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GOP shouldn’t count its midterm chickens before they hatch

Lessons from previous elections offer different considerations

ANALYSIS — House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy has already guaranteed that his party will take back the chamber in two years. He could be right. Or not. We have no way of knowing what things will look like in May or October of 2021, let alone April or September of 2022.

Midterms do tend to be referenda on the incumbent president, and history shows that voters have often punished the sitting president and his party, particularly in House elections. The GOP lost 40 seats in 2018 and 30 seats in 2006, when they held the White House. Democrats lost 63 seats in 2010 and 54 seats in 1994 during Barack Obama’s and Bill Clinton’s first midterms as president.

So, promising victory in 2022, given the narrow Democratic House advantage in the next Congress, isn’t outlandish or unreasonable. It’s merely premature, especially given our weird politics these days.

One of the problems in making a forecast this far out is that circumstances change.

I remember writing in the spring of 2009 that there were no indications that a Republican wave would sweep Democrats out of the majority in 2010. And there weren’t any — at that time. Democrats were overperforming in House special elections, and Obama’s approval numbers remained strong.

But by the fall of 2009 and beginning of 2010, signs started appearing that the upcoming midterms were going to be challenging for the Democrats, an assessment I noted repeatedly in my newsletter and columns.

Those signs grew stronger and clearer throughout 2010, so by the time the fall elections were imminent, my newsletter, the Rothenberg Political Report, was projecting GOP gains in the 55- to 65-seat range.

A lot can happen

As I have often said, political analysts don’t predict the future. They merely use current information to identify the likely trajectory of an election cycle — a trajectory that sometimes changes and sometimes doesn’t.

Obviously, incoming President Joe Biden’s handling of COVID-19 and the economy will have an impact on 2022, including on turnout. Will the Democratic base be disappointed with his first two years in office? Will suburbanites who swung to Biden conclude that the Democrats have moved too far left? Will progressives stay home without Donald Trump in the White House?

Or, as my colleague Nathan L. Gonzales wrote recently, will a former President Trump be so high-profile and controversial that Democrats are able to run against him again during the midterms, energizing Democratic voters who may have complaints about Biden but remain deathly worried about Trumpism?

It’s not difficult, after all, to imagine Trump interjecting himself into the midterm elections in a way that turns them from a referendum on Biden into a choice between Biden or Trump — or even a referendum on Trump.

Will there be new crises, new controversies that will help or hurt the sitting president’s party? The obvious answer is “of course.” But what will those impacts be?

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Project with caution

The long history of losses by the president’s party during midterm elections is a reason for Republicans and conservatives to start out hopeful about 2022. But there are caveats.

First, not every midterm election resulted in substantial losses for the president’s party. The president’s party gained seats in 1998 and 2002, though there were unusual circumstances in each case. And while the president’s party lost House seats in 1990 and 1986, the net changes were small.

Second, where you end up is in part a function of where you start.

Part of the reason Republicans gained so many House seats in the 2010 midterm was that the party held a mere 179 seats to the Democrats’ 256 going into the election.

Democratic members sat in dozens of seats that normally would have been represented by Republicans — in the South, in rural America and in normally Republican suburbs — but were in Democratic hands because of two anti-George W. Bush elections, in 2006 and 2008.

The first Obama midterm gave Republicans the opportunity to win back districts they never should have lost.

A quite different situation occurred in 1990, when Republican House losses were small (in the single digits) because the party in the White House, the GOP, held so few districts. Most competitive districts had already flipped to the Democrats, so there were not many more for Republicans to lose.

Of course, 2018, when Democrats netted 40 seats, was different. Democrats already held 194 seats, but Trump’s personal style was so repellent that the GOP lost previously reliable Republican districts in the suburbs.

Republican gains of about a dozen House seats in 2020 mean the party has already regained part of its 2018 losses. Next cycle, most seats will be held by the majority party in each district, minimizing the number of seats inherently at risk in a sharply polarized political environment.

Initial edge

But that certainly doesn’t mean the GOP can’t win back the House, particularly if suburban districts won by Democrats in 2018 and Biden in 2020 swing back to Republicans in 2022.

In fact, the midterm dynamic — during which voters dissatisfied and disappointed with the president are more likely to turn out than are those who are content — gives the GOP an initial advantage.

Republicans are already sounding as if they intend to make 2022 about socialism, illegal immigrants and anarchists in the suburbs. But if the economy is strong, COVID-19 is in the rear-view mirror and Biden is popular, the midterm election might well favor the status quo.

Though House Republicans have reasons for optimism, nothing is now guaranteed about the political landscape of 2022 — especially since a bitter, defeated Trump is likely to want the limelight during the next few years.

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