The House Republican majority is in more trouble than people think

Posted at 10:20 AM, Sep 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-26 15:25:25-04

With less than six weeks left before the 2018 midterm elections, I get asked — a lot — whether I think Republicans can hold into the House majority they won in 2014. And my general response is that Republicans have a less than 50-50 shot at holding it.

But looking closely at the House map — and the latest race ratings released Tuesday by CNN — I feel like that calculation may be underplaying (maybe by a lot) the odds that Democrats will net the 23 seats they need to takeover the majority.

Let’s go through the numbers.

At the moment, CNN has 40(!) Republican-held seats rated as toss-ups or worse for the party. That total includes 26 GOP seats in toss-up, 11 Republican seats leaning Democratic, two GOP seats as likely Democratic and one seat ranked as solidly Democratic.

Compare that to the total number of Democratic seats rated as toss-ups or worse: three. Yes, just three. Two are toss-ups — Minnesota’s 1st and 8th districts — and the third, Pennsylania’s 14th, is rated as a solidly Republican seat. But even that is a bit misleading; the 14th district is the seat currently held by Rep. Conor Lamb (D), who is running (and winning) in the 17th district.

A little bit of basic math produces this conclusion: Republicans have more than 10 times the number of deeply-vulnerable seats than Democrats do. TEN times! (That’s one more than nine times.)

And a little bit more basic math: If Democrats win the three GOP-held seats that are currently either rated by CNN as solid or likely Democratic and, say, two-thirds of the Republican seats in the leaning Democratic category, they need to win only half of the seats rated as toss-up to retake the House. If Democrats win all 14 of the Republicans seats that are ranked as solid, likely or leaning their way, they need to win only nine of the 26 GOP seats regarded by CNN as toss-ups to retake the House majority.

All of that math is compounded by the fact that, as I noted above, there are just very, very few Democratic-held seats in any real jeopardy. If Republicans were defending 40 of their own highly vulnerable seats but had, say, 20 Democratic-held seats that were in similar danger, the GOP would be in decent position. Yes, they would lose a bunch of their own seats but if they could counteract those losses with some gains in Democratic seats, it would make the math harder for Democrats.

That isn’t how this election cycle has played out, however.

It’s not just the raw number of seats that paint such a dire picture for the House majority — although the picture they paint in sufficiently grim. It’s history, too. In the post-Civil War era, there have been only three midterm elections — 1934, 1998 and 2002 — in which the president’s party did not lose House seats. In each of those three instances, there was a catastrophic cultural event (Great Depression, Clinton impeachment, September 11) that shifted the vote. Those three elections are very clearly exceptions to a long-standing political rule.

The likely loss of seats — as history tells it — could well be compounded by President Donald Trump’s middling approval rating, which is hovering in the upper 30s and low 40s. In the post World War II era, presidents with job approval ratings under 50% average a 37-seat loss in the House. AVERAGE.

There are two related pushbacks on this cornucopia of evidence that suggests Democrats will almost certainly win back the House in 41 days.

The first is that all the conventional wisdom suggested that Trump would lose in 2016 to Hillary Clinton and he won. Which is true. It is, of course, also true that polling predicted a narrow Clinton win nationally; she won the popular vote by almost 3 million.

The second is best understood through this reporting from The Washington Post’s Erica Werner: “Joe Barton stood up in GOP conference this am and told members that the Washington Post predicted he would lose in ’84 and he won … therefore there’s hope for the majority. Per GOP source.”

Which, um, OK. Anecdotes about how you won — in a state where Ronald Reagan won 63.6% of the vote and where Republicans held the national convention in 1984 — may not be the best evidence of why there isn’t a Democratic wave out there. But, whatever.

Math is math. And the math suggests Democrats are in a very strong position with 41 days left before the nation votes.