Retaining the House will be nearly impossible for Democrats; Trump will be the wildcard
All the bluster about controlling Federal levers of power by progressives hides a distinct nervousness. They know the window for pushing their policy agenda through Congress is about to slam shut in 2022. The rush to pass legislation and attacks on recalcitrant moderate Democrats are driven by the fear that this political opportunity may disappear for years.
And they are right to be in a hurry.
The prospect of the Democrats maintaining their House majority after the 2022 mid-terms is microscopic, at best. Both history, re-apportionment and the Congressional ideological map are against them. Outside of a national security crisis, a GOP takeover of the House is all but assured.
History is against the Democrats
The current makeup of the House is 220 Democrats to 212 Republicans, with 3 vacancies. If the vacant seats are retained by each party, the Democrats will have a 222-213 advantage. Since World War II, incumbent presidents have a nearly unbroken record of their party losing seats in the House. Only in 2002, with President Bush at 63 percent approval and the country heading to war, did the incumbent party gain seats (plus 8). In 1962, Democrats lost a mere 4 seats in the wake of President Kennedy’s successful handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis (successful at the time).
Outside of those two anomalous years, the president’s party has lost an average of 30 seats since 1954. But recent history is even worse. Presidents Clinton, Obama and Trump lost 54, 63 and 41 seats, respectively. Each time partisan control of the House flipped.
It is true that Clinton, Obama and Trump had sub-50 percent approval — but not too unpopular (46 percent, 45 percent and 43 percent, respectively) — while President Biden currently enjoys an average approval of 51.5 percent. But, as with most presidents, Biden’s numbers are drifting downward. The prospects of the charisma-light Biden turning around his approval seems slim, at best.
Thinking about the 2022 Congressional map
Beyond historical precedent, predicting the 2022 results are challenging in that re-apportionment will intervene. Every Congressional district, bar the ones in the single-seat states, will be redrawn. There is simply no way to make seat-by-seat projections in any authoritative way. We can look at projected shifts in seats and the current Congressional map to make a bit of an educated guess on how much trouble is in store for the Democrats.
The decennial census will shift seats away from California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia and toward Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon and Texas. States that voted for Trump will net 3 seats. In addition, the Cook Political Report thinks Republicans will gain 3-4 seats simply by having more control of drawing new Congressional districts.
But the real advantage in the midterms is a combination of better turnout for the party out of power, whose constituents are generally annoyed with the incumbent — and depressed turnout for the president’s party, due to a combination of complacency and some level of disappointment that the president has not delivered the entire party wish list.
We can look at the current map and assume the future map will be drawn with at least the same partisan splits as the current map and consider the Cook Political Report partisan ratings accurate. Currently, 7 Republicans are in seats rated as Democratic (D+1 to D+5), while 13 Democrats are in Republican districts (R+1 to R+5) and 5 Democrats occupy seats rated as “even.” Eleven Democrats represent districts with only a slight Democratic advantage (D+1).
If the House simply reverted to an accurate partisan split and Democrats won all the “even” districts, Republicans would hold a bare 219 to 216 majority. If Republicans were to hold on to all incumbents and win the “even” districts, the GOP would hold a lead of 231 to 204. If Republicans could take the D+1 districts, the GOP would have a 242 to 193 majority.
While political races never pan out so neatly, Republicans could pull some big upsets and fail to win expected races. But any way you cut things, the GOP is in an almost unassailable position — unless the great, unhinged wildcard Trump intervenes.
Trump could upend GOP prospects
Although even Trump likely cannot completely thwart history, he does possess the power to flummox Republican efforts. He remains clearly unpopular with the wider electorate. And his endorsements have a common thread of backing sycophants and punishing his enemies — winnability does not seem to enter into his thought process at all. Trump is also drawing campaign funds into his own account with very little going to other Republicans.
With Trump still popular among the GOP base, Congressional candidates will have little choice but to embrace him in order to get through their party primaries — or head off potential opposition. That could backfire if Trump’s legal troubles accelerate — or just from Trump being Trump. While Trump does excite the Republican base, he also energizes the Democratic voters, who detest him more than Republicans like him.
Democrats may find that fear of Trump is the antidote to apathy in the midterms.
But even with the Trump anchor potentially dragging down Republican prospects, the structural and historical advantages will be very difficult for Democrats to surmount. Barring a national security crisis, Biden and progressive Democrats better get what they can in the next 18 months, as the two years after that likely won’t be much fun.
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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