(UPDATED 11/12 PM) Now that America has made its choice with last Tuesday’s midterm elections (although technically, 12 races – 9 of which are House races – have yet to be called), what did the results tell us ? One of the untold stories that needs to be discussed is that we are in the midst of a partisan realignment which started in 2016, and understanding that occurrence enables us to paint a clearer picture of seemingly contradictory results for both US House and US Senate races.
In 2016, the underlying tectonic plates that have guided our politics for years shifted. In the old days, economic status was the biggest determinant of political affiliation, although as time went on, exceptions to the rule popped up here and there (evangelicals regardless of income became solidly Republican, while academics/government employees/tech employees/urbanites became Democratic). Those changes, however, weren’t as substantial compared to the 2016 Presidential election, when Donald Trump shattered the “blue wall” by carrying states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (and coming very close in Minnesota and New Hampshire). However, there was a less noticed “contra-movement” that was occurring at the same time: while Republicans were much stronger compared to previous election cycles in rural, downscale, and/or blue collar areas, there was movement towards the Democrats in white collar suburban areas that impacted the Republican vote coming out of states like Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas.
Those Democratic trends largely went under the radar, since many of those areas in 2016 nevertheless re-elected their Republican Congressmen/women. However, the tide clearly began to turn in a series of special elections throughout 2017-2018 when Democrats were competitive in districts where they never before had a chance.
JMC noticed these changes last year and even brought up the possibility back then of the Republicans losing the House. Then when massive Democratic turnout increases occurred almost without exception throughout the 2018 primary season, that further confirmed what JMC suspected would end up happening last Tuesday. So while on the surface, election results in the House and Senate are seemingly contradictory, JMC will show there was some consistency as to what happened.
In the House, the Democrats not only retook control of that chamber, but the sheer number of seats gained hasn’t been this large since the massive GOP losses suffered during the 1974 midterms, when a combination of Watergate, the Nixon pardon, and fuel shortages created a very anti-Republican political climate. As this article is being published, Democrats have picked up a net of 34 seats (36 Republicans losses, while two open Democratic seats in Minnesota flipped to the Republicans). There are currently nine uncalled US House races, and from an examination of the current vote count in each district, JMC believes that Democrats are likely to pick up 3-9 more seats.
What happened ? The realignment that occurred at the Presidential level in 2016 created an immediate GOP vulnerability in the House, since 42 Republicans held seats where Donald Trump got less than 50% of the vote. More specifically, given the fact that President Trump was elected with 46% of the national popular vote, the increasingly polarized politics of today necessitated that House Republicans create an independent brand for themselves so they could get the votes of Independents and Republicans who did not support President Trump. This did not happen – 27 of the 36 Democrat pickups occurred in districts where President Trump received less than 50% of the vote, while 6 of the 9 uncalled House races are in these districts, and only 9 Republicans survived. That’s (depending on how those 6 uncalled races go) a Republican attrition rate of 64-79%!
Once the Trump percentage reached 50%, Republicans’ fortunes improved considerably. There were 55 more Republicans representing districts where Trump got between 50-55%. Republicans won 43 of those 55, lost 9, and 3 more races remain uncalled. In other words, the Republican attrition rate was a much smaller 16-22%. In districts where Trump received at least 55% percent of the vote, all 144 Republicans survived.
There is a simple “lesson learned” here (this lesson is really applicable to elections in general): in today’s electoral climate (especially in an unfavorable or marginal district), the path to victory is not energizing a 46% plurality of voters, but by building coalitions enabling you to get to 50.1%. Failure to learn this lesson cost the Republicans their House control, although now that Democrats are in control of the House, they now have to keep their left wing base in check if they wish to maintain control after the 2020 elections.
Unlike the House, which sees all 435 of its members face election every 2 years, only a fraction of the Senate faces the voters every two years. This year, 35 Senators (26 Democrats and 9 Republicans) were up for re-election. Just as Republicans’ inability to attract voters in the middle cost them the House, Senate Democrats had a different problem: “too many Democrats.” More specifically, the Senate class up for re-election was top heavy with Democrats due to incredibly fortunate electoral circumstances going all the way back to 1958 that were only briefly interrupted by the 1994 Republican landslide. Furthermore, a substantial number of these 26 Democrats up for re-election represented states that President Trump carried. That immediately put Democrats on the defensive, and when the Brett Kavanaugh hearings created a backlash from the conservative base, that immediately imperiled several Democrats, especially since only one (Joe Manchin of West Virginia) supported his confirmation.
(UPDATED 11/12 PM) Thus far, three Democrats (Donnelly of Indiana, McCaskill of Missouri, and Heitkamp of North Dakota) had the good fortune of having weak Republican opposition in 2012, but when they stuck with their party and opposed the Kavanaugh nomination, their luck ran out last Tuesday. Meanwhile, only two Republican seats (a vacant seat in Arizona, and Dean Heller’s seat in Nevada) were considered vulnerable, and both flipped to the Democrats.
(UPDATED 11/12 PM) There are two more Senate races to be called: Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida trails his Republican opponent by 12,600 votes, and that race is heading to a recount. In Mississippi, a special election runoff (which will be held on November 27) is required since the appointed Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith didn’t receive 50% of the vote, although in the primary, 58% voted Republican.
(UPDATED 11/12 PM) In other words, Republican control of the US Senate (which was 51-49 before Election Day) will be anywhere from 51-49 to 53-47 Republican once the Mississippi race is settled (which almost certainly will be after the resolution of the Florida Senate contest).