The Republican Party has enjoyed unprecedented levels of power in the United States over the past few years.
In addition to controlling the Presidency, Senate and House of Representatives, the GOP holds the Governor’s office in 33 States against 16 for the Democrats and one Independent (Alaska). Republicans also control both chambers, the Senate and House of Representatives, at the State level in 32 States, while Democrats control both houses in 14 States. Four States have divided control of their legislatures.
With the mid-term elections approaching there are signs of increased support for Democrats ranging from modest growth to a surge depending on the poll on any given day and voter enthusiasm.
How is this expected to impact the outcome and why could anticipated Democrat gains in the House of Representatives be offset by possible Republican gains in the Senate, even in the event of a decisive swing towards the Democrats?
House of Representatives
The US House of Representatives has 435 members who each serve a two-year term. The total number of seats does not change, however allocation of seat totals amongst States are re-apportioned every ten years based on the relative population of each individual State to the country as a whole.
Individual constituencies are then re-drawn at the State level, either by the State Legislature or by bi-partisan / non-partisan panels depending on State law. Given the direct involvement of elected Representatives in so many States, some form of gerrymandering has become relatively common in many where one party has control of all branches of State government.
Given Republican dominance at the State level, more Congressional districts appear to be drawn in their favour, a task made easier by a clear geographic distinction in voting preferences where rural areas tend to vote Republican, cities lean heavily Democratic, and suburbs are more fluid. Democrats have also created districts with a distinct partisan advantage, however there are less of them as Democrats control fewer State legislatures.
At present Republicans hold 237 seats in the House of Representatives, Democrats have 193 seats and five are vacant, three Republican, two Democrat. Democrats need a minimum net gain of 23 seats to take control of the House. Given the Republican edge in districting, most commentators believe that Democrats need to win the national vote by six to eight per cent to win an overall majority of seats.
Democrats are within striking distance of a majority in the House of Representatives
Opinion polls over the past few months have shown Democrats to have a national lead of approximately seven per cent, well within striking distance of an overall majority. The main battleground will undoubtedly be the suburbs, which tend to be more affluent and better educated than the population at large and where party loyalty is not as strong.
While there is no consistent rule, and demographics can be different from one suburb to the next, suburbia has tended to lean Republican but appears to have swung sharply towards Democrats in both State elections and by-elections over the past two years.
This has been driven by significantly increased turnouts, particularly by women, and a significant and widening gender gap in voting preferences. Given the importance of a suburban component to so many “swing” Districts combined with the gender gap and increased voting enthusiasm amongst Democrats, there is a chance that an inflection point could be passed resulting in a significant seat swing, although most observers at this point are predicting a relatively small Democratic House majority after the election.
Unlike the House of Representatives where all Members need to be re-elected every two years, Senators serve six-year terms with one third of the Senate elected on a rolling basis every two years.
As only one third of the body is subject to an election every two years, the Senate is not subject to the wholesale swings which can occur in the House of Representatives.
Today the Senate is closely balanced with 51 Republicans and 49 members of the Democratic caucus which includes two independents. This year, 35 seats are up for re-election, including two by-elections for the remainder of six-year terms in Minnesota and Mississippi. Only nine of the 35 are currently held by Republicans.
Despite everything the Senate is likely to remain under Republican control
Democrats are defending 26 seats, ten of which are so called “Red States” won by President Trump in 2016, while only one of the nine Republican seats, Nevada, is a State won by Hilary Clinton. This underscores the difficulty the Democrats face in winning control of the Senate in the face of an increasingly polarised electorate, despite the fact that they may benefit from a significant swing nationally and only need a net gain of two seats to do so.
Most observers believe, and recent polls indicate, that the Democrats will be fortunate to maintain their current strength in the Senate, however could be well placed to make gains in two years when the electoral map will be very different. Key races to watch this year are:
Currently Held By Democrat
North Dakota: won by President Trump in 2016 by a 36% margin, incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitcamp faces a difficult task holding on to this seat. Opinion polls show Republican challenger Kevin Cramer with a high single digit lead.
Missouri: Trump margin of victory in 2016 was 18.5%. Recent polls indicate the race between incumbent Claire McCaskill and Republican challenger Josh Hawley to be neck and neck and will likely depend on which candidate has the best organisation on the ground in the run-up to and on election day.
Florida: Incumbent Democratic Senator, Bill Nelson, was believed to be relatively safe until incumbent Governor, Rick Scott, decided to seek the Republican nomination. Polls have shown a tight race as is typical for Florida. Governor Scott could get an uplift or drop in support based on the perception of how he handles the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, which could be the difference maker in the race.
Indiana: Home to Vice President Pence and generally reliably Republican. Incumbent Democrat Joe Donnelly won the seat by default in 2012 and was not expected to survive this election, however is showing a small lead in polls, albeit within the margin of error.
Montana: President Trump has visited a State he won by 20.5% three times to generate support for Republican challenger, Matt Rosendale, however incumbent John Tester has a long history in Montana and appears to be maintaining a small lead in polls.
West Virginia: President Trump’s 2016 42.2% margin of victory was the largest of any State, however incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin appears to be holding a five to ten per cent lead over his Republican challenger, State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. Senator Manchin is a former Governor who has a longtime reputation as a moderate and for having a strong independent streak.
New Jersey: Typically a shoo-in for the Democrats for Senate and Presidential elections, however the combination of the recent acquittal of incumbent Democratic Senator, Bob Menendez, on corruption charges coupled with the $24 million of personal funds spent by Republican challenger, Bob Hugin, has made this race one to watch. Outcome may swing on the extent to which Democrats can nationalise the race and tie Mr. Hugin to President Trump, who is deeply unpopular in the State.
Incumbent Democratic Senators Bob Casey of Pennsylvania; Tammie Baldwin of Wisconsin; Sherrod Brown of Ohio; and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan are all expected to be re-elected by relatively comfortable margins in States won narrowly by President Trump.
Nevada: Won by Hilary Clinton in 2016 by a 2.4% margin. Incumbent Republican Senator Dean Heller has a small lead over Democratic challenger, Congresswoman Jacky Rosen, in recent polls after trailing over the summer. Outcome likely depends on local organization.
Tennessee: The immense popularity of former Democratic Governor, Phil Bredesen, appeared to offer Democrats a chance to pick-up a seat in a reliably red State that gave President Trump a 26% margin in 2016, however recent polls have shown a narrow lead for Republican Marsha Blackburn in the race to succeed retiring Republican Senator, Bob Corker.
State Races: A total of 35 States will have gubernatorial races in 2018, 26 of which are currently held by Republicans. Democrats are expected to make gains in some of the higher population States such as Michigan and Illinois and have a 50:50 chance of winning Florida and Ohio. They are also running strongly in Maine, Wisconsin, Iowa and New Mexico. Republicans see a chance for a pick-up in Oregon. State legislatures should reflect the general voting patterns with general Democratic gains, typical for the party that does not hold the Presidency.
Either way the Senate is likely to remain under Republican control with a reasonable probability of Mitch McConnell adding to his current two seat majority. Tennessee, Indiana and Florida should be some of the earlier Senate results and a strong indicator of where things stand.