The 2018 House Midterms: Fatigue and Circling Sharks

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Our own Neil Stevens had an excellent article about a potential benchmark regarding House races that deserves a thorough read.  The gist of it was that when you add up all the GOP and Democratic retirements, you get a net number either way.  For example, if 10 Republicans are retiring and 6 Democrats, that would be a net GOP of +4.  Excluded are retirements because the incumbent is running for another office like Senate or Governor.  Once either party gets to a +10, the situation gets dicey and foretells electoral losses for that party in the general election.  Should it get to +20, it could be Armageddon.  Thus far, we are at a GOP +6.

Four times since 1994, this metric has accurately foretold losses in the House when the net total was 10 for either party, but the only time in a midterm was 1994.  We are heading into a midterm election in 2018.  Being at +6 for the GOP is starting to get close to that magical number of 10.

There are many reasons why an incumbent may choose to retire.  Perhaps it is their age, or their tenure in the House with no realistic way to move up the political ladder.  Or, sometimes it is redistricting that directs an incumbent to retire.  And maybe it is because an incumbent sees the writing on the wall and wants to retire a “winner.”  Taken altogether, its best to view these retirements as “political fatigue.”  When a party reaches that magical number, there is likely something going on within the party to prompt so many net voluntary resignations.

But, there is another dynamic that I like to refer to as the swimming shark phenomena.  When an opposing party smells blood in the water (i.e., a great potential for victories), it becomes like a feeding frenzy among the opposition party vying not only for vacant GOP-held seats, but also for the seats of non-retiring incumbents.

The Stevens article focuses on the 1994 midterm because it truly was a change in the political dynamic of the country and it ended decades of Democratic control of Congress.  The other major midterm shift was in 2010 when the GOP reclaimed control of the House in historic and dramatic fashion.

The feeding frenzy phenomena shows that in 2010, 63.5% of Republican primaries were competitive whether open seats or held by an incumbent.  What had the GOP in a feeding frenzy was Obamacare and the overall Obama agenda.  It was as if every Republican was coming out of the woodwork to challenge for a seat whether that seat was held by a Republican or Democrat.  In 1994, the number of GOP competitive primaries was only 42.1%, although still above the average for 12 House election cycles.

And Republicans were throwing up candidates against Democrats in districts where they formerly did not even make a show.  Over the 12 cycles, the average number of Democratic seats unchallenged by a Republican was 4.9%.  In 2010, that number was 1.2%.  And in 1994, that number was well below average at 2.5%.

So what do the numbers show for 2018?  We know that the GOP retirement number currently stands at +6.  Thus far, the Democrats have 38.5% contested primaries.  And although the Republicans currently have almost 12% of their held seats without a potential Democratic opponent, in a whopping 30.1% of Democratic-held seats, the GOP does not currently have a potential opponent.

Looking at the numbers, one can almost visualize the trends.  A low percentage of contested primaries shows a reluctance by some within that party to run for the office.  A high percentage of out-of-power party races with contested primaries is the equivalent of sharks smelling blood in the water.

A low number of GOP free passes such as what we saw in 2006 and 2008 indicates a loss which is what we saw in those years when the Democrats reclaimed control of the House.  Conversely, in 2010 when the GOP reclaimed the House, the Democratic “free pass” number was lower than the GOP numbers in 2006/2008.

The major determinant of these dynamics are the titular heads of the parties who happen to occupy the White House.  The 1994 numbers were attributable to the agenda of Bill Clinton and a concerted message of the GOP (The “Contract With America”).  In 2006 and 2008, it was the reaction to the Bush administration’s war in Iraq and to a lesser extent, their Katrina response.  Considering that the titular head  of the GOP today is Trump, besides the historical fact that the party in Executive power loses seats in the House in midterms, the potential toxicity of being associated with a President with approval numbers below or near 40% is driving potential Republicans from the political sphere.

In the current cycle, 12% of Republican held districts and 30.1% of Democratic districts have no declared opposition party candidate.  The silver lining is that these figures should change over time.  We are still more than a year from the midterm elections so there is still plenty of time for both Democrats and Republicans to declare their candidacies.  Some states do not even have established primary or filing deadline dates yet.  It is conceivable that many potential candidates are feeling their way through the political minefield set by Trump.

An action by Trump on a number of hot button issues like immigration, or his continued pivot towards working with Pelosi and Schumer could also prompt more Republicans to jump in a House race with a message to check such a pivot.  At this point, however, it would appear- given this analysis- that Trump is having a negative effect on Republicans in House races.

While many districts are basically out-of-bounds for either party (it is doubtful a Republican will win a district in the Bronx or a Democrat will win a district in the Texas panhandle), the fact Democrats are throwing up challengers in borderline districts with well-established Republican incumbents while Republicans seem reluctant to do the same in borderline Democratic districts, the current trend does not bode well for the GOP in the 2018 midterms at this time unless something changes.  This fear by many that Trump’s brand of “Republican” would be a net negative on the GOP (and by extension, conservatism itself) may be coming to fruition.