Midterm Danger: GOP Faces Galvanized Dem Base, Historical Trends

President’s party almost always loses House seats in off-year elections; sometimes many

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 07 Jul 2017 at 11:20 AM

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As Republicans gear up to defend their House and Senate majorities next year, they will be battling a revved up Democratic base and history.

Since the end of World War II, every first-term president but one has seen his party lose House seats in the midterm election. In the six where the president had an approval rating less than 50 percent, as President Donald Trump’s now stands in most surveys, the losses have averaged 43 House seats.

A swing that large next year would be more than enough to make Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaker of the House.

In fact, the losing streak for the president's party in midterms dates back much further, according to Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"The president's party almost always loses ground in the House in midterm elections. Since the Civil War, there have been 39 midterms, and the president's party has lost ground in the House in 36 of them, with an average loss of 33 seats," he wrote in emailed response questions from LifeZette. "These losses are exacerbated when the president is unpopular. If Trump's numbers are this poor in November 2018, the GOP House majority is very much in danger."

The first early test of how 2018 may play out will come Tuesday in a special election to fill a vacant House seat in Georgia. The GOP has won held two other seats in special elections this year, but Georgia's 6th Congressional District in the Atlanta suburbs is considered more of a bellwether than more Republican-tilting districts in Kansas and Montana.

The Georgia district — suburban, upscale and Republican-leaning — is exactly the kind of terrain Democrats must capture if they are to win the House next year.

The Georgia race has been a tight battle between Republican former secretary of state Karen Handel and Democrat Jon Ossoff, who has raised a breathtaking $23.6 million from liberals across the country.

"There is hope for the Democrats in 2018. But there's no reason for them to practice their touchdown dance yet."

That massive amount of money and energy — the result of the Handel-Ossoff runoff occurring in a special election without other races competing for attention — guarantee the dynamics on Tuesday will differ from next year, when all 435 seats will be up for grabs. For that reason, some experts do not think an Ossoff victory necessarily would foretell a Democrat wave in 2018.

"Not a lot of Democrats running in 2018 are going to have the kind of money behind them that Ossoff has," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

23 Republicans Represent Hillary Districts
The Democrats face a steep, but not impossible climb in the House. Democrat Hillary Clinton won 23 House districts represented by Republicans. The Democratic Party almost certainly will target most of those districts aggressively.

This particularly is the case where the Republican incumbent chooses not to run for re-election, such as the 27th District in Florida, where longtime Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will not seek a 14th full term. Clinton carried the district by nearly 20 percentage points, making whoever wins the Democratic nomination next year the odds-on favorite.

Midterms Tough for White House
House seats gained or lost by president's party. (Last Gallup rating before election in parentheses)
YearPresident (approval)Result
2014Obama (40%)-13
√ 2010Obama (45%)-63
2006Bush (36%)-30
√ 2002Bush (63%)+8
1998Clinton (66%)+5
√ 1994Clinton (46%)-54
√ 1990Bush (58%)-8
1986Reagan (63%)-5
√ 1982Reagan (42%)-26
√ 1978Carter (49%)-15
√ 1974Ford (54%)-48
√ 1970Nixon (58%)-12
√ 1966Johnson (44%)-48
√ 1962Kennedy (61%)-4
1958Eisenhower (57%)-48
√ 1954Eisenhower (61%)-18
1950Truman (39%)-28
√ 1946Truman (33%)-54
√ Denotes president's first midterm

Other Republicans representing districts that Trump lost by double digits include Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), David Valadao (R-Calif.), and Barbara Comstock (R-Va.). A number of Republicans in Democratic-leaning districts survived close races last year. Rep. Darrell Issa won his California district by just 1,621 votes. Rep. Will Hurd edged out his Democratic opponent by 3,051 votes in Texas. Four others won less than 53 percent of the vote.

Of course, Democrats will have to play defense in some places, too. Trump carried 12 districts represented by Democrats.

Rep. Tim Waltz is running for governor of Minnesota, offering Republicans a good shot at picking up his Republican-leaning district. Republicans likely also will target a trio of first-termers who had close races in 216: Tom O'Halleran in Arizona, Josh Gottheimer in New Jersey, and Jacky Rosen in Nevada.

Then there is Rep. Carol-Shea Porter, a Democrat who reclaimed her New Hampshire seat last year. 2016. She and Republican Frank Guinta have traded the seat every two years since 2008.

But on paper, at least, the Democrats have more targets than the Republicans. (go to page 2 to continue reading)

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  2. georgia
  3. approval-rating
  4. donald-trump
  5. elections
  6. jon-ossoff
  7. karen-handel
  8. midterm-elections
  9. midterms
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