Tuesday, September 26, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Tuesday, September 26, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Midterms will likely cost Democrats the majority. That’s normal.

The president's party usually loses seats during midterm elections, and this year is unlikely to be an exception for Democrats with a thin majority in the Senate and House.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Build Back Better is dead, voting rights legislation stalled out and one word is on the lips of many with eyes on the Democratic agenda: midterms.

In nine months, midterm elections are going to test the holding power of one-third of the seats in the Senate and every spot in the House during a time when Democrats’ majority in both chambers is razor thin and massive parts of their agenda have not come to fruition.

Experts call it likely that the majority in both chambers of Congress will flip to Republican control come November, but many don’t attribute that outcome to the stalled portions of the Democratic agenda.

Instead, they note that the president’s party losing seats in the midterms is a tradition that runs almost like clockwork, year after year in Washington.

While the stall-outs of Build Back Better and voting rights have been painted as massive failures, the amount of legislation Democrats under the leadership of President Joe Biden have been able to pass, and not pass, is fairly typical when compared with previous administrations that also held congressional majorities. 

“It is not at all unusual for parties with unified government to fail on their top priorities,” said Frances Lee, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, going on to note how slim the current Democratic majorities are.

In 2017, Republicans’ top agenda item was to repeal and replace Obamacare, also known as the Affordable Care Act. A deal on the legislation never happened, however, despite their majority in both chambers.

Before that, Democrats were not able to pass climate change legislation under President Barack Obama and unified government. And back during the era of President George W. Bush, Social Security reform, the then-president’s top priority, failed despite Republicans having control in the Senate and the House.

Lee noted that the American Rescue Plan, which extended child tax credits to families and distributed stimulus checks while keeping small businesses and unemployed people supported during the pandemic, was a massive reconciliation bill for Democrats and Biden to pass.

Democrats also spearheaded and executed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, massive legislation aimed at overhauling crumbling transportation networks.

Lee said it’s no surprise that Democrats, who have the upper-hand only by a vice presidential vote in the Senate and a handful of seats in the House, then struggled to pass a second enormous reconciliation bill in the form of the Build Back Better Act — something that most administrations and congresses just aren’t able to do.

“It’s really typical. Now, it has the negative effects you might expect. It’s demoralizing for base voters, so Biden is suffering with the frustration on the part of Democrats, you see that,” Lee said.

It’s no secret that voters feel the burn from legislative failures that have made headlines and consumed much of the congressional agenda for months.

Biden’s approval rating sits near 41%, and has continued to dip in recent months, with his approval rating among Democrats falling to 76%, down 7 points from his numbers in autumn, according to late-January data from the Pew Research Center.

All this while the economy is growing at record rates, job creation has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels and unemployment is down to 4%

"It's a question of the glass being two-thirds full or one-third empty. And to the extent people can understand that the glass is two-thirds full, which it is, then I think that will work to Democrats' advantage. If people focus on the things that didn't happen, obviously, that's not going to help,” said Thomas Kahn, distinguished faculty fellow at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. 


But experts say the reason Democrats will likely lose control of the Speaker’s chair and give up power in the Senate after November is not largely because of failed legislation, but because the president’s party almost always loses seats in midterm elections.

Light from the morning sun illuminates the Senate side of the Capitol in Washington on Dec. 3, 2021. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Midterms are a Losing Game

“Every midterm, this is what we see, that the president's party underperforms and typically loses seats, and usually quite a lot. And the pattern seems to be worse in a president's first term,” Lee said.

In 17 of the 19 midterm elections since World War II, the president’s party has lost seats in the House, according to data from the Brookings Institution.

Democrats simply don’t have any cushion to lose the seats that typically flip during midterms and still maintain control of Congress. 

Biden’s approval rating has been swinging in the low 40s, which would typically signal a loss of about two dozen seats in the House, according to Lee.

Republicans need to gain only five seats to get control of the lower chamber, and the loss of a single Senate seat would spell the end of Democratic reign in the Senate.

