The Midterm Elections Are a Jump Ball

We’ve lived through three riveting election cycles in a row—President Trump’s two races, with House Democrats’ midterm triumph sandwiched in the middle.

But don’t get comfortable now, because we may be in for another one. With the Senate 50-50 and the current House split 218 to 212, with five vacant seats we’re headed toward another compelling cycle.

Republicans have more exposure in the Senate, as they’re defending 20 seats, against just 14 for Democrats. Republicans are also trying to hold onto five open seats, versus Democrats’ none.

Yet history is on Republicans’ side. In the House, the party holding the presidency has had a net loss of seats in 37 (95 percent) out of 39 midterm elections. The two exceptions were 1934, Franklin Roosevelt’s first midterm election when voters were not yet finished punishing Herbert Hoover’s party, and 2002, when George W. Bush still had an unusually high 63 percent Gallup job-approval rating 14 months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In the 26 midterms since the direct election of senators began in 1914, the president’s party has lost seats in 19 (73 percent), remained even in one (Bill Clinton’s second midterm), and gained in six midterms, most recently 2018, when President Trump’s GOP picked up seats.

The Cook Political Report Partisan Voting Index (PVI) for 2021 was released last week. It measures how each district performs at the presidential level compared to the nation as a whole.

If we take its data into account—well, the midterms still look like a bit of a jump ball. It shows that Democrats are defending five Senate seats in highly competitive states: Mark Kelly in Arizona (R+3) Michael Bennet in Colorado (D+3), Raphael Warnock in Georgia (R+3), Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire (even), and Catherine Cortez-Masto in Nevada (even).

Republicans have four such seats: incumbents Marco Rubio (Florida, R+3) and Ron Johnson (Wisconsin, R+2), as well as open seats in North Carolina (R+3) and Pennsylvania (R+2). The other GOP open seats are in states that tilt more Republican: Missouri (R+11) and Ohio (R+6). (Dave Wasserman, The Cook Political Report’s House editor, has a detailed look at the current district-level PVIs here, although obviously the lines will be different in November 2022, once redistricting is in the books.)

How President Biden is faring on Election Day in 565 days is the great unknown. But at this stage, he’s at 53 percent approval in both the RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight polling averages, and 54 percent in Gallup. Biden is doing better than Trump was at this point in his presidency, roughly on par with Clinton, and slightly below Bush 43, and Obama.

An April 8-11 CNBC All-America Economic Survey of 802 adults by Hart Research and Public Opinion Strategies (the same bipartisan team that does the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll), Biden’s approval rating was just 47 percent with a 41 percent disapproval, a net approval rating of plus-6 points, but what was instructive were the approval ratings on specific issues. Not surprisingly, Biden scored well on “handling the coronavirus” with a 62 percent approval, 28 percent disapproval (net +34). On “dealing with the economy,” he received a more mixed grade of 46 percent approve, 41 percent disapprove (net +5). But on “dealing with immigration,” he had a disastrous 52 percent disapproval, 29 percent approval (-23).

While most voters cast ballots straight down party lines, the economic picture will be important. Right now, the forecasts are for very strong growth through next year but if some of the warnings about Biden’s spending initiatives overheating the economy come to pass and result in a round of inflation, it is pretty safe to assume that this would tank Democratic hopes to retain their majorities.

“Civil wars” of one level or another in each party are another unknown. While there are some struggles between the progressive and establishment wings of the Democratic Party, the potential for strife between the Trump acolytes and legacy Republicans looks potentially graver. Most critically, will the GOP nominate “exotic” nominees in critical races, which hurt its chances of winning. The GOP obviously fears a repeat of tea-party nominees like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware in 2010 and Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri in 2012. In each case, Republicans lost seats that they should have won.

Given that the current Democratic Senate majority was basically determined by their narrowest win in the last election—Sen. Raphael Warnock’s 55,354-vote victory in the Jan. 5 special runoff election in Georgia—and the House by a total of 31,751 votes in a handful of districts around the country, just about any factor could be determinative. Anyone who professes certainty at this stage is just blowing (or inhaling) smoke.

This article was originally published in the National Journal on April 23, 2021.