The Election That Would Not Die

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
December 15, 2020

This is like the Freddy Krueger of elections: It will not die.

The Democratic majority in the House is thin and getting thinner. On top of their losses on Nov. 3, Democrats now trail by four votes in Iowa’s 2nd District and 12 votes in New York’s 22nd District. To thicken the plot further, Reps. Cedric Richmond and Marcia Fudge look likely to depart Congress for positions in the administration. If all these conditions hold, Democrats would lead 220-213—the closest the House has been in two decades and the narrowest Democratic House majority in over a century.

Then, of course, there is the double-overtime for the Senate, two Jan. 5 runoffs in Georgia that will determine which party will hold the majority. Given the minimal ticket-splitting that took place this year, there is a pretty good chance that both seats will either stay Republican or flip Democratic. A poll taken in the last two weeks for a super PAC found that out of 600 voters interviewed, there was only one respondent who split their ticket. In what today is surely the most evenly divided state in the country, I would not bet a dollar on either side to prevail; it is just that close. At the beginning, there was an assumption that because Republicans had fared better in past Georgia runoffs, they would again, but comparisons to 1992 and 2008, the previous two Senate runoffs in Georgia, are spurious. This is a completely different state than it was even 12 years ago.

But heading into 2022, with a paper-thin Democratic majority in the House and a very nearly evenly split Senate, we’ll barely enjoy an intermission between election seasons. History suggests that Democrats, as the president’s party, are more likely to surrender seats in 2022. But Republicans will have 21 or 22 Senate seats up for reelection, compared to just 12 or 13 for Democrats. Historical patterns are important, but exposure levels are too.

Neither party seems to have any of the walking wounded headed into the 2022 Senate fight. The most vulnerable incumbents are likely to be Democrat Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, where GOP Gov. Chris Sununu is widely expected to take her on; and Ron Johnson in Wisconsin. Both states are very purple these days, with New Hampshire in particular turning very fickle of late.

The biggest danger for a president’s party, particularly if that party holds a trifecta of the presidency, the House, and the Senate, is overreach. But given the narrow margins, there is not likely to be the kind of overreaching that triggered enormous losses for Democrats in 1994 in Bill Clinton’s first term, or during Barack Obama’s first term in 2010. Both engaged in very aggressive agendas in their first two years and paid a heavy electoral price. The party lost both the House and the Senate in 1994. In 2010, Democrats dropped just the House, but the Senate fell in the 2014 Obama midterm. In 2018, backlash to Trump’s election triggered the 40-seat loss in the House that cost the GOP its majority. In the Senate, the party was spared only by a very friendly map, with lots of Democrats playing defense.

Having both chambers teetering on the edge like that is likely to infuse both sides with a great deal of caution. Once President Trump follows the snowbirds to Florida upon leaving office, calculating and calibrating legislative strategies is more likely to resemble a chess game than the demolition derby–style politics of late. The biggest X factor will be to what extent Trump’s spell over so many GOP members continues. Trump is never going to go away quietly, but the degree to which GOP members have held the line on refusing to acknowledge the outcome of the election suggests that the 45th president will continue to cast a long shadow over his party on the Hill. But starting in January, the imperative of following his lead and the goal of picking up more House seats may be in conflict.

Should either party miscalculate, they could end up with a Nightmare on Constitution or Independence Avenue, instead of the original Elm Street. 

This article was originally published for the National Journal on December 11, 2020.