Charlie Cook: 2018 Midterm Election Overview

Professional photo of Charlie Cook sitting at his desk

The summer of 2017 is arriving with more public interest in politics and current events than in any odd-numbered year in memory.  It’s hard to have a conversation with anyone that doesn’t veer off into politics.  That interest is driven among some by hope and optimism for this new, truly outsider President Donald Trump, while among others, the emotions run more to fear, anger or both.  Then there are those who are anxious, with mixed feelings, hoping that Trump will succeed in changing Washington, but fearing that he will fall short, or that his idiosyncratic actions and words will get in the way.  It’s far too early to predict much about next year’s midterm elections, but there are growing warning signs for Republicans on multiple levels. No one can say whether a wave is building against them, but past waves in 2006, 2010 and 2014 started with many of the same early indicators.  While Republicans have held onto all three contested special congressional elections this year, their victory margins are down substantially from recent past years. The June 20th special election in Georgia’s 6th District will be the best test of whether these under-performances could actually cost them seats.


In Washington, the legislative agenda for Republicans is looking increasingly challenging.  The Republican House-passed American Health Care Act is effectively dead on arrival in the Senate; it’s hard to see how the 52-member Republican Senate conference can agree on a piece of legislation that both the moderates and the most conservative elements of the party can agree upon and that could still be approved by the House.  It would seem that “Trumpcare,” or whatever you want to call the House Republican health care package, has become even more unpopular than Obamacare.

Passage of significant tax reform legislation by the end of year looks less promising by the day.  Privately, GOP congressional leadership aides are expressing fear that Labor Day could arrive with few if any significant legislative accomplishments.  They expect that the GOP House and Senate leadership will have everything on their shoulders as President Trump is not likely to be much help to them in pushing through key agenda items.  With narrow House and Senate majorities up before the voters in November 2018, this is not a strong platform on which to face the voters.

President Trump

While many Republicans inside the Beltway are expressing nervousness about President Trump on many levels, outside of Washington the Republican base is holding steady for him.  For each of the last three weeks of Gallup Organization’s tracking, Trump’s job approval rating among self-described Republicans has remained steady at 84 percent.  Other than one single week in late March when his GOP approval rating dipped to 81 percent, each of the other 16 weeks the President’s approval rating among his own party members has ranged from 84 to 89 percent with very little fluctuation.

Democrats are equally monolithic, giving Trump approval ratings as low as six and as high as 13 percent.  Unsurprisingly, independents are in the middle, with Trump’s approval rating as low as 31 some weeks and as high as 42 percent in others, declining over the last three weeks though from 40 percent down to 35 percent to 31 percent for the week ending on May 21st.  Among all Americans, Trump’s weekly approval ratings have oscillated in a narrow range of 38 to 42 percent since mid-March, with disapprovals between 52 and 57 percent during that period.

With the appointment of special counsel Robert Muller to look into various aspects of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, the good news for congressional Republicans is that they can now defer questions until the conclusion of the investigation.  The bad news is that it could go all the to the November 2018 midterm elections or even beyond before there is a conclusion.  These special counsel investigations have a tendency to take on lives of their own, go in unexpected directions, and seemingly last forever.

While the argument that there was collusion or coordination of any time between the Trump campaign or anyone involved in the Trump campaign is still a matter of dispute, two things are pretty clear.  First, that Russian intelligence agencies and/or people on their behalf were heavily involved in trying to influence the 2016 election.  Second, President Trump tried to end the investigation, which is certainly in poor form and, some say, amounts to obstruction of justice.  I am not a lawyer and while none of us have all of the facts, suffice it to say that at the very best for the Trump White House, this will be something that is going to be enormously time consuming, throw their attempts at messaging off unexpectedly, and generally make them look bad.  At worst, this could go to a very bad place.  It could easily be a year or so before we know which course it will take.

Generally speaking, midterm elections are a referendum on the President and halfway through a term, there are usually more people who have their noses out of joint than are happy and supportive.

