What a successful midterm looks like

Setting expectations for both Republicans & Democrats in 2014


“Oft expectation fails, and most oft there where most it promises.”

— William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well

When the Bard of Avon wrote those words some four centuries ago, he wasn’t describing Republican Senate candidates in 2010 or 2012, although the quote works well to illustrate how great opportunities can be frittered away. But now that the 2013 elections are over and the 2014 cycle is beginning to take shape, we’ve been thinking: What are fair expectations for both parties next year?

What follows are suggestions as to how observers should judge the results 12 months from now.

The Republicans: Win the Senate, hold Democrats to a net gain of zero in the House

Given what we know about midterms — the party that does not occupy the White House nearly always does better than the in-power party — the bar is set high for Republicans next year. Just winning a handful of seats in the Senate and cutting into the Democratic majority isn’t enough: Only netting the six Senate seats they need to grab the majority can be considered a successful cycle.

That’s partially because Republicans should already be halfway to their goal. We currently favor Republicans to pick up three open Democratic Senate seats in South Dakota (Likely Republican) and Montana and West Virginia (Leans Republican). Those states should all be relatively easy pickups because of strong Republican recruits, a lack of credible Tea Party challenges, and the states’ Republican leanings in national politics. That said, Democrats could put up a fight in the latter two states: Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) is a decent opponent for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) in the Mountain State, and the winner of a primary between Montana’s sitting (John Walsh) and former (John Bohlinger) Democratic lieutenant governors could also put a scare into likely Republican nominee Rep. Steve Daines in a state where Democrats typically win Senate contests. For Republicans, though, losing any of these three seats would be both surprising and embarrassing.

A fourth Senate seat also probably tilts Republican, even though we currently call it a Toss-up: Sen. Mark Pryor (D) faces a very stern challenge from Rep. Tom Cotton (R) in Arkansas, and he’s been consistently mired in the low 40s in polling. Assuming a Republican wins there and in the three aforementioned states, that’s four net seats, with three other highly competitive opportunities against Democratic incumbents in Republican-leaning states: Alaska (Mark Begich), Louisiana (Mary Landrieu) and North Carolina (Kay Hagan), with a couple other wild cards thrown in the mix (open seats in Iowa and Michigan).

Potentially complicating matters is the possibility Republicans could throw away one of their current seats in this cycle: The likeliest candidate is the open seat in Georgia.

If Republicans can’t win the Senate on this map, they probably won’t in 2016, when Republican incumbents in Illinois (Mark Kirk), Pennsylvania (Pat Toomey) and Wisconsin (Ron Johnson) are likely to be among the most vulnerable incumbents in either party.

Meanwhile, Republicans already hold a big edge in the House: Even if they lose a special election in the now-open FL-13 — a Tampa-area district formerly held by the late Rep. Bill Young (R) that we’re currently calling a Toss-up — Republicans would still hold a 16-seat edge in the House. Holding the line there is a reasonable goal, and an achievable one: The president’s party has lost ground in the House in 35 of 38 midterms held since the Civil War. Republicans suffered a couple high-profile House retirements over the past several weeks, including those of Reps. Jon Runyan (R, NJ-3) and Tim Griffin (R, AR-2), but even if they were to lose these seats, the GOP could mitigate the damage by defeating one or two of the nine Democrats who hold seats that Mitt Romney won in last year’s presidential race, such as Reps. Ron Barber and Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona; Rep. Nick Rahall (WV); or Rep. Mike McIntyre (NC), to name a few of the most vulnerable members. Republicans also have some juicy targets in Democratic states like California and Illinois that were close last time and could fall their way in a lower-turnout midterm.

A helpful factor for the Republicans’ House and Senate campaigns is that President Obama’s approval ratings are pretty poor right now; his current average approval in the RealClearPolitics average, 41.9%, appears to be the worst of his presidency. As Sean Trende, also of RealClearPolitics, recently noted, if Obama’s job approval is around 40% next fall, it’s hard to see Democrats gaining seats in the House. History also suggests that Obama’s approval might be in the dumps for good, as National Journal’s Alex Roarty wrote earlier this week.

