The election is in six months. Where does the race for control of Congress stand?
It’s an election year. It can be easy to forget that, given the appropriately single-minded focus in the media on COVID-19 and its devastating health and economic impacts. But in an election season when even the presidential contest has been reduced to a footnote in the news, it’s crucial to keep our eye on Congress, particularly since Congress has continued to play a starring role in responding robustly – and, of course, contentiously – to the unprecedented health and economic crises currently gripping the nation.
The stakes are therefore as high as they’ve ever been for the question of which party will control the House and the Senate next year, and how large those majorities might be. So today, exactly 6 months out from Election Day 2020, where do we stand in the race for control of the House and the Senate? How does the presidential race shape the two parties’ chances? And what role might COVID-19 end up playing? Let’s get into it.
The State of the Parties
Given the mountain of research indicating the importance of maintaining a party majority in each chamber of Congress, a natural place to start is by looking broadly at the voters’ assessments of the two parties and their leaders. While many Americans have very stable partisan affiliation, national trends towards one party or the other often have huge influence over which party ends up in the majority – for example, Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections, and Democrats in 2018.
So, where is the American electorate this year? Since it is of course a presidential election year, one important datapoint is how the public is feeling about the incumbent president, Donald Trump, and his now-presumptive Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. President Trump’s approval ratings have continued to languish around 43%, but have remained remarkably consistent over the course of his first term. and both national and state-level polling indicate that he is far from a shoo-in for reelection. In fact, many recent state polls of swing states show Joe Biden with commanding leads in battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and even Florida. National polls have Trump trailing Biden by as much as 10 points and struggling more than ever with independent voters. So while the Biden campaign faces a number of challenges, including a serious cash disadvantage and the prospect of campaigning remotely, Democrats have good reason to be hardened about their chances of taking back the White House.
Polls of the electorate’s intention to vote for one party or the other in Congress should put an even bigger smile on Democrats’ faces. A traditional way of measuring this intention is to ask voters the “generic ballot” question – which party do they plan to vote for on their ballot for Congress regardless of who the candidates are? The Democratic Party’s advantage on this question has been every bit as consistent as Trump’s approval ratings over the last 3 years. In early May of 2018, an historically strong year for Democrats, they were ahead by a little under 7 points in FiveThirtyEight’s average of a generic ballot question; today, they lead Republicans by nearly eight points, an advantage that has persisted this entire session.
In addition, Democrats have tended to continue to flourish in special elections as they did during the 2018 midterm cycle. Perhaps most importantly, these positive results, along with their lead in the generic ballot, have all persisted – and arguably expanded – during the COVID-19 outbreak and its official response. These political effects have expressed themselves in a number of ways, Primarily in the relatively low ratings and levels of trust that President Trump has received based on his handling of the crisis, particularly when compared to a handful of high-profile Democratic governors. There isn’t a great deal of evidence that voters primarily blame one party or the other for the virus’s impact broadly; but a persistent narrative of mismanagement and a lack of preparedness in the Republican-controlled executive branch are unlikely to be helpful for Republican congressional candidates. It is clear at this point that COVID-19 will be the dominant campaign issue this year. And while it is far too early (and a bit unseemly) to assess which party might benefit politically from the crisis, a number of high-profile blunders from the Trump administration will give Democrats plenty of material to run on in the fall.
House control: promising signs for Nancy Pelosi
At first glance, it might appear that Democrats are in real trouble of losing their majority in the House. They are running an historic number of freshmen for reelection, and many of these freshmen represent districts that are ripe for flipping based on their partisanship. A quick look at prior voting patterns of these districts tells us why Democrats’ fate in these districts hangs on a knife’s edge: House Democrats currently represent 30 districts that Donald Trump won in 2016; not only that, but an additional 15 Democrats represent districts that Hillary Clinton won by five points or less. Compare that to the paltry number of Republican representatives who represent Clinton districts (4), or districts that Trump won by five points or less (2). This is a vast amount of territory that Democrats need to defend with limited resources.
