Donald Trump won the White House and Republicans hold majorities in the US House and Senate, but Democrats have held out hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
History suggests that by the time the midterm elections come along, the party not holding the White House will make significant gains. Just as Republicans took over Congress in 1994 and 2010 two years into a new president’s term, so too would Democrats take over Congress in 2018 and push back on Trump’s agenda.
That isn’t likely to happen.
Democrats need a tremendous amount to go right politically next year for them to even have a shot at a majority in either house of Congress.
Consider the Senate. It is possible that in the history of the country, a party has never been so close to a majority — Democrats need to flip just three seats — yet so far away from actually getting it.
Counting the two independents who caucus with Democrats, Republicans have a 52-to-48 advantage. In 2018, there are 34 seats up for reelection. Twenty-five of them are those who caucus with Democrats and just nine are Republicans. Among the 25 Democrats (and independents) up for reelection, 10 are running in states that Trump won last year.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report lists 15 of the 34 Senate contests as competitive. Democrats currently hold 13 of those 15 competitive seats.
“Just breaking even with things the way they are would be a huge accomplishment for Democrats,” said Kyle Kondik, who analyzes Senate races at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
The path to a Democratic Senate majority would mean the following would have to happen:
All 13 Democratic incumbents running for reelection in competitive seats would have to win.
Both Republicans incumbents running for reelection in competitive seats (Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Nevada’s Dean Heller) would have to lose. Trump won Arizona by almost 15 percentage points.
Democrats would have to defeat a Republican incumbent from one of seven deeply Republican states. The best shot among this group is Ted Cruz in Texas.
Put another way: For Democrats to win the Senate, they have to go a perfect 16-0, which includes Democrats winning in North Dakota, Montana, Indiana, Missouri, and, yes, Texas.
Tom Lopach, who headed up the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm in 2016, said that while the map looks tough, “when you look at the particular Democratic candidates, these are people who know their states backwards and forwards and who have run hard and smart races that they have won before.”
This still isn’t even addressing how Democrats could win in Texas. The last time a Democrat won a Senate contest there was in 1988.
Harvey Kronberg, who has edited a Texas political newsletters for nearly 30 years, said in 2018 a Democratic win is a long shot at best.
“While Ted Cruz has faced a lot of criticism from Republicans for not endorsing Trump and among the local business community because he has been so focused on national politics, right now you have to assume he will win the Republican nomination and reelection,” Kronberg said. “Democrats remain disorganized, and the national party would have to spend a lot of money here.” Even then, he said, it would be difficult.
Still Democrats can take solace on two points. First, even if Democrats don’t have 50 seats, it is also unlikely that Republicans will have the 60 seats they need to overcome a filibuster. Second, as UVA’s Kondik noted, Democrats might have a better shot at taking over the House, but fewer seats there are in play than have been in the past, according to analysts.
There are also two factors that could work in either party’s favor. So far, no incumbents up for reelection have announced they will retire. Also 2018 could be a wave year, especially given that Trump has had historically low approval ratings so far.
“I expect 2018 will be similar to 2006 in that voters will be frustrated with sloppy governing and Hurricane Katrina moments from Trump, which will help Democratic candidates,” Lopach, the Democratic strategist, said.
For Democrats to have big gains in 2018, it will take that kind of environment.