2018 Midterm Elections: Can Republicans Keep Their Majorities?

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Predicting election outcomes can be a lot like predicting the weather—but outcome history, political climate, and a little math make for some well-backed guesses. Here is what the balance of power on Capitol Hill looks like right now, and what it might look like following the midterm elections.

It was Jan. 4, 2017. Following the astounding election of Donald Trump, Congressional Republicans found themselves on top of the political world. Defying conventional wisdom, they held on to their majorities in both the House and Senate. With control of both the White House and Congress, Republicans could aggressively pursue their policy agenda, something that had been completely stymied over the previous eight years.

However, Republicans soon discovered that while controlling the legislative and executive branches was one thing, governing was another matter entirely. Not only was a united Democratic party providing effective opposition, Republicans were getting pushback from their own members on key issues. On several occasions the GOP tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act and failed each time. Add to that a brief government shutdown and two failed attempts to pass immigration reform, and controlling Congress has been anything but easy. Although passage of comprehensive tax reform legislation was a major victory for the party, there have been more defeats than victories. As the summer of 2018 approached, what once seemed unlikely was looking more possible with each passing day: Control of Congress could slip away in the 2018 midterm elections—which would dramatically alter the trajectory of the Republican policy agenda.

Here is a look at the current state of Capitol Hill, and predictions for how things could change come November.


U.S. House of Representatives

Current Status

Republicans currently control the House of Representatives 237–193 (there are five vacant seats—three previously held by Republicans, two by Democrats). Not too long ago, the Republican majority seemed safe, but a fractious political environment, a number of sitting GOP retirements, and other events have put control of the House very much in play this fall. According to experts at the Cook Political Report (founder Charlie Cook has been a regular speaker at the ASA Staffing Law Conference), the breakdown of the House races heading into the elections is as follows:

Party Solid Likely Lean Toss-Up Likely Loss
GOP 148 26 27 28 11
DEM 182 9 1 2 1

 

Even Republican leaders concede that Democrats are way ahead when it comes to the “enthusiasm” factor with the upcoming elections—leading many to predict a “blue wave.”

What Democrats Need To Take Control of the House

The Democrats’ magic number in the House is 23; that is the number of seats they need to pick up to take control of the House. If they hold on to their solid and likely seats and take the 11 GOP seats they are currently favored to win, that would leave them 17 seats shy of a majority. To get 17 seats, they would have to pick up most of the 28 toss-up seats—plus a handful of seats currently leaning Republican. That is certainly doable, even likely according to most observers.

What Republicans Need To Keep Control of the House

On the flip side, if the Republicans hope to hold on to the speaker’s gavel they can only lose 22 seats. If they hold on to their solid and likely seats and take the one Democrat seat they are currently favored to win, that would leave them 43 seats shy of a majority. One way they could close the gap would be to win all 27 lean Republican seats and more than half of the 28 toss-ups—hard but not impossible.


U.S. Senate

Current Status

Republicans currently control the U.S. Senate 51–49. Although their majority in the Senate is much slimmer than their majority in the House, their odds of holding the senate are significantly better. Because elections for senators are staggered, one of the biggest advantages the Republicans have this year is that they are defending far fewer seats than Democrats.

During the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats will be defending 26 seats while Republicans must only defend nine. The Cook Political Report breaks down the Senate as follows:

Party Seats Not Up Solid Likely Lean Toss-Up
GOP 42 3 2 1 3
DEM 23 14 5 2 5

 

What Democrats Need To Take Control of the Senate

Because Vice President Mike Pence would break a tie in the Senate, the Democrats need to pick up two seats to win control. Even if they win all their solid and likely seats, they still would be eight seats shy of a majority, which means they would need to win nine of the 11 seats categorized as lean or toss-up to win the majority. Most observers think that is unlikely.

What Republicans Need To Keep Control of the Senate

Because the Republicans have far fewer seats at risk in 2018, they would be just four seats shy of a majority if they hold on to their solid and likely seats—in which case they would need to win just four out of the 11 seats categorized as lean or toss-up to have an outright majority. Even if Republicans win only three of 11, they would still have a majority with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Pence.


Key Factors in the Midterm Elections

Money: Advantage Democrats

Come election day, will people vote based on issues like health care and immigration, or will they vote their pocketbooks? The more that choose the latter, the better for Republicans.