And yet, ratings from experts like the Cook Political Report show that not too many of these vulnerable Democrats are what they would call true “toss-up” races. In total, Cook classifies only 17 of these Democrat-held districts as true “Toss-Ups”. While still quite a few vulnerable seats, it’s important to put that number in perspective by recalling just how large the party’s current advantage in the House is: as they currently stand, Democrats would have to lose nearly every single race in Cook’s “toss-up” category to lose their majority in the House.
Why are Cook and other prominent political analysts more bullish about these “Frontline Democrats” than simple partisanship suggests? The first reason is one we’ve already discussed: the continued sustained unpopularity of President Trump.
The second reason compounds the Republicans’ “Trump problem”: Democrats this cycle have continued their rapid rise in heavily suburban parts of the country, where President Trump is particularly unpopular. Over the last three years, Democrats at all levels of government have routed Republicans in Suburbia, most notably in Virginia’s statewide elections in 2017 and 2018, and even in places like Kentucky, where Democrats won the governorship last year. These suburban areas make up a large number of the districts Democrats need to defend in 2020, and the speed with which these districts are moving in Democrats’ direction make them much less competitive than the partisan numbers from 2016 suggest.
Finally, these frontline Democrats have a significant fundraising advantage. While incumbents nearly always raise and spend more money than their challengers, this year’s vulnerable Democrats are comparatively outperforming vulnerable incumbents of years past. Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report and FiveThirtyEight.com put this advantage succinctly in a series of recent tweets:
These numbers, like all others, can change a tremendous amount over the next 6 months, so Democrats should not take this cash advantage to the bank, as it were. But as Wasserman hints at, this kind of advantage will likely be far more difficult to wipe away given the tremendous financial contraction currently taking place in the US economy, which seems unlikely to abate anytime soon.
A final additional comfort to House Democrats is that, amazingly enough, they still have a number of Republican seats they can reasonably hope to flip this cycle. In addition to three retirements in seats that will be difficult for Republicans to hold on to, Republicans must defend another five seats that Cook rates as toss-ups, and another 12 they designate as lean Republican. This gives Democrats an additional cushion opportunity even if they lose many of their more vulnerable seats. At this point, the 2020 elections in the House are looking much more like 2008 – the second strong showing in a row for Democrats following an historic “Blue Wave” – than a year like 2010 – a crushing counter-wave from the Republicans. While she’s unlikely to add huge numbers to her already tremendous majority, Nancy Pelosi will more likely than not keep her hand on the Speaker’s gavel in 2021.
A fight to the finish in the Senate
The race to put control of Congress’s upper chamber back into Democrats’ hands is far more precarious. Partisan and geographic trends have put control of the Senate farther and farther out of reach for Democrats in recent years, with Democratic voters clustering in urban and suburban areas amidst the Senate’s well-known rural, small-state bias. And while these trends brought Democrats an historic victory in the House, the party lost several key Senate races in 2018, putting them at a 53-47 disadvantage in the chamber.
Even so, for the first time in several cycles, the Senate map is much more favorable to Democrats this time around. Nearly all of the ten most competitive races in the country are for seats currently held by Republicans, while Democrats are only in any real danger of losing at most two of their own. One of these two races is Sen. Gary Peters’s seat in Michigan, which Cook rates as “Lean Democrat.” Peters has polled extremely well so far, and other recent polls showing presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden well ahead in Michigan bode well for Peters’s reelection chances.
Especially vulnerable is Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL), who won a shocker of a special election in 2017 in one of the country’s most reliably Republican states. Despite being an incumbent, most analysts agree that Jones will be an underdog against his Republican opponent, who will either be former Senator and Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or former Auburn football head coach Tommy Tuberville.
But the rest of the story in the Senate this cycle might have Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) hanging on to his status as Majority Leader by the thinnest of threads. Republican incumbents in four purple states (Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, and Arizona) are up for reelection this year, and all of these races are toss-ups. An additional four incumbents in redder states, while favored to win, are also in tough spots: particularly the recently-embattled Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), who is running in a special election to retain the seat she was appointed to earlier this cycle. Steve Daines of Montana has also drawn an unusually tough challenge from the state’s popular Democratic governor, Steve Bullock.
