op-ed

In Historic Reversal, Republicans Are Likely To Retain Control Of Congress

REUTERS/Leah Millis

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.

It’s called the “mid-term curse”: first-term presidents suffer a loss of appeal and voters decide to punish them at the polls. It happened to President Obama in 2010. Republicans rode a Tea Party wave to regain control of the House of Representatives in one of the most momentous election turnarounds in US history.

Will Democrats follow suit and recapture the House from Republicans this fall?  

Predictions of a “Blue Wave” inundating the GOP in the November mid-terms abound. Everyone from polling expert Nate Silver to never-Trumper Ed Gilgore say one is coming.  It will stoke the Democrats’ ambition to impeach Trump and completely stall the GOP agenda, they say.

Don’t bet on it. A little-noticed report released last week by the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice points to one important reason why.  The report projects that Democrats would need to win the national popular vote for congressional districts by a nearly 11 percentage point margin over Republicans to gain more than the roughly two dozen seats they need to flip control of the Republican-led chamber.

But that’s rarely ever happened.  “It would be the equivalent of a tsunami,” says Michael Li, a senior counsel for the center, which is based at New York University School of Law. “Democrats would have to win larger than any sort of recent midterm wave — almost double what they got in 2006 — in order to win a narrow majority.”

The Brendan center blames the GOP’s newfound statistical advantage on the “gerrymandering” carried out by Republicans in 2010, when the party swept to power on a wave of tax-cutting Tea Party fervor.   By reshaping numerous congressional districts in its own image, the GOP has made it difficult for Democratic challengers to put together political coalitions to unseat GOP incumbents, the center claims.

But the answer could be a lot simpler: Trump’s favorability is rising, and with the gains on the economy, tax reform, and ISIS, so is the popularity of of his policies.

There are certainly glimmers of hope for the Democrats. In Texas, which has remained reliably Red to date despite some recent efforts by Democrats to win at the state level (for example, the disastrous run by feminist Wendy Davis for governor in 2012), there are signs that Democrats may be able to pick up two seats formerly deemed “safe.”

However, that case is based largely on a perceived Democratic turn-out advantage. In recent Democratic primaries in Texas, the party faithful surged to the polls, doubling the Democratic turn-out recorded in the last mid—term elections in 2014.

But GOP turn-out in recent Texas primaries was also unexpectedly heavy.  If these patterns hold in the election contest in November, the perceived Democratic “enthusiasm” advantage will be largely nullified, experts say.

Part of the problem for Democrats is their deepening ideological disunity. Candidates representing the progressive and moderate wings of the party are driving up turn-out in the primaries, but voters supporting the losing candidate may stay home in the district election, giving Republicans the advantage.

Which type of candidate is likely to give the Democrats the strongest advantage?  Moderates say progressive candidates will scare off swing voters, while progressives say centrist candidates could fail to galvanize the base, dampening turnout.  

At this point, it’s not clear who is right.

In some states, the progressive-moderate split among Democrats is provoking heavy-handed intervention by party bosses.  A bid for the nomination by progressive activist and author Laura Moser in Texas earlier this year led the state Democratic committee – with support from the national party — to sponsor opposition research to cast doubt on Moser’s credibility.

But Moser survived, and will now compete in a May run-off against Lizzie Fletcher, the establishment’s favored candidate.

If anything the split in state Democratic parties over how to handle the mid-term contests is widening, which bodes well for the GOP, which is likely to remain more unified.

Another indication that Republicans are increasingly in good shape this fall is the so-called “generic ballot.”   It measures the relative degree of support for each party among the electorate without naming specific election races or candidates.  It’s considered a reliable bellwether of how a congressional election will turn out.

Democrats led by as much as 16 points on the generic ballot as recently as February and by 10 points in March. But in recent polls that lead is down to 5 or 6 points. If history is any guide, that’s simply not enough to give Democrats the margin they need to prevail.

A number of other wild cards are bound to shape the House contests in November.  One is the relative size of the two parties’ campaign coffers – a factor that strongly favors the GOP.  Outside groups like the Koch Brothers are slated to spend an unprecedented $400 million in November, a whopping 60% increase over 2016.

Another factor is how strongly Trump decides to campaign for GOP House candidates and whether his presence is likely to help or hurt them.  

Trump weighed in bigly against Democrat Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania in a GOP-controlled district that Trump won by 20 points in November 2016 — and his intervention probably backfired.  Local Republican candidates badly need the national GOP’s money. But it’s not clear whether attaching themselves so closely to the White House – especially in toss-up districts with moderate swing voters — is wise.  

Right now, it’s probably too early to predict the November outcome.  Traditionally, patterns become clearer over the summer. And much depends on the strength and appeal of the particular candidate running for either side.   

In Pennsylvania Lamb, a Marine combat veteran who opposes taxes and gun control, was an especially charismatic and compelling candidate while his GOP competitor was widely viewed, even by Republicans, as lackluster.  Far from a bellwether, PA was a winnable race.

One thing’s clear:  A further loss of ground by Democrats in the House would be a devastating blow to the party’s future prospects in 2020 and beyond.   Conversely, a Democratic victory will likely lead the party to go on a more high-profile offensive against Trump.  

But the most likely result is that Democrats will pick up a handful of seats but fall short of gaining the majority, leaving the House, like the Senate, in Republican hands – just barely.  If so, expect more legislative gridlock ahead.

Stewart Lawrence is a consultant and policy analyst.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.