Money, money, money. It seems as though, with every election cycle, it has become more expensive to run for office. According to Federal Election Commission data, in 2006 Congressional races cost candidates more than $2.8 billion. That number ballooned to $3.8 billion in 2014, and election experts predict that more than $4 billion will fund congressional elections in 2018. So which party is in a better position financially as the elections approach? The Democratic House and Senate campaign committees currently hold substantial fund-raising advantages over their Republican counterparts, both in regard to money raised and the all-important cash on hand, with money from outside groups playing an important role. At this juncture, it appears that the Democrats will enjoy a financial advantage heading into the midterms.

Enthusiasm: Advantage Democrats

Even Republican leaders concede that Democrats are way ahead when it comes to the “enthusiasm” factor with the upcoming elections—leading many to predict a “blue wave.” Republicans have 18 more open House seats to defend than Democrats, which has put even more importance on candidate recruitment. So far, Democrats have done a good job of attracting quality, campaign-ready candidates. While there may be a few primaries that national operatives wish would have gone differently, overall they are very excited about the group of candidates they have. Republicans have not done a bad job of recruiting candidates; the math is just against them in the House. Twelve Republican open seats are considered to be toss-ups or worse, which shows these would be difficult races under the best of circumstances. A motivated, well-financed opposition party makes it even harder. The big question for Democrats? Will this enthusiasm translate into votes in the places where they need them?

History: Advantage Democrats

If it is true that history is our best teacher, since 1970 the incumbent president’s party has lost seats in every midterm election except for 1998 (somewhat counterintuitively, at the height of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment battle) and 2002 (more understandably, the first elections after 9/11 when President George W. Bush still enjoyed high popularity). During that time, the president’s party lost an average of 22 seats in the House and three seats in the Senate.

The Economy: Advantage Republicans

During the 1992 presidential campaign, President Clinton’s campaign strategist James Carville coined the now famous phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.” While at that time it was directed at a faltering U.S. economy, the phrase still rings true today. The economy, and most economic indicators, continue to paint a very positive picture. The question is, come election day, will people vote based on issues like health care and immigration, or will they vote their pocketbooks? The more that choose the latter, the better for Republicans.


Bottomline Election Predictions

Tracking Current Events

It is quite possible that the 2018 midterm elections will be studied in classrooms and by political strategists for years to come. There is no lack of issues for voters to base their decisions on. And even though, at this writing, we are just a few months away from the election, there are plenty of major events—foreign and domestic—that could affect the outcome. Developments in the Mueller investigation, trade negotiations with China, economic upheavals in Turkey and Venezuela, and third quarter U.S. employment and GDP growth, to name just a few. Apart from those unpredictable contingencies, here are my overall predictions for November.

The 2018 midterm elections are like real estate—it’s all about location, location, location. In the House, the number of Republican open seats, as well as changes in Congressional districts due to courts overturning Republican redistricting efforts, have Democrats feeling confident about their chances of taking back the House. Some Democratic candidates are publicly speculating about who they would support for speaker of the House if they win their election—many openly opposing former speaker Nancy Pelosi in an effort to win over independent and even Republican voters.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Democrats are defending three times as many seats as Republicans—10 of them in states president Trump won in 2016, five by double digits. While many of these senators have built up independent reputations with their constituents that could save them, they still face strong political headwinds that could end their careers. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) are considered especially vulnerable.

Here are my predictions for the upcoming midterm elections:

  • House: Democrats: 221 Republicans: 214
    Democrats pick up 26 seats
  • Senate: Republicans: 53 Democrats: 47
    Republicans pick up two seats

History repeats itself—sort of. It’s hard to expect anything less from these elections. And the closer voters get to the polls, the more unpredictable the voting trends become.


Toby Malara, Esq., is government affairs counsel for the American Staffing Association. He manages all staffing-related legislation and regulation on behalf of ASA and represents the industry’s interests before Congress and state legislatures. He provides government relations counsel to the association’s affiliated state organizations and regional councils, and directs political fundraising activities through the ASA political action committee, StaffingPAC. To learn more about StaffingPAC, visit staffingpac.net or contact Malara at t******@americanstaffing.net.

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