Why the House ma­jor­ity doesn’t usu­ally flip in a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion year

The Washington Post - - POWERPOST - @PKCapi­tol PAUL KANE

One of the longest-run­ning streaks on Capi­tol Hill seems poised to keep go­ing strong when all the bal­lots are counted af­ter Tues­day’s elec­tions.

Not since 1952, when Dwight D. “Ike” Eisen­hower swept into the pres­i­dency and brought with him a Repub­li­can-controlled House, has the ma­jor­ity changed hands when Amer­i­cans also elect a pres­i­dent. In­stead, ever since, the House ma­jor­ity has changed par­ties only dur­ing midterm elec­tions, be­gin­ning two years af­ter Eisen­hower’s vic­tory with the Democrats’ wave in 1954 that gave them a ma­jor­ity un­til the his­toric 1994 Repub­li­can wave dur­ing Bill Clin­ton’s first midterm elec­tion. The other party-chang­ing mo­ments, 2006 and 2010, also came in midterms.

And de­spite the most volatile pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in decades, the out­come in the House in­creas­ingly looks as if it will leave Speaker Paul D. Ryan (RWis.) with a slightly nar­rower ma­jor­ity to nav­i­gate.

The two most-trusted in­de­pen­dent an­a­lysts — the Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port and the Rothen­berg & Gon­za­les Po­lit­i­cal Re­port — have es­ti­mated that more than enough Repub­li­can­held seats are in play to give Democrats a shot at the ma­jor­ity. Cook’s anal­y­sis, over­seen by David Wasser­man, rates 40 Repub­li­can seats as com­pet­i­tive. Nathan Gon­za­les, run­ning the Rothen­berg anal­y­sis, puts about 35 Repub­li­can seats in play.

Democrats need a 30-seat gain for the ma­jor­ity, and if this were truly a wave elec­tion year, it wouldn’t be a stretch for them to win nearly ev­ery com­pet­i­tive race along with a few un­ex­pected seats and claim the ma­jor­ity — that’s what hap­pens in po­lit­i­cal waves.

But Wasser­man and Gon­za­les con­clude that the po­lit­i­cal un­der­tow of Don­ald Trump’s can­di­dacy is mostly unique to his own brand. “The pres­i­den­tial race may be in­duc­ing whiplash, but the House bat­tle­ground re­mains rel­a­tively sta­ble in the fi­nal week,” Wasser­man wrote. He gives Democrats a top level of net­ting 20 ad­di­tional seats — but also an equal chance of just sin­gle-digit gains.

Gon­za­lez’s last re­port gave Democrats a chance at gain­ing 15 seats but also sug­gested that sin­gle-digit gains were just as likely. (Gon­za­lez’s for­mer part­ner, Stu­art Rothen­berg, founded that re­port and now writes for The Wash­ing­ton Post.)

If these pre­dic­tions hold up, House Repub­li­cans will end up in roughly the same shape as four years ago, when their 2012 nom­i­nee, Mitt Rom­ney, pre­sented a much more ap­peal­ing fig­ure in key swing dis­tricts than Trump does to­day. Back then, the GOP ended up with 234 seats.

There are plenty of fac­tors be­hind the Repub­li­can re­siliency in these House races, but the big­gest fac­tor might just be an odd quirk among swing vot­ers: They tend to break sharply against one party’s con­gres­sional in­cum­bents only if the law­mak­ers are di­rectly tied to an un­pop­u­lar pres­i­dent.

That’s why midterm elec­tions, over the past 25 years, have pro­duced the big­gest swings from one party to the other, like the 30 seats Democrats gained in the “six-year itch” midterm of Ge­orge W. Bush’s pres­i­dency.

Pres­i­dent Obama’s first elec­tion in 2008 pro­duced a large Demo­cratic gain — of 21 seats — but his party al­ready held the ma­jor­ity and was just run­ning up the score. The more nor­mal re­sult is the eight-seat gain Democrats made in 2012, which still left them 17 seats shy of the ma­jor­ity.

In both 1996 and 2000, the mi­nor­ity leader, Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), thought he had a chance at claim­ing the speaker’s gavel, but in each in­stance, Democrats picked up fewer than five seats.

The most likely sce­nario for the House ma­jor­ity to switch hands dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial cy­cle seems to be when the party hold­ing the White House also runs Capi­tol Hill, and that party loses the top-of-the-ticket, which leads to losses in down-bal­lot races. That’s what hap­pened in 1952, when Eisen­hower’s Repub­li­cans took charge af­ter 20 years of a Roo­sevelt-Tru­man run in the Oval Of­fice.

Trump would seem to be the per­fect pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee for Democrats. House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of­ten calls him the “gift that keeps on giv­ing” be­cause of his in­tem­per­ate re­marks to­ward women and mi­nori­ties as well as pol­icy pro­pos­als that tra­di­tional Repub­li­cans con­sider dangerous.

Yet there seem to be lim­its to the gifts Trump can give.

The Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee made a con­certed push to field as many can­di­dates as pos­si­ble in sub­ur­ban dis­tricts with high ed­u­ca­tion lev­els, be­cause those vot­ers have been the most of­fended by Trump’s can­di­dacy. Strate­gists be­lieve that the de­clin­ing amount of tick­et­split­ting would give Democrats a chance to win in places that seemed pre­vi­ously out of reach.

It has worked in a lim­ited fash­ion. The DCCC has put long­time GOP in­cum­bents, such as Reps. Dar­rell Issa (Calif.) and John L. Mica (Fla.), on the de­fen­sive like never be­fore.

Mean­while, younger Repub­li­cans in dis­tricts break­ing heav­ily against Trump are still in the fight, such as Rep. Bob Dold (Ill.), who rep­re­sents the sub­urbs north of Chicago. Clin­ton is poised to win the dis­trict by more than 20 per­cent­age points, ac­cord­ing to both party es­ti­mates, maybe even 30 per­cent­age points, but the DCCC has not put this race away and is spend­ing fever­ishly down the stretch to win it.

The prob­lem seems to be that many of those well-ed­u­cated sub­ur­ban vot­ers don’t be­lieve that their rep­re­sen­ta­tives, such as Bar­bara Com­stock (R-Va.) and Mike Coff­man (R-Colo.), are the same as Trump.

Repub­li­cans pri­vately con­cede that those Trump at­tacks have done some dam­age to their can­di­dates, but it’s mostly just en­er­gized lib­eral vot­ers there. The in­de­pen­dent-minded voter work­ing in the Dulles Cor­ri­dor IT sec­tor or in the eastern sub­urbs of Den­ver has yet to be con­vinced that voting for Com­stock and Coff­man is a vote for Trump.

This could be bad news for House Democrats. A Hil­lary Clin­ton pres­i­dency might mean a bad 2018 midterm for them, dig­ging Democrats deeper into the mi­nor­ity. And, as his­tory shows, the pres­i­den­tial year of 2020 isn’t likely to pro­duce a new House ma­jor­ity, ei­ther, mak­ing it pos­si­ble that their next real shot at the ma­jor­ity could be six years away — if Repub­li­cans hold the Oval Of­fice by then.

The two most-trusted in­de­pen­dent an­a­lysts have said that more than enough GOP seats are in play to give Democrats a shot at the ma­jor­ity.

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