At the onset of the 2014 midterm cycle, Nancy Pelosi effectively wrote off Democrats retaking the majority. In 2016, while Democrats were optimistic about the Trump effect they never fully believed in their own hype, leading to a number of remarkable recruiting failures in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois.
Apparently, this seems to be a common Democratic belief. Earlier this month, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel stated his party should “take a chill pill” about retaking the House. But, if Emanuel is serious about his party retaking the House he will need to keep his thoughts to himself and not dissuade strong candidates from running. Obviously, if party leaders don’t believe they can win why would the rank and file?
The House is highly polarized. As a result, operating in a highly majoritarian chamber like the House is not much fun. You don’t control anything, the majority has no reason to cater to your wishes and your policy preferences languish. Instead, you have to do sit-ins to get attention.
Worse, for many members, minority party legislators have to spend an inordinate amount of time fundraising. If you do not have the benefit of the majority your leadership often lacks the mechanism to cater to large financial interests. So, rank and file members have to pick up the slack. It gets worse. This is tedious at best, especially if the minority has no chance of advancing their policies no matter how much money they raise.
A PhD student at the University of North Carolina tests just how much of an impact what he calls “political polarization” in a legislative body has on the minority party . Obviously, the lower the political polarization in a chamber the more likely bipartisan legislation is to pass and the more likely strong recruits on both sides will run. But in chambers with high polarization the minority party suffers.
Using nationwide data, the study finds that in chambers with low polarization the minority party is able to recruit”experienced” candidates in 23 percent of contested races. In chambers with high polarization the number drops to 18 percent. Further, in chambers with low polarization the minority party often has fewer retirements, 7 percent of their seats, compared to 10 percent, in high polarization chambers.
The study highlights the tough task Democrats have in regaining the majority. It often leads to Democrats blaming gerrymandering and Voter ID laws for their inability to regain power. But, for potential candidates, the cause is irrelevant. Running is hard enough, but running when even if you win you lose is no reason to even put in the effort.
But just as important, the power of incumbency is a wonderful thing. If you are the incumbent. If you are the minority party candidate challenging the incumbent the battle is uphill. Even experienced current and former lawmakers struggle against entrenched or even new incumbents.
For Democrats to win the House they will need to take some of the 23 GOP districts Clinton carried or some of the 17 districts where Trump won with less than 50 percent of the vote. At the same time, Democrats will need to play defense in 12 seats Trump carried and eight districts where Clinton won with less than 50 percent of the vote. Fortunately for Democrats, most of their red-state incumbents are likely to stay. The downside, so are many of their Clinton district GOP counterparts.
A quick comparison to 2006 or even 2008 shows Democrats are in a slightly worse offensive position since the last time they were in the minority. Fortunately, they have fewer seats to defend. In 2006, there were 18 Kerry-Republican seats and a whopping 41 Bush-Democratic seats (many in the South). Democrats only needed to gain 15 seats and actually still had pull in red, Southern districts making their path to the majority easier. In 2009, Democrats were defending a whopping 49 McCain-Democratic districts while Republicans actually were defending over 30 Obama-Republican seats (may GOP leaning regardless).
By contrast, following last year there is currently one fewer Clinton-Republican district than the party needs to regain the majority. More so, not all of the 23 districts are created equal. It is hard to see any Democrat winning seats as red as TX-7 and TX-32 no matter how toxic the political environment is for Republicans.
In sum, the odds of a Democratic takeover are not great. In fact, even in a wave election they might be no higher than 50/50 due to the structural obstacles they face. That said, if events break their way they could retake the House simply with seats where a majority of voters gave their support to a candidate other than Donald Trump.
Of course, Democrats need to be able to take advantage of Trump’s weak approval ratings. That may or may not happen but if they keep talking as if taking the House is impossible the hill becomes insurmountable. If Democrats keep speaking and acting as if a House majority is the stuff of dreams their recruiting will suffer and they will likely be locked out of power into the next decade.