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House Party

Lessons Democrats Should Have Learned from the Midterms

Votes are still being counted two weeks later, but there are some things we know for sure.
Nancy Pelosi in DC.
Nancy Pelosi, the longtime Democratic House leader, in 2016. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty

This is the conclusion of House Party, our look at the race for the House of Representatives.

A year ago, we started writing about House races. This was before Amy McGrath, Katie Hill, and Richard Ojeda were household names (at least in politically savvy households). This was before you could see the New York Times poll House races in real time, and before every liberal with a Twitter account suddenly had an opinion on Orange County’s political shifts. The modest goal was to handicap the few dozen seats most likely to flip without having the massive operation of a FiveThirtyEight or a Cook Political Report.


Instead of providing race ratings like many handicappers, we broke races out by presidential toplines. We wanted you to view House races through the prism of how Democrats performed in these districts at the presidential level, not based on presumed candidate quality or other intangible factors. So, was that rubric a useful one? Just look at the results below (asterisks denote races affected by the Pennsylvania redistricting, which helped Democrats.):

Using presidential toplines to see which seats would be competitive was a rough guide, but it turned out to be useful: Of the 323 House districts that as of last March we didn’t find competitive, only one (South Carolina’s First District) changed hands. And Democrats won 27 of the 34 races we identified as the most competitive. We didn’t delve into the relative leanings of each district, but if you were reading House Party a year ago, you were pretty damn well informed about where the battlegrounds were.


Now that the battle is over, what did we learn? At the risk of being definitive, here are the lessons of 2018:

The Democrats won because they won the easy seats

Democrats got a majority from the 27 races they won in Republican-held seats that supported either Clinton in 2016 or Obama twice in 2008 and 2012. The rest was just gravy. As it turns out, people who support Democratic presidential candidates are also willing to support Democratic congressional candidates. Democrats didn’t need to transform these districts or persuade a lot of voters to switch sides. This election was decided in places that had supported Republicans in the House even though they preferred a Democrat as president, fertile ground for a midterm swing.

Past behavior indicates future performance

Democrats constantly polled poorly in Texas’s 23rd District and California’s 21st District, even though both routinely supported Democratic presidential candidates. They lost the former by 0.5 percent while they could still win in the latter based on late-reporting ballots. Perhaps the money Democrats spent on more reliably Republican seats that polled closely like West Virginia’s Third, Kansas’s Second, and Florida’s 15th could have made the difference in those two seats? Even though Democrats did come relatively close in all three of those seats they would’ve been hard to hold in 2020. Speaking of which:

The 2020 House battlefield will look different

Owing to gerrymandering, Republicans have an easier path to a majority in the House. Assuming current results hold, Republicans can win the House back by winning a bit more than half of the 31 seats that voted for Trump in 2016 but voted for a Democratic member of Congress. By contrast, this year Democrats basically needed to run the table in Clinton-won Republican seats to get their majority. But that list of 31 potentially vulnerable seats includes ten that were only lightly contested in 2018 because they were either held by Democratic incumbents or featured flawed Republican nominees in open seats. And if the GOP focuses on those 31, it will mean freshman Democrats in seats that Clinton won can breathe a bit easier, as Republican resources will be diverted elsewhere. And while Democrats seemingly maxed out their gains under the existing map…

The trends are bad for Republicans

Perhaps most notably, Democrats swept the eight seats that Obama never won but Clinton did. They also did well in areas that went for Obama twice before flipping to Trump. If Democrats are winning people that supported either Obama or Clinton, that’s a framework for winning the presidential election in 2020. And that’s with GDP growing 2 percent per annum and low unemployment and inflation. Just imagine what would happen if a recession hit in the next two years.

Anyway, that’s a wrap on House Party, at least for 2018. We’re glad we could make you smarter than all your peers.

Robert Wheel (a pseudonym) is an attorney who lives in New York. He tweets here, and his DMs are open.

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