Last year’s midterm elections may have been the first time in modern history that the elections for the House drew more attention, both before and after the balloting, than those for the Senate.
In fact, many competitive House races saw spending levels comparable to what would have typically been spent in Senate races not long ago. Democrats outspent their Republican rivals in 59 of the 75 most competitive House races, according to OpenSecrets.org, including many GOP incumbents, some by ratios of 2- or 3-to-1.
Can Democrats hold onto this majority next year? The 18 seats that Republicans would need to gain isn’t a particularly big number, given that Democrats are defending 31 seats in districts that President Trump carried in 2016 compared to only three GOP seats in districts where Hillary Clinton prevailed. Their turf includes district long held by Republicans in suburbs of Atlanta; Dallas; Houston; Kansas City; Oklahoma City; Richmond, Virginia; and coastal South Carolina.
Increasingly, geography is destiny—presidential voting in a state or district is a strong indicator of downballot voting, though not entirely determinant. But at the same time, history seems to be more with Democrats.
Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman points out that control of the House has not flipped in consecutive elections since 1954, and the last time the House changed control in a presidential election year was 1952. The House rarely flips—five times (1954, 1994, 2006, 2010, 2018) in the last 65 years—but when it does, it is almost always in midterm years, which tend to be more explosive.
Wasserman also points out that Democrats have gained House seats in five of the past six presidential election years, with newly redrawn maps in Texas making 2004 the lone exception.
History works against Republicans in another way: open seats. Typically, when a party loses its House majority, it then sees disproportionate retirements in the very next election, while the party with the newly acquired majority usually sees relatively few. That only stands to reason—a party that has been waiting to get in power is likely to see few members immediately bail out, while members who have lived in the promised land of a majority often don’t enjoy minority status and thus hit the road.
Jessica Taylor, ace political reporter for National Public Radio and contributor to the Cook Political Report, points out that in 1996, after Republicans captured their first majority in the House in 40 years, Democrats saw 28 retirements in the next election, Republicans just 21.
After Republicans lost their House majority in 2006, Republicans saw two-dozen retirements in 2008, compared to just three for Democrats. After Democrats lost their majority in 2010, Taylor points out, 20 Democrats didn’t seek reelection in 2012.
The number of Republican and Democratic retirements, and the makeup of those districts, is of great importance to the 2020 House landscape.
Obviously, these are all secular trends—factors related exclusively to what is going on within the House. But also important is how strong the top of the ticket will be for each party and which side is benefiting or suffering from turnout.
An interesting argument Republicans have been making lately is that in 2018, like in many midterm elections, it was basically a referendum on the incumbent president. Trump had low approval ratings, so his party paid the price. The current, though not terribly loud, argument heard now is that 2020 will be less of a referendum on Trump—after all, his name will be on the ballot—and that GOP candidates will not be quite as tethered to Trump as they were in 2018.
It’s an interesting argument. We’ll know in 18 months whether it pans out or not. That is one reason why Republican attempts now to effectively put Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and democratic socialism on the ballot in each district makes a lot of sense in some of these newly acquired Democratic districts. The college-educated, suburban women who helped put Democrats over the finish line in many of these key districts in 2018 are not necessarily on board with the same agenda that some of these new Democrats, though not necessarily Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are promoting today.
There are good reasons to watch the House. Democratic control is hardly a lock, but if you had to bet today, with just what we know today, there is a greater chance that Democrats will hold the chamber than Republicans will in recapturing it.