As of right now, the pundits and the polls are converging on a fascinating story about congressional elections this year. It’s a story that’s a bit tricky to understand, because the raw numbers may wind up just about the same: very slim gains for Democrats in both the House and the Senate. But one of those is a major Republican disaster. And the other? A major disaster for the Democrats.
First, the House, which as usual has been undercovered this year (and I’m as guilty as anyone). The experts are closing in on a consensus: Expected Democratic gains have collapsed, and the results will probably be between no change at all and perhaps up to five seats swinging to the House minority party. Make no mistake: Given the large Republican majority, the very large number of new Republican members of the House and a presidential-year electorate, Democrats should have expected solid gains, and hopes of winning back the House were not unrealistic at the beginning of the cycle. Winning fewer than 10 seats would be a major setback.
The only important caveat here is that these elections typically do not have very much, if any, public polling; the bulk of the forecasting comes from reporting and, as good as the reporting can be from the Cook and Rothenberg reports, from National Journal’s Scott Bland, from The Post’s Ed O’Keefe and others, that still leaves a lot more uncertainty than poll-based estimates typically can give us. Indeed, Bland has about 30 races too close to call; if those all shift the same direction and perhaps bring a few unexpected seats with them, either party could still see impressive gains.
On the Senate side, the uncertainty is a lot smaller. Democrats, who were defending 53 seats, currently have leads in contests that would give them at least 51 seats, with Republicans having only 43 seats seemingly locked up. Of the six remaining toss-ups, Democrats have small polling leads in four, according to HuffPollster’s sophisticated polling averages. So at this point it would be a bit of a surprise if Democrats fell below 53, and gains are very possible — in fact, a very good night for the Democrats could get them as high as 57 seats.
We’ve had some speculation, some of it sensible, about exactly what happened to produce these likely results, but it’s going to be fascinating to see studies down the road into the contributions of redistricting, retirements, recruitment and other factors in producing such different outcomes.
For now, however, it’s worth stepping back and keeping a little perspective. If, for example, Republicans win most of the close races and gain one or two seats in the Senate, they’ll be pretty happy about that on Tuesday night, compared to where they are now — but it will still have been a terrible cycle for them in that chamber. The same is true if Democrats manage to rally and pick up 10 or even 15 House seats.
So when you see both sides spinning on Tuesday night, keep in mind what the real expectations of both sides were back at the beginning of the cycle.