Democrats have the momentum. It may not matter in the House
Democrats have seized political momentum over the past two months, mobilizing thousands of voters outraged over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and passing a series of bills that have left the party’s voters with a feeling of accomplishment.
The legislative victories, coupled with former President Trump’s legal problems, have left Democrats in a strong position to hold the Senate and even bolstered President Biden’s approval ratings on the heels of a student debt forgiveness plan popular with college-aged voters.
Yet none of this may help Democrats with the House, where even after the spell of momentum, the party’s chances of holding onto its majority are still slim.
Redistricting didn’t deliver Republicans the kind of bulletproof House map that Democrats once feared it would, thanks to Democratic gerrymanders in states like Illinois and court rulings overturning heavy-handed Republican maps in places like North Carolina.
But the GOP is still set to gain ground this year under the new maps.
Courts in New York and Maryland struck down Democratic gerrymanders that would have offered the party some padding in a tough election year, while Republicans made huge gains in Florida after the GOP-controlled state legislature acquiesced to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) demand for a congressional map that created four new Republican-leaning seats.
In other states, such as Texas, where redistricting didn’t significantly alter the top line partisan breakdown of their House maps, Republican-controlled legislatures redrew the lines to solidify their current advantages and protect GOP incumbents.
Overall, Republicans are expected to net three or four new House seats this year because of redistricting alone. That’s not insignificant, given that the GOP needs to net just five seats to recapture the House majority.
“The environment still favors Republicans,” Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, told The Hill recently. “The math, especially with redistricting, favors Republicans.”
House Democrats are grappling with a historic number of retirements this year, including a handful from competitive districts that look like prime pickup opportunities for Republicans.
Overall, 31 House Democrats aren’t seeking reelection this year, choosing to either retire or run for a different office. Compare that to the 19 Republican members who aren’t running for another term.
It’s par for the course for some House members from the president’s party to leave Congress ahead of the midterms. In some cases, they’re longtime members who are looking to retire or move on to new endeavors. For others, the prospect of running for reelection in such a brutal political environment may have forced their hand.
Nevertheless, the spate of Democratic retirements from the House still poses a challenge for the party. Incumbents typically have a baked-in advantage when seeking reelection; they already have name recognition in their district, as well as easier access to financial and party resources than newcomers do.
Republicans are also targeting a handful of competitive districts where Democratic incumbents aren’t running for reelection. That includes Pennsylvania’s 17th District, where Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) won’t be on the ballot this year because he chose to run instead for the state’s Democratic Senate nomination, as well as Illinois’s 17th District, which is currently held by retiring Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.).
The national environment
There’s little doubt that the political landscape has improved for Democrats over the past two months.
The fight over abortion rights that was reignited over the summer gave the party and its voters a much-needed shot in the arm, evidenced by recent special election upsets and the rejection of a ballot question in Kansas that would have stripped abortion protections from the state constitution.
At the same time, Democrats are largely outpacing their Republican rivals in fundraising and the party has seen a rebound on the generic ballot, a poll question asking voters which party they would rather see control Congress.
But unlike Senate contests, which hinge more on candidate quality and statewide campaign infrastructure, House races often pivot more on national trends. And in that regard, there’s still plenty for Democrats to worry about. Biden’s approval rating, while improving somewhat, is still underwater, and inflation remains at its highest level in decades.
And despite the recent jolt of momentum for Democrats, party strategists said they’re clear-eyed about the possibility that things could take a turn for the worse in the two-month stretch leading up to Election Day. They’re bracing for an onslaught of Republican spending in the coming weeks, as well as a potential surge in GOP enthusiasm driven by Trump’s mounting legal troubles.
“The national environment is good now for Democrats, but I need this to hold for 10 more weeks and that’s hard,” said one Democratic consultant, who’s advising candidates in multiple competitive races this year. “You’re at the mercy of a lot of things that you can’t control.”
Democrats also have historical precedent working against them. Since the end of World War II, the president’s party has only picked up House seats in midterms twice — in 1998 and 2002.
In both cases, the circumstances were unique. Democrats gained seats in 1998 in part because of a backlash among voters over Republican-led efforts to impeach former President Clinton. And Republicans came out on top in 2002 as the country rallied around former President George W. Bush and the GOP in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Beyond that, the midterms usually bring bad news for the president’s party. And while the underlying causes of that trend aren’t always clear, this year’s midterms look a lot more like 2010, when a red wave swept Republicans into the House majority, than they do 1998.
Biden’s approval rating is nearly as low as Trump’s was at this point in 2018, right before Democrats recaptured the House majority in that year’s midterms. And an NBC News poll released late last month found that nearly three-quarters of voters — 74 percent — believe the country is on the wrong track.
At the same time, inflation remains high and there are still lingering fears that the U.S. may be heading toward a recession, even as some metrics, such as employment numbers, remain solid.
“I think looking at where Americans are focused, it’s still inflation, skyrocketing gas prices, the economy,” said Matt Terrill, a Republican strategist and former aide to ex-Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. “Those kitchen-table issues.”