It’s been four months since my first 2018 midterms analysis. Now, just a half-year from our next set of major federal elections, it feels like a good time to see what, if anything, has changed since that initial analysis. At “Ten Months Out,” I predicted the GOP would retain both houses of Congress. Should I amend my prediction?
We’re about to find out. Let’s again start with the lower chamber.
The House of Representatives
- Republicans: 237 (down 2 from Ten Months Out)
- Democrats: 193 (no change from TMO)
- Vacant: 5 (up two from TMO)
- All are up for re-election
- Number of seats needed for a majority in the next House: 218
- Number of seats Democrats need to add for a majority: 25
- Number of seats Republicans can lose while retaining majority: 19
I still don’t care much for the “generic ballot,” but let’s keep track of it anyway. Back on January 8, FiveThirtyEight’s average across the polls found Democrats with an average lead of just over 10 points (48.3 to 38). As of today that lead has shrunk to just over 8 (46.48 – 38.6). While it’s still too early — and the statistic still too misleading — to create long-term predictions from that number, it does reflect some Republican momentum nationally, and that’s before President Trump’s contributions to the laudable progress we’ve seen on the Korean Peninsula.
Still, Congressional elections are not national elections. We can only vote for our local representatives. More important than the generic ballot are the statuses of individual Congressional races across the country. In the House, that’s 435 different races to sort.
That’s a task up to which I am not, so, like last time, the Cook Report saves the day. I’ve checked back in on its House analysis to find out if their “safe,” “likely,” “leaning,” and “toss-up” numbers have changed at all in the last four months. Below are those findings:
What are we to make of these numbers?
- Contradicting the trend of the generic ballot, here it appears Democrats, at the more granular level, have the momentum. In four month, Republicans went from a 16-seat advantage in “safe + likely” seats to a six-seat deficit. If we grant the premise of safe + likely being almost untouchable to the other side, that means 379 of 435 races are all but decided, leaving only 56. Of those 56, Democrats need to win 27 (218 – 191) and Republicans need to win 33 (218 – 185). Advantage Democrats, right?
- Not necessarily. If we go one step further and include the “leaners,” we see the GOP edge back into the front. Give them their 26 leaners and they jump up to 211 of the 218 needed, while the Democrats’ 9 leaners gets them only to 200. With only 23 toss-ups remaining, Republicans would need just 7 to the Democrats’ 18. Most of those toss-up seats, moreover, are currently held by Republicans. Advantage GOP.
Of course, with six months to go, the fragile leaners and toss-ups have plenty of time to break either way. If the next four months go like the last four months, it’s easy to see Democrats earning even more safe, likely, and leaner seats.
Meanwhile, no House analysis would be complete without addressing the many retirements of Republican House members — the 43 retirees tower over those of recent elections — with Speaker Paul Ryan one of the latest casualties. It’s no coincidence many are choosing to retire during a controversial and unpopular president’s administration. They recognize it’d be a difficult and even awkward campaign season during which they’d have to repeatedly answer for the President. The Democratic strategy will be to tie Republican candidates in toss-up districts to Trump and force those Republicans to choose between betraying the party or embracing an albatross. Many — 43 and counting — have no interest in facing that dilemma. However, their replacements will have to.
Prediction: Therefore, though it’s far too early to have any confidence, I now think, between the momentum at the district level and what we can infer about the increasing number of Republican retirements, we’re looking at a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in 2018.
As far as the Senate goes, the Democrats’ task is much more difficult. As I noted in January, only a third of the Senate is up for re-election, and most of that third is Democratic. Thus, whereas a blue wave might douse the House, most Republican seats in the Senate will stay dry.
- Republicans: 51
- Democrats: 47
- Independents: 2 (both caucus with Democrats, effectively giving them 49)
- Wrinkle: Vice-President Pence serves as a tie-breaking vote.
- Therefore, Democrats need to hit 51 for the true majority.
- Republicans would be satisfied with just 50.
- Number of seats Democrats need to add for a majority: 2
- Number of seats Republicans can lose to retain majority: 1
- Number of seats up for grabs: 35 (+1 since Ten Months Out)
- Number of those seats that are Republican: 9 (+1 due to Mississippi’s Thad Cochran retiring and Alabama’s Governor replacing with Cindy Hyde-Smith ahead of a special election this November to finish Cochran’s term).
- Number of those seats that are Democratic or Independent: 26!
And therein lies the problem for Democrats. They have to play so much defense that very little energy will be left for offense. To win control of the Senate, they’d have to win two Republican-held seats and sweep the 26 they already control. For every one of the 26 they lose, they’d need to win another Republican seat. That is a tall order.
It is not, however, insurmountable. Like the House, there are indications of some Democratic momentum in the upper chamber as well.
Like with the House, the Cook Report categorizes the various Senate race by safe, likely, and lean. Of the 26 Democratic seats four months ago, 18 were safe or likely Democratic, 4 were leaning Democratic, and 4 were toss-ups. Now, 19 are safe or likely Democratic, with 2 leaners and 5 toss-ups.
The increase of 4 to 5 in the toss-up category was a result of Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott declaring his candidacy for Bill Nelson’s seat. Otherwise, the only change was Angus King of Maine moving from learner all the way to safe.
As for the Republican held seats, there was a bit more shifting. In January, the likely and leaner columns were totally blank. Instead, of the eight Republican seats, three were toss-up seats and five were safe. Now, though the same three are toss-ups, three seats have slid over to the “likely” column:
In addition to the recently sworn in Hyde-Smith, Nebraska’s Deb Fischer and Texas’s Ted Cruz(!) have been demoted from the safe confines of the far right-hand column. Cruz was even out-raised by his Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, in 2017’s final quarter, a surprising result in Republicans’ most important state. The state’s most recent poll confirms O’Rourke’s momentum; he pulled within the margin of error.
That being said, despite this Democratic momentum, the math is just too difficult. Consider these numbers:
- 42 (Republican-held seats not up for re-election) + 6 (Republican safe or likely seats) = 48 as a starting number for Republicans on election night.
- 23 (Democratic-held seats not up for re-election) + 19 (Democratic safe or likely seats) + 2 (Democratic leaners) = 44 as a starting number for Democrats.
- There are eight toss-up seats.
- The Democrats have to win seven of those eight to get to 51. The GOP only needs two to reach 50 plus Pence.
Prediction remains the same: Republicans hold the Senate.