Why Democrats can win next fall despite midterm election history

Why Democrats can win next fall despite midterm election history
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History does not bode well for Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections, or so we are told. Conventional wisdom reminds us that the party of the sitting president has lost seats in both the House and Senate in almost every midterm for over a century. But when you look closer, it becomes clear that history favors the chances of Democrats increasing their slim majorities in both chambers as long as they continue to govern strongly on the coronavirus pandemic and economic recovery.

Democrats cling to precarious majorities in Congress, and Republicans so far show little or no willingness to work with President Biden. To prevent Capitol Hill from becoming a legislative graveyard, Democrats must retain or expand their majorities in the next midterm. Many pundits say that is nearly impossible and point to the record. It is true that since World War Two, the party of the president loses an average of two dozen seats in the House and four seats in the Senate. In fact, ever since the direct Senate elections were introduced in 1914, the party of the incumbent has gained seats in either the House and Senate only seven times.

But Democrats have a higher hurdle if they want to retain both chambers. Gains in both the House and the Senate have been achieved by the party of the president only twice. Those two midterm elections during which the party of the incumbent gained seats in both chambers were in 1934 under Franklin Roosevelt and in 2002 under George Bush. What was the deal in those cases? There was a climate where voters felt the president was leading them decisively out of one significant crisis.


In 1934, the Great Depression still burdened the country, but much of the New Deal had already been enacted. Historian Arthur Schlesinger called the critical first 100 days of Roosevelt “a presidential barrage of ideas and programs unlike anything known to American history” with more than a dozen major laws that passed, including the creation of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Recovery Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and more.

These actions reduced unemployment from a record of early 25 percent to 22 percent. But counting people on work relief, which the census did not do at the time, the unemployment rate had actually fallen from over 20 percent to 16 percent. Gross domestic product also shot up by nearly 11 percent. There was the sense that the economy was rebounding and progress was made. In the 1934 midterm, Democrats bucked history by gaining nine seats in the House and nine seats in the Senate.

Now fast forward to 2000 when the outcome of the election of Bush was as confusing as it was contentious. I was elected to the House in that year. Most of my fellow Democrats and I were confident voters would be unkind to Bush in the 2002 midterm, and we would take the majority. Republicans instead added eight seats in the House and gained control of the Senate. Why? It was right after the 9/11 attacks, and there was the consensus that Bush was acting with resolution to combat rising terrorism.

The lessons of history are clear for 2022. If Democrats are perceived to have managed the coronavirus pandemic and economic recovery well, and if voters have a sense that real progress has been made to mend our country, the party will likely hold or expand its majorities. To achieve this will take continued momentum with the American Rescue Plan by passing infrastructure initiatives that show results in our communities, increasing access to affordable health care, and avoiding divisive internal conflicts that pit the liberal base against more moderate voters. Democrats have the winds of history at their backs. This is the time to use it.

Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow his updates @RepSteveIsrael.