"At this juncture, it would be quite surprising if Democrats managed to hold on control of Congress in the in the midterms. Historically, I mean, the pattern is so predictable," Lee said. "It's sort of baked in, it's just a question of how many and the Democrats have none to spare."

Political scientists give a myriad of reasons for why midterms tend to punish the sitting president’s party, from a lack of momentum among voters outside of presidential elections, to voter approval of the sitting president typically declining during his first couple of years in office.

But whatever the motivator behind this trend, it’s held up fairly consistently even when the president's party has passed top-line agenda items.

“When Democrats failed on health care reform in 1993, 1994, they go to the midterms in ‘94 and they get wiped out. The conventional wisdom formed around that was, ‘Well we have to do health care reform. We have to deliver on our promises or we will lose our majority.’ And then in 2010, they deliver on their promise of health care reform and they still lose. So, it's not clear to me which works,” Lee said.

It’s a double-edged sword. Passing highly partisan legislation can motivate opposition party voters in the same way that failing to pass such policies can lead to outcry among the party’s base.

“I'm not sure that parties are better off when they can pass these controversial items, or whether it’s better for them to fail. It's a rock and a hard place. If you pass these agenda items that you know, all Republicans oppose, or all the minority party opposes, they get very angry. They're very outraged and they mobilize in response,” Lee said.

Where Blue Skies Meet the Horizon

But Democrats’ fate in the next election isn't sealed.

Lawmakers in Washington are pivoting from the legislative blows of yesteryear and have begun to focus on bipartisan issues that could generate policy wins to tout on the campaign trail, including a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, legislation focused on competing with the Chinese economy and a ban on stock trading among lawmakers.

“The Democrats are hoping that if they can't be the party that delivers the big, broad, new vision, at least they can be the party that shows that they can govern and they can do the small things,” said Sean Theriault, professor in the Department of Government at The University of Texas at Austin. “Their argument has to be to the voters that ‘If you want those big things, just send more people like us to Congress and maybe we can deliver those things. But when we have 50 votes, and Joe Manchin is the 50th vote, it's really hard to pass the visionary once-in-a-generation type of legislation.’”

Lee said this messaging can be persuasive at a granular level, and, if done effectively, may help give Democrats a boost in tight races, although it can give Republicans who support the legislation similar momentum.

“It's not helpful to the Democratic brand per se, because it's bipartisan and so it doesn't distinguish Democrats from Republicans. Bipartisan wins aren't really helpful in that way, but they are helpful in individual races. And so I think what you're starting to see is an every-man-for-yourself type dynamic as Democrats look toward a tough midterm election,” Lee said. 

And while precedent seems to dictate a reshuffling of power in Congress come November, there are a few indicators that Democrats can eke out a win through some exceptionally thin margins.

“Redistricting ended up helping Democrats in a way that I don't think anyone envisioned at the beginning of the cycle that it would have,” Theriault said.

For months, analysts warned that redistricting on its own would mark the end of Democratic control in the House, since Republicans control more state legislatures. 

But initial versions of many congressional maps across the country, which have yet to be finalized, are giving Democrats a greater shot against potential GOP control than many thought.

There have also been a few exceptions to the historical trend of the president’s party losing seats in Congress, anomalies that have come during unique times in American politics.

Two times in the last 25 years the president’s party has actually gained seats in both chambers, once in 1998 after then-President Bill Clinton’s impeachment gave Democrats a boost, and again in 2002 when Bush’s handling of 9/11 added Republican seats to the House and Senate.

“I think both of those can be cautionary tales to the parties today. So, Republicans, don't overplay your hand too much. You're the minority party, if you try and start doing too much, you could be chastised in the same way that the Republicans were in 1998. And for the Democrats, govern well and people actually might reward you,” Theriault said. “The two exceptions I think are particularly meaningful, given that we're coming out of a pandemic and given that we are coming out of chaos for the last four years.”

While experts predict Democratic losses in November, Theriault said the long road to midterms means there's still time for economic improvements and higher presidential approval ratings.

“The sky maybe isn't falling yet,” Theriault said.

Follow @@rosemwagner
Categories / Government, National, Politics

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.