The 2018 midterms are one of the most anticipated in years. Democrats have done well in special elections and hold a lead in generic ballot polls. Will they be able to break the Republican lock on the federal government and take back Congress?

In “How to Flip the House” – a new miniseries from the “Can He Do That?” podcast – we’re taking a look at what history has to say about these sorts of elections. 1994 and 2010 were huge for House Republicans, as was 2006 for Democrats. What did it take to turn these promising years into full-on waves?

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1994

biggest win: Washington’s 5th District. In a humiliating defeat, Democratic Speaker of the House Tom Foley lost his reelection bid. The state’s congressional delegation went from 8-1 for Democrats to 7-2 for Republicans.

Going into 1994, midterm elections didn’t hold the same drama that they do today. It was assumed that Democrats would control the House, because, for four decades, they had never lost.

And nobody had much reason to think that would change. Republicans were also the minority in the Senate. President George H.W. Bush had just lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton. Around the country, the GOP held fewer governorships and state legislature seats than Democrats.

Where the wave happened

GOP win

GOP pickup

Dem win

Dem pickup

GOP win

GOP pickup

Dem win

Dem pickup

But Minority Whip Newt Gingrich and Rep. Bill Paxon had a plan. They employed some aggressive fundraising practices and candidate recruiting, resurrecting a National Republican Congressional Committee that was on the edge of bankruptcy. A special election victory in May, for a seat held by Democrats for 129 years, made clear the campaign strategy that would guide Republicans to victory: Run hard against Bill Clinton.

In September, Republicans introduced their “Contract with America” – a list of legislation they promised to execute within their first 100 days in power that guided campaign messaging across the country. And they continued to rail against the increasingly unpopular Clinton. After the dust settled in November, they had gained 54 seats and built a machine that held the House for the next five elections.

“If we just got a phalanx of people all saying the same thing, feeling the same way, marching together – we can win this.”

Bill Paxon, former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee

2006

biggest win: Kansas’s 2nd District. Two years earlier, Republican incumbent Jim Ryun had beaten Democratic challenger Nancy Boyda by 15 percentage points. In 2006, she ran against him again and came away with a three-point victory.

Democrats were demoralized in the mid-2000s after a string of defeats. Desperate for a victory, the party handed over the reins to an abrasive young congressman named Rahm Emanuel, making him chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Emanuel had a “winning is everything” attitude and set about recruiting centrist candidates that didn’t look like traditional Democrats, in the hope that they’d woo moderate voters in red districts. He favored military veterans and police officers, including people that didn’t hold the standard party views on gun control and abortion.

On the campaign trail, he made sure that Democrats took every opportunity to tie their opponents to the unpopular presidency of George W. Bush — just as Republicans had done 12 years earlier with Clinton. Plus, a series of embarrassing scandals among Republican congressmen didn’t hurt. Democrats needed only 15 seats to win the House, and they got double that.

Where the wave happened

GOP win

GOP pickup

Dem win

Dem pickup

GOP win

GOP pickup

Dem win

Dem pickup

But Emanuel drew criticism from his own party throughout the election, even after his victory. The more liberal wings, including Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean, felt like the gains were illusory, in areas that the party couldn’t hold using candidates that were Democrats in name only.

And sure enough, these 2006 gains were wiped out just four years later. The ideological battle of how the Democratic Party should position itself continues to this day.

“If you want to win Utah sometime, or Alabama, you don't start two years before. You start 15 or 20 years before.”

Howard Dean, former Vermont governor, former chair of the Democratic National Committee

2010

biggest win: Texas’s 27th District. Blake Farenthold knocked off Democratic incumbent Solomon P. Ortiz by less than one percentage point. Ortiz had represented the district, home to a large Hispanic population, since it was created in 1983.

If 2006 was good for Democrats, 2008 was even better. The party held on to the House, gaining another 21 seats, and took a 57-to-41 advantage in the Senate. And America elected its first African American president.

But president Barack Obama took office in the midst of an enormous recession, and he quickly drew a venomous backlash from the right. While 1994 and 2006 were examples of top-down waves, with party leadership dictating winning election strategies, 2010 was a story of a grassroots movement – the tea party – which existed outside of the Republican campaign machine.

The tea party rallied against government overreach, protesting Obama’s stimulus packages and health-care proposals. Tea-party-affiliated outsider candidates, including Rand Paul, sprung up all over the country. High unemployment drove Obama’s approval ratings down, and in November 2010, Republicans flipped 63 House seats throughout the country.

Where the wave happened

GOP win

GOP pickup

Dem win

Dem pickup

GOP win

GOP pickup

Dem win

Dem pickup

An even bigger wave was happening farther down the ballot, which would make the party’s gains stick even as the tea party faded away. Republicans dominated elections at the state level – thanks in part to a targeted strategy called Project REDMAP – taking control of legislative chambers around the country. And in most states, these legislatures would be responsible for redrawing congressional boundaries based on the 2010 U.S. Census.

Gerrymandering, the drawing of districts to favor one group’s interests, had long been employed by both parties. But the size of the 2010 wave and advancements in voter targeting gave Republicans an unprecedented opportunity to redraw the national map in their favor, and they did not pass it up.

This redistricting advantage became immediately obvious in 2012. Democratic candidates captured 48.8 percent of the nationwide vote in House races, compared with 47.6 percent for Republicans. But Democrats gained only eight seats, leaving Republicans with a 33-seat edge in the House. Democrats face a similar uphill battle in the 2018 midterms.

“From day one, I knew I had a target on my back — as soon as the very instant we won. I knew that the Democrats would be coming after me full-force, because they were mad.”

Chip Cravaack, former representative (R-Minn.)

About this story

Data on individual congressional seats from the @unitedstates project. Historical congressional boundaries from the United States Congressional District Shapefiles project at UCLA. Production by Carol Alderman. Editing by Jess Stahl. Design and development by Kazi Awal and Matthew Callahan.

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