to be taken from the officeholders. His estimate is that Democrats will need to beat 15 to 20 incumbents head to head.

That may seem like a challenge, but Kondik insists the number is not too high by historical standards.

Time will tell.

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