The Democrats: Hold the Senate and win more House seats than they lose Senate seats

For Democrats, the bar is much lower, in part because of the aforementioned history: A good midterm for the party that controls the White House is a status quo election. For instance, Bill Clinton’s Democrats gained five House seats and fought to a draw in the Senate in 1998, while George W. Bush’s Republicans netted six House seats and two Senate seats in 2002. Going back a little further, George H.W. Bush’s Republicans lost just nine House seats and one Senate seat in 1990, and John F. Kennedy’s Democrats lost four House seats but gained three Senate seats in the 1962 midterm, held shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Spanning the entire history of the modern two-party era (which we’ll define here as starting in 1856 with the Republican Party’s first presidential candidacy), the biggest midterm House gain by the sitting president’s party was nine seats, by Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats in 1934. (Teddy Roosevelt’s Republicans also gained nine seats in 1902, but the size of the House expanded, so the GOP actually lost ground in the House.)

This is why we often say that the Democrats’ attempt to net 17 House seats in a midterm is basically unprecedented in American history. So judging their midterm efforts to be a failure if they fall short of accomplishing something that has essentially never been done before isn’t really fair.

Here’s a fairer way to define a successful midterm for Democrats: gaining more seats in the House than they lose in the Senate.

Given the situation in the Senate, it’s very hard to imagine Democrats actually adding seats there, although such a scenario seemed unlikely at this point in the 2012 cycle (the massively important and unexpected retirement of Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine had not yet occurred, and now-Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, the Democrat from North Dakota, had just entered her race, where she started as a significant underdog). Losing just two seats would probably be the best-case scenario for Democrats, and would probably also coincide with a positive national environment that also generates gains in the House: Perhaps not the requisite 17, but maybe somewhere in the high single digits.

Considering there’s no national redistricting this cycle to dramatically alter the House map, and that there’s a very low number of crossover House seats (just nine Democrats sit in seats Romney won, and 17 Republicans sit in Obama seats), there remains little reason to suspect that either party will make double-digit gains in the House. Rather, this feels like an incremental, seat-by-seat fight. So far, recent developments have favored the Democrats — particularly the retirements of Runyan in New Jersey and Griffin in Arkansas. Democrats also continue to get good recruiting news while Republicans haven’t really attracted any significant new House challengers over the past few weeks (or forced any Democratic retirements) despite Obama’s poor poll numbers and the Obamacare rollout fiasco.

Democrats’ best hope might be that the Republican Party is so unpopular — according to the HuffPost Pollster average, just 28% have a favorable view of the party compared to 58% who have an unfavorable view — that the typical rules of a midterm, which can be dictated by the approval of a president or the state of the economy, might simply not apply. That, like the Democratic hopes of retaking the House, is a huge reach, but not impossible. One warning sign for Democrats is that their shutdown-induced edge in the national House generic ballot could be fading: Quinnipiac released a new poll Wednesday showing both parties tied, after a previous pre-shutdown poll showed the Democrats up nine points.

It’s hypothetically possible that the Democrats could, say, add seven House seats but lose six Senate seats — hitting part of the goal we’ve described but losing control of the Senate — but such wildly conflicting signs would be odd and without recent historical precedent. Needless to say, any scenario in which Democrats end Election Night without control of either the House or the Senate is a poor showing.


The dynamics we’ll see in next year’s midterm are unclear, but history and the overall playing field, particularly in the Senate, suggest that the Republicans should do better than the Democrats. That’s why expectations for their performance are higher going into 2014 than they are for the Democrats.

It’s impossible for both sides to meet the expectations described above, but it is possible for neither side to fully achieve the goals we’ve laid out. Perhaps both parties will end up as 2014 losers, which would be a fitting conclusion to the biennial process of filling a body — Congress — that is so widely reviled by the public.