The 2010 midterm election that swept Republicans into power in the U.S. House of Representatives was a mandate to put the brakes on President Obama and his agenda.
Aside from voters also hoping that Republicans would do something – anything – to boost the economy, restraining Obama was pretty much the issue of that election.
It was the second wave election in four years (Republicans were dumped from the majority in 2006). And it had less to do with voters finding Republicans appealing once again and more to do with putting a halt to the Democrats’ overreach.
At the center of that overreach was the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare – which is why many of those elected to office in that cycle and reelected last year have been adamant about repealing it, even at the cost of a government shutdown.
Or even at the cost of losing their seats, which has led to talk of a Democrat wave election cycle. It is a possibility pushed by paid pundits as reality, but the facts do not support it.
That does not mean a wave election isn’t brewing out on Main Street. In fact, early polling indicates the 2014 midterm might produce another electoral shift, but not one that shoves Republicans out of power.
First of all, the playing field of vulnerable GOP seats is too narrow for Republicans to lose their majority, baring a massive wave. (Think 1894, when 107 Democrats were swept out of the House.)
Second, major waves historically have not happened concurrent with the “six-year itch” – the election held in the sixth year of a president’s tenure, in which the party holding the White House typically loses a substantial number of House and Senate seats.
And remember that, in the 1996 midterm election of the Clinton era, Republicans lost 18 incumbents but kicked the Democrats’ butts in the open-seat races. The Republicans’ losses were mostly “wave seats” that they unexpectedly won two years earlier, during their first sweep back into power after 40 years in the political wilderness.
Coincidentally, all of that occurred in the year of another government shutdown – that one over the funding of Medicare, which is a heck of a lot more popular with voters than Obamacare.
Today, every member of Congress, along with the White House and President Obama, are getting battered in the polls over how they’ve handled the shutdown, with Republicans taking a slim lead on the voter-anger index.
Kyle Kondik, a House analyst for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, says that if (and he stresses a big “if”) Republicans eventually suffer because of the shutdown, it will not be Tea Partiers who are hurt.
“While the Republican brand is poor, the president isn’t particularly popular – his approval is only in the low to mid 40s, according to polling averages,” said Kondik. “There would have to be an incredible amount of revulsion with the Republicans to deliver the House to the Democrats.”
Plus, historically, there’s basically no precedent for the president’s party to capture control of the House in a midterm year. Many presidents have held the House in a midterm, but they haven’t taken control of it in a midterm.
Kondik points to a couple of other things that could keep Republicans from making any big gains. Most significantly, the Democrat targets aren’t all that great; before the GOP’s historic 2010 sweep, Democrats held 31 of the 150 districts where John McCain beat Obama in 2008 – which gave Republicans a lot of low-hanging fruit to pick off.
“Now, Republicans hold only one of Obama’s 150 best districts,” Kondik said.
Bottom line: It’s almost always better to be the “out” party in a midterm year.
Presidential parties have lost ground in the House in 35 of the 38 post-Civil War midterms, according to Kondik: “Granted, two of the exceptions were recent – Clinton gained seats in 1998, and Bush did in 2002.”
One variable to watch is retirements; it’s a lot easier to win an open seat than to beat an incumbent. If Republicans in marginal districts start retiring, that will be a very good sign for Democrats.
So far, that’s not really happening.