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Are midterm losses inevitable for Democrats? Maybe not

The deadly Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol represented a historic low for the Republican Party. Despite this, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has been loudly proclaiming the GOP will take back the House in the 2022 midterms. This includes declaring last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), “We’re going to get the majority back. We’re five seats away. ... I would bet my house.”

Further, according to The Lincoln Project’s Reed Galen, McCarthy even visited K Street lobbyists and donors to play hardball. According to Galen, McCarthy said, “I am going to be Speaker in two years. You better open up your pockets now, or I am going to remember you.”

Of course in politics, bluster is a reflex, but McCarthy’s bravado is also a product of his knowing he has some propitious history on his side. Specifically since the Grant Administration 150 years ago, the party in the White House has lost House seats in 34 of 38 midterms, or nearly 90% of the time. However, other overlooked historical and electoral trends could well cancel out that midterm-election tendency. Here’s how.

First, it’s possible McCarthy and House Republicans already got their midterm “correction” in November. That’s when they netted 12 seats and narrowed the Democratic majority to nine. And this was achieved by bucking a different historical trend that in the previous 88 years saw the party winning the White House picking up House seats 73% of the time.

Thus just six times in 22 previous presidential election years did the opposite happen. Interestingly the most recent of these six occasions came in 2000 and 2016, but those years were even more unusual. In both presidential elections, George W. Bush and Donald Trump won the electoral college without a majority of the popular vote. Under those conditions, losing House seats was not as shocking as, for instance, Biden losing seats despite winning clear electoral college and popular vote victories.

So we may have countervailing historical trends at play here. Something has to give, or maybe it already has.

Second, Trump had very unusual coattails in 2020. They benefited down-ballot Republicans more than himself. That’s because while the New York Times estimated Trump attracted at least 10.1 million new voters to vote for him, he also lost hundreds of thousands of traditional GOP voters who were exhausted by him but still voted for down-ballot Republicans.

But these coattails won’t exist in the 2022 midterms. Turnout traditionally falls for both parties in midterms, but without Trump on the ballot and holding multiple daily rallies, Republicans may risk an even greater drop-off than Democrats in 2022.

Consider even just a 4% greater midterm turnout drop-off for Republicans than the Democrats could kill McCarthy’s dreams of taking back the House. Ten of the seats the Republicans flipped in 2020 were won by less than 4 points, including six by less than 1½ points. Then there were 12 Republicans who won in districts also won by Biden. This included Beth Van Duyne (TX-24) and David Valadao (CA-21) who were re-elected by 1.3 and 0.9 points in districts Biden won by 5 and 10 points, respectively.

Further, many of these Republicans know how precarious their seats are. Four even voted to either impeach President Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 riot or to not seat Georgia’s controversial freshman Marjorie Taylor Green. Interestingly, none of the four voted for both measures, underscoring the precarious straddling they’re attempting in order to appeal to far-right Republicans and centrist/independent voters.

But just as electoral history is not destiny, neither is electoral demographics. A lot will depend on Biden and the Democrats avoiding major unforced errors. So far they have, with both the COVID stimulus and the (scrapped) $15 minimum wage proving extremely popular in opinion polls.

Plus, the memory of the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection will rightfully linger long like a specter, perhaps forever haunting McCarthy’s Speaker of the House dreams.

Related story: Despite GOP’s good Census news, gaining a redistricting advantage is no sure thing”

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