2018 Midterm Election

Perhaps as a result of that, midterm elections tend to be bad for those holding the sitting President’s party.  The party holding the White House has lost House seats in 36 out of 39 (92%) midterm elections since the beginning of the Civil War, tending to run higher in years when the same party had the majorities in both the House and Senate as well, or total responsibility for the Federal Government.  In the Senate the pattern is not quite as strong, with the White House party losing seats in 20 out of the 25 (80%) midterm elections since we began the direct elections of Senators in 1914.


While the norm in midterm Senate elections is for the President’s party to lose seats, there are some peculiar unique factors that have the potential to offset that outcome in 2018.  The Senate class of 2018 is the same group of seats that were up in 2006, President George W. Bush's second-term midterm election, when the Iraq War was hugely unpopular.  Republicans lost six net Senate seats in that election.  The next and last time this group of Senate seats were up was in 2012 when Obama was getting re-elected over Mitt Romney by a three point margin, and Republicans had a net loss of two more seats on top of the six lost in 2006.  As a result of Democrats having back-to-back great cycles with this class, they are incredibly over-exposed, with 25 seats up to only nine for Republicans.

This Democratic over-exposure is not just theoretical:  Five of the 25 Democratic seats up are in states that Trump won by 19 points or more:  Joe Donnelly (Indiana), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), Jon Tester (Montana), Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota) and Joe Manchin (West Virginia).

5 Dem Senate Seats Up in States That Trump Won by >19 points and Romney by > 9 points

Senator State Margin
Heidi Heitkamp  North Dakota Romney +20 Trump +36 
Joe Manchin West Virginia  Romney +27 Trump +42
Joe Donnelly Indiana Romney +10 Trump +19
Claire McCaskill Missouri Romney +9    Trump +19
Jon Testor Montana Romney +14 Trump +21


Then there are five more in states that Trump won, but by less than 19 points: Bill Nelson (Florida), Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Bob Casey (Pennsylvania) Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin).

5 Dem Senate Seats Up in States That Obama Won in 2012 but Trump Won in 2016 By Single Digits

Senator State Margin
Sherrod Brown Ohio Obama + 3   Trump + 8
Bill Nelson Florida Obama + 1   Trump + 1
Debbie Stabenow Michigan Obama +10   Trump + <1
Tammy Baldwin Wisconsin Obama + 7   Trump + 1
Bob Casey Pennsylvania Obama + 5   Trump + 1


Conversely, there is only one Republican seat up in a state Clinton won: Dean Heller in Nevada. There is one other GOP seat that even appears potentially vulnerable, Jeff Flake in Arizona.

So all things being equal, Democrats ought to lose a handful of seats next year, unless it is a bad environment for Republicans. In that case, you could see an outcome of +/- one seat, with Republicans holding onto majority with between 51 and 53 seats.


While there are potentially extenuating circumstances that might insulate Senate Republicans from the impact of a wave election, if it occurs, there are a few factors that could partially benefit Republicans in such a downturn. The first factor helping House Republicans is exposure. The more seats a party has, the more seats they have exposed.  Similarly, the more seats that party picked up in the previous election, the more seats they have with freshmen sitting in seats previously held by the other party, among the most highly vulnerable of all.

The fact that Republicans actually had a net loss of six seats last year, which is unusual when winning the presidency, and a relatively narrow majority, means less exposure than might be expected.

The second factor is Congressional district boundaries. For years, Democrats had the majority of governorships and state legislatures. As a result, Congressional and state legislative boundaries were drawn that benefited Democrats, maximizing their number of seats in those bodies. Now that Republicans have the bulk of the governorships and state legislative seats, they have engaged in the same practice. One tactic is to draw a large number of minority districts, and pack as many minority and other reliably Democratic voters into those districts, effectively making surrounding districts far whiter, more conservative and more Republican. Also, with the new computer technology, whichever party is able to draw the maps can be far more precise and effective than in the past. A notable exception is California, where Democrats didn't draw the map, a non-partisan commission did, but it was not a friendly map for Republicans, so there is a disproportionate level of CD seat exposure for Republicans in California.

