Playing Devil's Advocate on the Midterms

It may well be easier for a hard-core partisan to observe an election campaign than someone else. After all, passionate Republicans and Democrats often blissfully ignore any potential danger signs for their side, at least until Election Night. Someone without a dog in the fight may be more likely to spot dark clouds on the horizon or obstacles on the road ahead that could spoil a trip.

It’s hard to overstate the challenge that House Democrats face in next year’s midterm elections, while the Senate is considerably harder to read. But despite the seemingly ominous signs, other potentially mitigating factors could be important—or even determinative.

Let’s set aside for a moment the tiny, five-seat Democratic margin in the 435-seat member House, and briefly ignore the historical pattern of midterm losses for a president’s party. Reapportionment, the decennial reallocation of seats between states based on the latest Census, alone could erase three or four Democratic seats, according to Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman.

Then there is redistricting—the remapping within the 44 states that have two or more districts—which occurs every 10 years. Republicans will have an advantage for the second decade in a row. During the four years of the Trump presidency, Democrats were not able to make up all the ground they lost in governor's mansions and state legislative chambers during the eight Obama years. This time, the GOP will control the process in states with 187 congressional districts, while Democrats will hold the pen in states with just 75 CDs. In the rest, party control is split or the job is left to independent commissions.

Democrats often pretend that only Republicans engage in the unseemly practice of gerrymandering. The reality is that neither party often misses a chance to do it. From Washington, you have to go only as far as Maryland to find a good example of a Democratic gerrymander. In terms of gerrymandering, though, often the most mischief can be found in states that are either gaining or losing seats, where maps have to be changed rather significantly. Among the 13 states gaining or losing seats next year, Republicans control the process in four, with 82 seats, and Democrats control the process in two, with 23 CDs. Commissions have the authority in six states, with 116 districts, and Pennsylvania’s 17 districts will be drawn by a legislature with split partisan control. While Republicans’ advantage is not as great as it was 10 years ago, it is still enough that, at least on paper, they should gain ground here as well.

Of course, elections are not actually held on paper, and there are other intervening factors that may work to Democrats’ advantage. First off, the House is already pretty sorted out. With only 4 percent of House members occupying seats carried by the other party’s presidential nominee last year, each party has, more or less, the seats that they ought to have, with very few swing districts left to fluctuate much. In the not-too-distant past, there were plenty of Southern and border-state Democrats with districts that were at least partially rural. Now, there are virtually none. The same can be said about Republicans in Northeastern and West Coast suburban districts. There are no longer any Republicans in New England, and only 20 out of 66 in the five states that constitute the Mid-Atlantic region.

Further, for a party desperately trying to hold onto seats, the painful reality for Democrats that they unexpectedly lost 11 seats last year means there are 11 fewer competitive seats for Republicans to pick up. One of the few iron laws of politics is that a party cannot lose a seat it no longer has.

Turning to the evenly divided Senate, Republicans have 20 seats up for reelection to Democrats’ 14. That makes it very hard for the GOP to get even the one seat necessary to recapture control. But not every seat is equally competitive.

Among states decided in the 2020 presidential race by 4.9 percentage points or less, Republicans are defending four and Democrats three. Two of the GOP-held seats, in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, are now open, with Wisconsin poised to join them should Sen. Ron Johnson decide to forgo another term. The three Democratic-held competitive states are Arizona and Georgia, where Joe Biden won by an eyelash, and Nevada, where the margin was a little wider.

The Senate playing field looks to be much smaller than last year, but the hand-to-hand combat will be just as competitive and the relative exposure more symmetrical. Also the midterm-election curse that exists in the House is much less conclusive in the Senate. In the 27 midterm elections since 1914, when senators were first directly elected by voters, the party holding the White House has actually gained seats in seven and broken even in one.

But keep in mind: If Democrats manage to hold onto their majority, even very narrowly, they will have a tough time in 2024, defending 23 seats compared to the GOP’s 10. If Republicans eke out a majority in 2022, they might well be in a position to expand that majority substantially. Using the same yardstick for competitiveness, Democrats will have five seats at real risk—in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—while Republicans will have just one, in Florida.

The bottom line is that the House is hardly a done deal for the GOP, and while Senate Democrats are not in quite as challenging a situation as House Democrats, their majority is still very much at risk. These things are complicated.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on May 25, 2021.