What should Republican midterm expectations be?
The mid-term election predictions are starting to roll in. RealClearPolitics has 218-183 (D-R) House with 34 tossup and 46-46 Senate with 8 tossup, while The Cook Political Report is at 213-190 (D-R) House with 32 tossup, and 48-48 Senate with 4 tossup. With some distance to go before Election Day, those numbers are going to change. The post-election debate will shift to how each party performed. So, what should be the benchmark against which results are judged?
Figuring the reasonable expectations is part math and part educated guess. A purely statistical model does not work as there is simply not enough data. There have only been four first midterm elections since the collapse of the “Solid South” (Democratic domination of formerly segregationist states). And the 2002 midterm in the wake of 9-11 was not a normal election. With few data points, deeper analysis is needed; note that these expectations consider the traditional factors of past midterms and presidential approval.
House benchmark: 20-25 seat gain for Republicans
In the 1994, 2010 and 2018 midterms, the opposition party gained an average of 53 seats, but that should not be the GOP benchmark. In each of those years, the opposition party held an average of 183 seats, leaving plenty of room to grow. Republicans currently hold 211 seats, limiting the number of potential pickups. In those three previous midterms, the opposition party gained the majority and ended up with an average of 236 seats. That would put a sensible expectation for Republicans at a 25-seat gain.
But are there other factors that would change that expectation. On the positive side, reapportionment has moved more seats to Republican states and away from Democratic states, although that net gain for Republicans is just one seat. More significantly, economic conditions have been poor for the past few months, and a bad economy is a disaster for the president’s party. At the same time, Biden’s approval has edged higher from historic lows.
Net of these factors, Republicans should gain at the very least 20 seats, with 25 seats being a reasonable expectation. If the economy worsens, that expectation would grow to 30 seats — those expectations put an eventual Republican majority within the range of past results where the opposition party ended up with 230 to 242 seats. Anything less than a 15-seat majority would be a major underperformance.
Senate benchmark: 52-48 Republican majority
The Senate is a more complicated animal than the House. Six-year terms make results significantly dependent on the politics of two presidential elections previous. The number of seats defended — and in which states — change expectations significantly. Even though Republicans should expect to be boosted by not holding the White House, they are defending 21 seats with just 14 Democratic seats at risk.
To illustrate the Republicans’ challenge, consider that the 2018 midterm, which was good for Democrats generally, resulted in Republicans gaining two seats. The problem for Democrats was that they were defending 24 seats, an impossible number. In the past four first midterm elections (including 2002), the party that won the most Senate seats mustered an average of 22 seats, with a maximum of 24 seats and a minimum of 21 seats.
What are the reasonable expectations the GOP hits for the average? To figure that, you have to go seat by seat. Of the 35 Senate seats, nine are in competitive states (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). Not since 1982 has a Senate incumbent of the opposition party lost re-election in a first midterm, so no Republican incumbent should lose (Florida, Wisconsin). Second, in the last 40 years only once has the president’s party won an open seat where the president lost the immediate previous election, so the open seats in states won by Trump should be wins for the GOP (North Carolina and Ohio).
Lastly, the opposition party should win most, if not all the competitive states. In that regard, Republicans should expect Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania as pickup states. Trump won Arizona and Georgia in 2016 and in 2020 only lost each state by less than one-third of 1 percent. Pennsylvania also went for Trump in 2016 and in 2020 only plumped for native son Biden by just over 1 percent. In addition, Pennsylvania has not elected Democratic Senators in two consecutive elections since the 1940 and 1944 elections.
In a very strong wave year, Nevada and New Hampshire would flip to the GOP, as Trump lost Nevada by less than 2 ½ percent, and New Hampshire, while less Trump-friendly, has recently had a Republican Senator and has held up better than any New England state for the GOP.
The sum and substance is a reasonable expectation of Republicans winning seven of the nine battleground races for a net pickup of 2 seats.
A final midterm outcome of 231-236 House seats and 52 Senate seats is a solid benchmark for success. Anything less would be an underperformance.
‘Should win’ is not ‘will win’
Of course, expectations are one thing — results are another.
Both Trump and the Republicans seem to be doing their best to throw away their chances at a clean sweep. Trump remains hugely unpopular, less popular than Biden. That wouldn’t be a problem if he would simply go away like most ex-presidents.
Unfortunately for the GOP, Trump is determined to be in the spotlight and exert control. His endorsement of various candidates has been driven by personal animus and attraction rather than ability to win. Hence, Republicans are stuck with fumbling neophytes in Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania. Trump’s ongoing legal problems seem to grow by the day. Initial Republican indignation at the Mar-a-Lago raid has noticeably abated as the public finds out that Trump did indeed make off with secret documents.
On top of Trump problems, the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade has not helped Republicans at all. It is clear from opinion polling and from the most recent referendum in Kansas that the majority of the public does not want significant change in abortion law and policy. Yet, some Republicans are pushing for just that. Not only is this contrary to the mood of the electorate, such rhetoric distracts from their best issue: the economy.
But Election Day is not tomorrow. Trailing Republican candidates like Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Blake Masters in Arizona still have time to recover and win. The economy may take a turn for the worse, and inflation is still a problem. Given the track record of the first 18 months of the Biden administration, the White House potential for screwing up is quite high. Republicans could still end up with a sweep, even with strong majorities. Over 240 House seats and a 54-46 Senate is within reach. But Republicans will have to catch some breaks and contain any Trumpian damage.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.
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