A third factor is population patterns, or where people choose to live.  Democratic voters tend to concentrate in urban areas including close-in suburbs as well as college towns. Conversely, Republican voters are generally spread out more evenly in outer and newer suburbs, smaller cities, and towns and in rural areas. Simply put, Republican voters are more efficiently allocated than Democratic voters are, because Democratic voters are highly-concentrated in urban areas and college towns while Republicans are more evenly distributed.

A fourth factor is that historically, while voters in Presidential elections draw from more diverse, broad-based electorates, midterm electorates tend to be whiter, older, more conservative, and more Republican. These factors tend to benefit Republicans, but it is unclear whether they can fully shield the GOP from a midterm electorate that includes many who have turned against them.

There are some pretty compelling reasons why this could be bad for Republicans, at least in the House.  First, Republicans have total control and complete responsibility (or some would say culpability) for anything and everything the Federal government does, whether it is the GOP’s fault or not. Angry or otherwise disaffected voters tend to disproportionately turn out in midterm elections. As midterm elections are a referendum on the incumbent President, since his first week in office, Trump’s approval rating have been the lowest of any newly-elected President every week. At the 100 day point (and the President’s approval ratings are pretty much the same), Trump’s approval ratings were 12 points below Clinton’s 52% at that point, 17 points below George W. Bush’s  57%, 18 points below George H.W. Bush’s 58%, and 21 points below Obama’s 61%.

The second reason is Democratic intensity. Pollsters from both parties are seeing huge differentials in terms of enthusiasm and intensity between Democrats and Republicans. These days Democratic voters are angry, and extremely motivated.  We are also seeing Democratic candidates coming out of the woodwork, with large numbers of first-time candidates.

A third factor is retirements and recruiting, specifically for Republicans.  The buzz around Capitol Hill is that a large number of GOP House members are seriously considering not seeking re-election, either fearing loss or not wanting to expend the effort of a re-election campaign in a challenging year. Conversely, it seems that most Democratic members are inclined to stay around in case their party wins a majority for the next Congress.  If they have waited this long, what’s another two years if it is the other party that is getting shot at (not your side as it was during the eight Obama years). Consistent with that, Republicans in both Senate and House races are facing a challenging time getting first-tier candidates to take on Democratic incumbents. Running for the House and Senate is always hard but when you are likely to face a headwind, it can be pretty daunting.

The final reason Republican strategists are worried is a concern that unique Trump voters will not show up next year. While Barack Obama brought an influx of new Obama voters in 2008, those voters tended to not show up two years later in the 2010 midterm election, a contributing factor in enormous Democratic losses that year. Those Obama voters did vote again in 2012 for the re-election, but again were no-shows in 2014—making that another bad year for Democrats. As several people have noted, “they didn’t call them Obama voters for nothing.” Could the same thing happen with Trump voters?  Will they turn out in an election when their guy is not on the ballot?  Will they be as motivated for other Republicans as they were for Trump?

A Wave Election?

All of this is a long way of asking whether we are likely to see another wave election as was seen in 1946, 1958, 1966, 1974, 1994, 2006, 2010, and some would say 2014?  Wondering what a wave election is?  The late Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local,” meaning that the voting history, demographics in that state or district, along with the candidates, campaigns, and money matter much more than national trends.  My version of O’Neill’s adage is that “All politics is local, except when it is not.”  In some midterm elections, like 1946, 1958, 1966, 1974, 1994, 2006, and 2010, there would seem to be an invisible hand, pushing the candidates of one party forward or up, and pulling back or down the candidates of the other party.  In those elections, the President’s party lost between 40 and 65 House seats, in all at least 30. (In 2014, Democrats lost just 13 House seats but a whopping nine Senate seats).  Because of the factors outlined earlier, it is very plausible that a wave that historically could trigger a 40-65 seat loss might, with these district lines and circumstances, result in only a 20-30 seat loss. The tipping point in the House is 24 seats, a gain of 24 or more for Democrats would flip control of the body.  This could be a pretty close call.

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