Democratic House majority difficulty factor still high

Published 8:44 am Thursday, January 4, 2018


According to Democratic leadership and network media analysts — yes, the same ones that predicted an easy Hillary Clinton victory and have forecast a Democratic return to the House majority in almost every election since 1996 — the Republicans losing congressional control is a virtual certainty. But, traversing the country regionally gives us a much better picture of just what Democrats actually face in attempting to convert the net 24 seats required to claim even a one-seat margin in the next House of Representatives.

Email newsletter signup

Republicans can easily brush aside Democratic conjecture that the electorate is already sending signals that a 2018 wave election is coming. The 2017 special elections performance, the respective Virginia and New Jersey statewide wins, President Trump’s and the Republican Congress’ poor approval ratings, and a new administration’s first midterm woes are largely inconsequential in forecasting what voters will do a little over 10 months from now.

But, the Republicans do face an ominous sign. Democrats forcing what should have been a safe Virginia House of Delegates majority into a virtual tie — the final race, a literal deadlock, looks to be settled by drawing lots, and that contest will determine whether the two parties power-share — and winning special state legislative elections from Republican districts in Oklahoma and Georgia, along with converting a local election sweep in Chester County, Pennsylvania, something that hasn’t happened in more than 100 years, should concern the GOP.  Citing victorious Democratic results in traditional GOP strongholds may be the most salient argument pointing toward a developing Democratic wave.

Even if we buy the Democrats’ arguments that the precursors for a wave election are in fact forming, the road to converting the House majority remains difficult to master for several reasons.

When we have seen major seat changes occur in past elections, the winning party has done well in converting open seats. Though we again will see a large number of incumbent-less U.S. House campaigns — the current number is 43, ballooning after a spate of retirements and resignations as a result of numerous sexual harassment allegations — the competitive configuration within this campaign category is different in 2018.

With Democrats having to protect 15 open seats, they look to convert as many of their opponents’ open 28 as possible. Unfortunately for them, only two seats appear ripe for conversion, one in Florida and the other in New Jersey, while 21 look to be either safely or likely Republican. These categories could change if late judicial redistricting decisions drastically alter the political maps in Pennsylvania and/or Texas where Republicans are defending a total of seven open seats in the two states. An additional five GOP-held districts lean Republican, and it is within this group where Democrats are virtually forced to run the table just to position themselves for a legitimate shot at converting the majority.

Beginning regionally in New England and the tri-state area of New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the Democrats would have to gain a net minimum of six seats to meet their power-shift quota. Though several targets appear in Upstate New York and maybe as many as four in the Garden State, defeating multi-term incumbents who have won in good Republican years and bad remains a formidable task.  

The party’s road becomes much smoother, however, if the Pennsylvania state Supreme Court rules in favor of the Democrats’ lawsuit that claims the current district boundaries are a political gerrymander. If the lines are redrawn, the Democrats could do better than netting six seats from the Northeast. If not, such a number will be difficult to attain even in a so-called wave election year.

After converting six in the Northeast, Democrats must then gain two seats in Florida, and one each in Virginia, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Washington, and then take five of seven targeted districts in California.  And, on top of all this, they must protect five of their own vulnerable seats in Nevada, Minnesota and New Hampshire, meaning their real number to attaining the barest of majorities from the most hotly contested campaigns is actually 29 … and, that assumes they re-elect all of their incumbents who are seeking re-election.  

Furthermore, and most important, we must remember that the Democrats must achieve ALL of the aforementioned quota goals, and if so, their reward is a mere one-seat majority.  

Converting what may well become favorable electoral trends into district electoral wins may be more difficult than today’s political prognosticators seemingly believe.

Jim Ellis analyzes election data for major corporations, associations and legislative advocacy firms. He is president of Ellis Insight LLC. He wrote this for