“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”
The next American election is almost here. This cycle will be without the fanfare and theater of two Presidential candidates going head to head, but it will be almost as consequential. In November, Democrats will be looking to pry away one of the co-equal branches of government from Republican control. This would provide a check against President Trump’s power that hasn’t existed to this point. In this article, we will look at the chances and strategies that each party will wield to retain or win the House of Representatives and Senate.
Members of the US House of Representatives are essentially in election mode as soon as they are elected or re-elected. Every two years, 435 Congresswomen and men must present their case to their constituents as to why they should be re-elected. This is in contrast to the 100 members of the US Senate, who only stand for re-election every six years. This does not mean all members of the Senate are up for a vote during the same election such as in the House. This year 33 of 100 Senate seats are running to keep their seats. Another article can be written about what the US Founding Fathers intended with this time frame between elections, but we can see how quickly they intended the people to have an opportunity to check the power of the executive branch.
This check of power might be what gives Donald Trump even more headaches than he is experiencing now. It won’t be easy for the Democrats to take both the House and the Senate. Currently, Republicans have a 42-seat majority in the House (235-193) and a slim two-seat majority in the Senate (51-47-2), with two Independent Senators caucusing with Democrats. The slim margin in the Senate makes it look like it would be the easiest chamber for Democrats to flip, but recall that Senators are only elected every six years. The Senate election map looks particularly daunting for Democrats this year, as they must defend 25 of the 33 seats up for election. This means Republicans only must defend eight seats.
During the Presidential election almost two years ago, we saw a divide emerge in both major parties. This rift will play itself out in the primaries, and already has in those completed. The Republican divide was most palpable during Trump’s path to the nomination. It essentially boiled down to Trump’s populist nativism versus the Republican establishment. This division has been quelled now that he is President. It most likely won’t emerge again until either President Trump becomes so unpopular that Republicans risk their own seats by supporting him or until he has finished his term(s) as President. The Democrats, however, are at a crossroads now.
The surprising success of Senator Bernie Sanders’ progressive Presidential campaign in 2016 has caused a chasm in Democratic politics. Proponents of Hillary Clinton would argue that Sanders was not successful since he did not receive the nomination by a large margin. However, what he was able to do was electrify the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and Clinton’s loss to Trump only amplified their cause. This has caused a fascinating battle this election cycle between progressive candidates and those more centrist and establishment friendly. With President Trump’s all-out assault on President Obama’s legacy, Democrats will hope for an energized base to turn out a record number of voters for a midterm election. Midterms have, historically, a low voter turnout that favors Republican participation.
The question for the Democratic Party isn’t which candidate will win the most Democratic votes in a primary; rather, it is which candidates will garner the most votes on Election Day in November. Will more ideological and progressive candidates win a general election or those who call for pragmatism and tend to lean more towards the center? The answer to this usually boils down to two factors, the demographics of a Congressional district and the political mood of the country. A district that votes heavily for a Democratic Presidential nominee and consistently sends Democratic politicians to Congress is more likely to be favorable towards an ideological candidate. They don’t need to worry as much about garnering conservative or independent votes such as a candidate in a district that might favor a Republican President but is split on the question of Congressional candidates. The current mood of the country addresses the elephant in the room, Donald Trump.
A good indicator of where the mood of the country stands is the generic ballot poll. This is a poll where a sample of voters is asked whether they would vote for a generic Republican or Democrat for. According to the statistical website fivethirtyeight.com, polls have put Democrats in the lead going as far back as last year. However, the recent trend has not been in the direction that Democrats have hoped for. As recent as January of this year Democrats were up in the generic ballot by 13 points. That lead has dwindled down to 6 percent. This coincides with Trump’s best approval ratings that he has had since this time last year. The beginning of 2018 saw Trump’s approval rating at 38%, but since then it has risen four points to 42%. If these trends hold or stay static, it will leave little margin for error for Democrats to take control of the House. This might also favor more pragmatic Democratic candidates who can appeal to moderates and crossover Republicans. The odds are, however, still in their favor.
Republicans have an easier decision to make. Trump remains popular amongst their party’s base, with a recent YouGov Poll showing 80% of Republicans either strongly or somewhat approving of the job he has done. This leaves no reason for Republicans to abandon President Trump. Even in swing districts, Republicans that don’t want to focus on Trump himself can focus on the tax cuts implemented last year, the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch, or most importantly, the positive health of the economy. Whether this is a winning strategy remains to be seen, as the popularity of the tax cuts are not what the Republicans had hoped for.
The Senate holds entirely different dynamics. As mentioned before, the math just doesn’t favor the Democrats taking over the Senate. In fact, there is a real possibility that Republicans could widen their majority. According to Real Clear Politics, of the eight seats that are seen as a toss-up, Democrats currently occupy five of them. Two other states have open seats, where the incumbent has decided not to run for reelection, and are in states that Trump carried in the Presidential election. The five Senate Democrats are also in states that voted for Donald Trump in the Presidential election, and this has guided the way these incumbents have voted with or against Trump nominees or legislation. Republicans must also be conscious of what type of candidates they are pitting against these incumbents. With Trump’s populism winning the Presidency, it’s not hard to see why candidates that are even to the right of Trump on issues such as immigration would be empowered to run for office. If Trumpian candidates are nominated, it could pose problems for Republicans in states where Trump won narrowly, or his popularity has gone down.
The elephant on top of the other elephant in the room is the scandals that have been non-stop during the Trump administration and how they will affect the race. The constant firings of staffers and cabinet members have almost become routine and show no real long-term effect on polling. Despite some indictments in the Mueller investigation of Russian interference, nothing has caused Trump’s popularity to plummet to numbers unseen. This, of course, could change should someone very close to Trump or Trump himself come under indictment. Without a big event or attack, US foreign policy only takes calculus in an election when the electorate doesn’t feel secure or if there are serious blunders abroad. With Trump pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement and negotiations in North Korea far from a sure thing, a big election-changing event before November is not out of the question.
For President Trump, there are many scenarios that could play out. His most ideal scenario would be for Republicans to keep the House and increase the majority in the Senate. This would keep Republicans in control of committees that could investigate him and allow a Republican Congress to potentially pass his agenda. At the moment, this is one of the most unlikely scenarios. His second best scenario is that Republicans widen their majority in the Senate and the House flips by a narrow margin. However, this would put Democrats at the head of those potential investigative committees that have the responsibility of government oversight. The worst-case scenario for the Trump administration would be Democrats controlling both chambers. This would stall any agenda he wants to pass and also put him directly in the crosshairs of Senate and House investigators. With Election Day around 170 days away, the stakes are almost as high as it gets.