Why November’s Downballot Races Matter

As Rhodes Cook, the longtime political analyst, recently wrote in his newsletter, “The breadth of Republican dominance these days is not just impressive, it’s staggering. They control the White House, both chambers of Congress, a vast majority of governorships and an overwhelming share of state legislative chambers. In short, by the numbers alone, the political world is their oyster.” Cook (no relation to me) then goes on to point out how much the Republican Party has at stake in 2018. Most likely (in my words, not his), the party has only one direction to go—down. The only questions are how far, where, and to what effect.

Realistically, the best possible scenario for House Republicans would be a net loss of 15-20 seats, hanging onto control by the barest of margins. The worst case would be a loss in the 40-50-seat range. Current district lines and natural population patterns would seem to make a loss on the level of the worst post-World War II midterm House defeats like 55 seats (1946), 54 seats (1994), and 63 seats (2010)—suffered by Democrats in all three cases—pretty unlikely. The worst post-World War II losses for Republicans were 30 seats (2006) and 48 seats (in both 1958 and 1974).

Under that best-case scenario for House Republicans, they would certainly be even more impotent than they are today. Under the best case for Democrats, it’s hard to see how they could move much legislation with a small majority, especially if they decide to pursue an agenda of investigations and impeachment. We could easily see Democrats doing their own variations of what the GOP did towards the end of the Obama administration: a majority, unable to do a whole lot, wasting time investigating Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s emails.

In the Senate, realistically the best-case scenario for Republicans would be a net gain of about four seats, while the worst-case scenario would be a loss of three seats, meaning that we could see a Senate split in the next Congress of anything from a 55-45 GOP majority to a 52-48 Democratic majority. While the Senate remains slightly more genteel than the more rambunctious House, the upper chamber’s rules and traditions can make it even more dysfunctional than the House.

The point of this exercise is to show that the House is likely to be very close no matter what, with neither party likely to have more than the 55 percent of seats the GOP has today, and we’ve seen how difficult it is for the majority to get much done even with that advantage. Only with the best-case scenario for the GOP does either party have anything like a working majority in the Senate, certainly not the 59-41 and 60-40 edges that Democrats had in the first two years of the Obama administration. The bottom line is that with neither party able to act in a decisive or even deliberate manner, it is pretty unlikely that Congress will be in a position to get a heck of a lot done in 2019 and 2020 no matter what the midterm outcome is. We’re just waiting to see the degree of paralysis and which side will have the responsibility for it.

My wife says that I am a pathologically optimistic person, but it is hard to look forward to the next Congress in terms of policy and legislation and not be at least somewhat pessimistic. Given the increasing inability or unwillingness to deal with many big issues in Washington, many responsibilities have been devolving out to the state capitols, to governors and state legislatures. Republicans, who are at or near their power apex in modern times, have a lot on the line. With Washington seen in such a pejorative light by so many voters—Democratic, Republican, and independent alike—it seems that voters are looking for leadership from outside of the Beltway. One of the bigger challenges for Democrats is that their losses in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections were so awful, they lost the better part of a generation of non-congressional leaders. A lot of potential presidential timber was chopped down over the last decade, limiting their non-D.C. options in the 2020 presidential contest.

To the extent that really big things happen coming out of this election, they are more likely to be on the gubernatorial and state-legislative level. Don’t take your eyes off of those contests; in the long haul, they may matter more.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on May 22, 2018