Another reason for these Republican incumbents to worry is their financial situation. In a number of these competitive races, incumbents are being significantly outspent by their Democratic challengers. For example, Mark Kelly (D-AZ), former astronaut and spouse of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, has raised an astronomical $31 million compared to his incumbent opponent Sen. Martha McSally’s $19 million. In addition to providing those campaigns the necessary resources to compete, fundraising numbers like these are also a signal in and of itself of a strong campaign with a good chance to win.
Republicans are even being outspent in some less competitive, but still high-profile races: Lindsey Graham (R-SC), for example, is being outspent by his much lesser-known Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison; and Majority Leader McConnell is being challenged in Kentucky by one of the Democrats’ star House challengers in 2018, former Marine lieutenant colonel Amy McGrath, who has raised a breathtaking $30 million, including nearly $13 million in the first quarter of this year.
It also doesn’t help that the Republican senators who happen to be up for reelection this year are particularly unpopular in their home states, which doesn’t leave them much in the way of an “incumbency advantage” to rely upon. According to Morning Consult’s quarterly Senate polling, of the four “toss-up” Republican incumbents, three (Collins, Gardner, and McSally) are in the top 7 least popular senators in the country, with two other outside shots (McConnell, and Joni Ernst of Iowa) in the top 3. What should worry these Republicans is not necessarily that their ratings are low, but that they are much lower than the party balance in their states would predict: while these five Republican incumbents have net approval ratings ranging from -3 to -10, the Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbent, Doug Jones (AL), is holding steady at +6 in one of the nation’s reddest states.
Where does this leave Democrats in the Senate’s balance of power? Even if Doug Jones ends up losing in Alabama, Democrats are still likely to pick up anywhere between 1 and 3 seats, which could even the score between the parties in the Senate. If Democrats have a truly impressive night on November 3 – hanging onto Jones’s seat, picking off all four very vulnerable Republican incumbents, or even nabbing one of the lower probability “Lean Republican” seats – they could even win back the majority. At the very least, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) can feel pretty comfortable that his disadvantage in the Senate is unlikely to be any worse in 2021 than it is now.
COVID-19: the elephant in the room
Based on this evidence, it’s clear that the Democrats ought to feel good about their electoral position when it comes to the race for control of Congress. But the unique pressures that COVID-19 place on our system of election administration places a notable asterisk of uncertainty on these predictions. Due to the risk of infection posed by large gatherings of people at polling places, states have had varied – and sometimes highly questionable – responses for how to handle recent party primary elections. The looming question over the upcoming general election is whether and how the US will be able to administer a full-scale national election in the midst of a pandemic. If concerns over large gatherings continue through November, election administrators will have to make major changes to ensure a free and fair election.
These reforms might include moving to all-mail balloting to every extent possible. Five states (Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Utah, and Hawaii) already have these measures in place, and a number of states allow counties to opt-in to all-mail balloting. At the very least, states should make absentee balloting in the states “no-excuse”, meaning that any registered voter who requests a mail ballot will receive one, no questions asked. (A number of states have done so already.) Other reforms could include expanding early voting locations and availability, and easing other registration hurdles for potential voters.
The effects these reforms would have on the race for congressional majorities are monumentally difficult to predict. For one thing, there are well-known partisan differences, at least among elites, in support for these reforms: while broad majorities of Americans support permanent moves to all-mail balloting, Republicans are traditionally much more skeptical of measures that expand the franchise in this way, in no small part because of the widespread perception by the President and other GOP elites that higher voter turnout automatically means better outcomes for Democrats.
But in truth, there’s almost no reliable evidence to support this claim, particularly in the case of vote-by-mail. Additionally, using vote-by-mail or absentee voting outcomes in previous elections to predict a generalized impact on a national election in a presidential voting year is a mostly fruitless effort. In short, we really don’t know how many Americans will be voting remotely in November, nor do we know the effect this would have on either party’s chances controlling Congress, much less the White House.
Even with this enormous caveat in mind, the best evidence we have currently points to a set of results that Democrats won’t complain about: a more-than-likely extension of Nancy Pelosi’s speakership in the House, and 50/50-or-better odds at least of evening the score in the Senate. But with six months to go, an unpredictable incumbent president, and a global pandemic and economic crisis continuing to rear its head, anything could happen.