As Republicans and Democrats stare each other down on Capitol Hill as they work through a long list of legislative fights, there is one thing in the backs of their minds: the looming midterm elections where most expect Republicans to gain power.
Or will they?
Historically, all signs point to yes. The president’s party has lost, on average, 27 US House seats during the administration’s first midterm going back to World War II. In fact, there are only two times in the last century where the president’s party gained seats: 1934 and 2002, both during times of military uncertainty.
Structurally, all signs point to yes, also. Republicans need to flip just five seats to gain the majority in the US House. Changes due to redistricting, the decennial practice of reapportioning congressional seats according to changes in the US population, should provide at least that number of seats to the GOP. Democratic states like California, New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania will all lose seats in Congress, while Republicans will determine how new districts are created in faster-growing states like Texas, Florida, and Montana. Back in New England, no state will gain or lose seats, but New Hampshire Republicans are expected to redraw the lines to carve out a Republican seat from the pair of seats currently held by Democrats.
But while all signs historically and structurally point to a good night for Republicans, there are several reasons why Democrats might actually buck the trend lines in the contests, which are suddenly less than 500 days away.
Here are three reasons why:
1. Biden is relatively popular
Political pundits will throw out all kinds of numbers and suggest they hold some hidden secret to predicting election results. But in midterm elections, there is only one rather obvious number that makes all the difference: the presidential approval rating.
In the modern polling era, there have been six presidents who have lost seats in midterm elections. Only one — Dwight D. Eisenhower, a war hero — had an approval rating of about 50 percent. When Republicans picked up seats in the 2002 elections, Republican incumbent president George W. Bush had a 68 percent approval rating.
Today, Biden’s average approval rating stands at 52 percent, according to a FiveThirtyEight average of polls.
This is one reason why Democrats haven’t lost some recent special elections, as they’d be expected to do ahead of a midterm election under a Democratic president. In fact, Democrats are actually doing better by an average of two to three percent in these contests than they did in the 2020 elections.
2. Donald Trump remains a driving force in American politics
Midterm elections are typically a referendum on the current president, but it is increasingly clear that former president Donald Trump wants to make them also about him. We haven’t seen a former president play this type of role in modern politics and it is unclear how this will all play out. However, Trump does seem to want the Republican Party to bend to his unpopular personality and, further, wants to be the kingmaker for every Republican primary, including those in swing areas.
What does this mean exactly? The Washington Post found that a third of the 700 Republican candidates who have already signed up to run in the midterms are publicly adhering to the Trump-fueled lie that the 2020 elections were stolen. Independents and Democrats — along with a good number of Republicans — do not agree.
Instead of going on the offensive and discussing, say, inflation or Biden’s tax proposals, many of these Republican candidates will find themselves in a general election defending something deeply out of step with the electorate, only because Trump demands they do so.
3. The Senate map is actually good for Democrats
The good news for Republicans is that they only need to gain one Senate seat to win the majority. The bad news for them is that they will have to defend 20 of the 34 Senate seats up in 2022. Of those 20, five are seats held by Republicans who have announced their retirement, putting them further on defense.
To be sure, it is entirely possible for Republicans to run against Biden, hold on to their seats, and win one of the seats where Democratic incumbents are vulnerable — like in New Hampshire, Arizona, or Georgia.
But while the smart money is on Republicans gaining the majority in the House, it’s also on Democrats keeping control of the Senate. If Democrats can do that it means they will still be able to confirm presidential nominations and Supreme Court judges. In other words, these midterms could be a lot worse for Democrats.