House Republicans came back from being written off before. They can again

Close 2018 midterm losses show a path for the GOP

The House Republican leadership team for the 116th Congress speaks to the media on Nov. 14, 2018. From left, Tom Emmer, R-Minn., Gary Palmer, R-Ala., Jason Smith, R-Mo., Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Steve Scalise, R-La., and Mark Walker, R-N.C. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The House Republican leadership team for the 116th Congress speaks to the media on Nov. 14, 2018. From left, Tom Emmer, R-Minn., Gary Palmer, R-Ala., Jason Smith, R-Mo., Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Steve Scalise, R-La., and Mark Walker, R-N.C. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 4, 2019 at 5:04am

OPINION — Through much of 2018 and especially in the weeks following the midterm elections, many opinion writers and other political pundits enthusiastically declared the Republican Party dead or at least relegated to life support.

The commentary was eerily reminiscent of the post-2006 declarations that the GOP was finished … over … no longer a viable political party.

Four years later, House Republicans were back in the majority.

When it comes to the GOP’s 2018 loss of the House, perhaps a little historical perspective — one based on numbers, not opinion — might be in order for both Republicans and Democrats, and the media, too.

In 2006, Democrats won the House national vote by 7.9 percent and picked up 31 seats; in 2018, the margin was slightly greater at 8.6 percent and they managed to flip at least 40 seats. Both were substantial victories that allowed Democrats to reclaim the majority and at least try to call it a mandate for what was then and is now an increasingly liberal policy agenda.

But it’s also important to remember that the House Republican wins in 1994, when they picked up 54 seats, and 2010 (63 seats) were even larger victories. So much for the GOP’s near-death experience.

For some added context, in 1994 when Democrats lost the House, their party had held control for an astonishing 40 straight years. It took them 12 years to regain the majority after losing in 1994 and eight years after losing in 2010. In contrast, after the 2006 elections, Republicans regained the majority in only four years and, overall, have held the House for 20 of the last 24 years.

If the past is prologue (though in politics prognosticating is risky business), what do the numbers tell us about Republicans’ congressional chances going into 2020 and beyond? Given the Democrats 235-seat majority (this assumes that North Carolina’s 9th District remains Republican — although there is a possibility for a special election), the GOP would need to take back 18 House seats to regain the majority in 2020 — a tough but hardly an impossible task. A look at close midterm House races shows a path for the GOP.

Flashback: McCarthy gives Hoyer a gift on the House floor

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A path forward

If Republicans were able to win districts where the Democratic congressional candidate got less than 51 percent of the vote, that would give them 14 of the 18 seats needed to regain control. If Republicans won the districts where Democrats got less than 52 percent, that would give them 22 seats and a majority coalition. Taking it one step further, if Republicans won those districts where Democrats were elected with less than 53 percent, that would net them 31 seats and control. In fact, Republicans could take the House back by winning only two-thirds of these targeted seats.

Is this scenario wishful thinking or a real possibility? Perhaps a little of both. For the GOP, it would mean winning virtually all current Republican-held House seats, including those they won with less than 53 percent of the vote; a number similar to the situation facing Democrats. A tall order? Maybe, but if you are a Republican incumbent who survived the toxic 2018 election environment, there is a good chance you can win in 2020, whatever the national circumstances.

So how could Republicans close the margins in those districts where Democrats won with less than 53 percent?

As I’ve pointed out in previous Roll Call columns, despite a significant increase in turnout, the 2018 election did not deliver the structural change in the electorate that the Democrats wanted, as ideology and party ID from exit polls show. Voters changed preference, not necessarily ideology, and several key voter groups led that shift.

Start with independents. Republicans lost them by 12 points last fall; in 2016, they won the group by 6. Given that 30 percent of the electorate are independents, simply getting back to Republicans’ previous levels of support among this group would significantly affect their chances in 2020.

[Independents decided this election. They’ll decide the next one too]

The same goes for female voters. In 2018, the GOP lost them by 19 points but only by 10 two years earlier. Because women make up the majority of the electorate at 52 percent, reducing the margin of loss by 9 points would put control of the House in play. Add suburban, younger, senior and Hispanic voters into the mix, and neither party can take anything for granted heading into 2020.

If Republicans can reverse enough of the changes in voter preferences seen in the 2018 election and get back to the support they garnered in 2016 or even 2012 with key groups, an opening exists.

[All is not lost for Republicans in the suburbs]

Some challenges

Now for the reality check.

Admittedly, given today’s negative political environment and evolving electoral demographics, winning two-thirds of those endangered Democratic seats will be tough. I remember the months after Republicans lost the House in 2006, and I can say things didn’t look much better. Yet, four years later Nancy Pelosi was handing the gavel back to Republican John “Where are the Jobs?” Boehner.

What were Republicans facing in 2006, and how different or not is it from today?

Election Day exit polls show attitudes about the direction of the country then and now are very similar. In 2006, 41 percent said the country was headed in the right direction while 55 percent said it was on the wrong track. In 2018, it was 42 percent (right direction) to 54 percent (wrong track). Presidential job approval rating is actually slightly better for Republicans. President George W. Bush was underwater in 2006 with 43 percent approving to 57 percent disapproving. In 2018, President Donald Trump’s approval/disapproval rating sat at 45 percent to 54 percent. 

[2018 Midterms: A missed opportunity for Republicans]

Party ID favored Democrats by 2 points in 2006, increasing slightly to +4 in 2018. But Democrats did not do as well among independents last year, winning them by 12 points, down 6 from their 18-point margin in 2006. The biggest difference between the two elections is the electorate’s attitude toward the economy. In 2006, 49 percent of voters rated the economy as excellent/good while 50 percent who said it was not so good/poor. In 2018, positive attitudes toward the economy outweighed the negative, 68 percent to 31 percent. 

Comparing the Winston Group’s monthly surveys from December 2006 and December 2018, Republicans should take heart. On who can better handle the economy, the GOP starts off 8 points better than it did in 2006, going from trailing Democrats by 4 to leading them by 4. On the issue of jobs, there has been a 19-point swing in the GOP’s favor from -16 to +3. Even on health care, Republicans have slightly improved from -25 in 2006 to -19, not good but certainly better.

Despite the recent volatility in the markets, the economy remains a plus for both Trump and congressional Republicans. If that continues, it should create a better environment for the GOP than the fall of 2008 when the country lost about 400,000 jobs a month in the three months preceding the election.

Nonetheless, the impact of the presidential election remains as much a question mark this cycle as it did in 2008. The tenor of the Democratic primaries could be a big negative factor in 2019. So could the increasingly liberal ideology of the Democratic Party agenda and its congressional focus in the coming months.

While the Trump factor may also affect GOP prospects, the key for Hill Republicans is to move forward as they did in 2006. The ability of House and Senate Republicans to offer a positive agenda that addresses people’s kitchen table priorities, from jobs, wages and now retirement fears to health care concerns, could well be the deciding factor in who controls the next Congress.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.Correction 4:14 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated the percentage of those who said the country was headed on the wrong track, according to November exit poll data.