Why Democrats Could Win The House But Still Lose The Senate

It isn’t that voters are hedging their bets. It all has to do with how the chambers of Congress are set up.

Many election forecasters are predicting that Democrats will take control of the House of Representatives in a blue wave, but that they will fall short of a Senate majority. In fact, there is a good chance that Republicans will gain seats in the Senate. These forecasts leave many Americans scratching their heads and wondering why voters would put Democrats in charge of the House and give Republicans a bigger majority in the Senate. It isn’t that voters are hedging their bets by voting for a split ticket. It all has to do with how the chambers of Congress are set up.

The two houses are set up differently. Members of the House of Representatives, which was intended to be closely responsive to the will of the voters, serve two-year terms and must stand for re-election every cycle.

In contrast, the Senate was designed to be more insulated from the whims of the public. Senators were originally chosen by state legislators, not voters. That changed with the 17th Amendment, which was ratified in 1913. Since then, voters have picked their state’s senators who serve six-year terms. That works out so that about a third of sitting senators have to stand for election in any given election year. Over three election cycles, the entire Senate comes up for re-election.

It was the Democrats’ bad luck (or the good luck of the Republicans) that timed the purported blue wave in a year when the majority of Senate seats up for re-election were defended by Democrats. Of the 35 Senate elections this year, 26 are in seats held by Democrats and only nine are held by Republicans. Of course, most of these seats are not competitive. Control of the Senate will come down to about 10 competitive races.

There are five Democratic seats that are considered tossups and one that is considered a likely Republican win. Heidi Heitkamp’s seat in North Dakota will almost certainly be won by the Republicans. The tossup seats are found in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and New Jersey. With the exception of New Jersey, where the Democratic incumbent Bob Menendez faces ethics scandals, and the swing state of Florida, these competitive Democratic seats are in deep red states where Democrats would be expected to have a difficult time in any year. Democrats might be grateful that the blue wave appears to be helping them limit losses of these very vulnerable seats.

On the Republican side, there are four competitive races. These are found in Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee, and Texas. No Republican seats are leaning Democrat at this point. Only Arizona and Nevada seem like possible Democrat pickups at this point.

2020 might also be difficult for Democrat Senate hopes. A casual look at the map doesn’t show many possible pickups other than Jon Kyl in Arizona, Corey Gardner in Colorado, Joni Ernst in Iowa, and Susan Collins in Maine, who might have primary problems. Democrat Doug Jones of Alabama is likely to be retired. 2022 will bring opportunities for Democrats in Arizona, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

In the House, the two-year term of all congressmen negates the Republican advantage in the Senate. Additionally, Republicans have to contend with defending vulnerable districts that were won during the Obama Administration.

Barack Obama was successful at winning presidential elections, but other Democrats tended to lose during his tenure. During the eight years of Obama, Democrats lost more than 1,000 seats in Congress and statehouses across the country, including about 60 seats in the House of Representatives. Many of those new Republican seats are vulnerable under an unpopular Republican administration.

When Barack Obama pushed an unpopular Democratic agenda that included things like Obamacare, voters in swing districts voted in Republicans to stop him. Now, when Donald Trump pushes an unpopular Republican agenda that ironically includes things like repealing Obamacare, voters are mobilizing to elect Democrats to stop him. By the end of 2017, Democrats had already won back about 40 seats.

Unlike the Senate, where the battle is primarily on Republican turf, the battle for the House is in the Democrats’ backyard. The list of competitive House districts shows Republicans defending a plethora of districts in blue states like California and New York as well as typically blue Rust Belt states like Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

In the House, where Democrats need to win 23 seats to take control, 17 Republican districts are rated as likely to turn blue. An astonishing 28 Republican tossup districts give Democrats ample opportunities to make up the difference. On the Democrat side, two districts are rated as likely to go Republican and there is one tossup.

Because the Republicans picked up so many seats in state elections during the Obama years, the blue wave is likely to extend beyond Washington even if Republicans hold the Senate. Twelve Republican gubernatorial seats are vulnerable to Democrats with the races in Georgia and Ohio particularly close. There are few forecasts for state legislatures, but Democrats are positioned to make gains in statehouses across the country.

Next week when voters hand the House of Representatives to Democrats and renew the Republican lease on the Senate, it won’t be because voters are schizophrenic. It will be because different voters in different districts had different ideologies and partisan leanings. Recent history will also be repeating itself as an unpopular president costs his party seats across the country.

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