There is no standard definition for what a wave election is or what component parts an election has to have to qualify as a wave. Some people say a wave election is simply when one party -- running on a nationalized message -- makes across-the-board gains in House, Senate and gubernatorial contests. By that admittedly-loose definition, the 2014 election seems very likely to qualify as a wave. No one disputes that Republicans will make gains in the House and Senate. The governors picture nationally is murkier although there are plenty of scenarios where Republicans net a state or two.
By a slightly-more-specific definition, a wave election is dominated by a single national issue and where a party not only makes substantial gains in House, Senate and gubernatorial races but also has candidates win who, in a more neutral national environment, would have no chance to do so. Stu Rothenberg, a Fix friend and political handicapper extraordinaire, offers this handy description:
For me, the “political wave” metaphor evokes the image of a surging ocean wave that is much larger than normal and deposits debris that otherwise would not have made it ashore without the violent surf.Politically, that translates into an election surge that is strong enough to sweep candidates who wouldn’t ordinarily win – because of the make-up of their districts or the limited funding of their campaigns, for example – to victory.
Using that definition of a wave election makes it considerably more debatable whether 2014 is (or will become) one.
Let's start with the size of Republican gains in past wave elections versus what the party might net in five days. There have been three generally-agreed-upon wave elections in the past two decades: 1994, 2006 and 2010. In 1994, Republicans won 54 House seats, 10 Senate seats and 10 governorships. In 2006, Democrats won 30 House seats, six Senate seats and six governorships. In 2010, Republicans won 63 House seats, six Senate seats and six governorships. The average gain in those three elections was 49 House seats, 7 Senate seats and 7 governor's mansions.
There is roughly a zero percent chance that Republicans will gain four dozen House seats on Nov. 4. Even the most pessimistic Democratic House strategists -- and there are plenty of them -- see a low double-digit loss as close to a worst-case scenario. Losing upwards of 20 seats is something that is close to unfathomable to them. (The reason for that is not because the environment today is that much better for Democrats than it was in, say, 2010. Rather, the five dozen seats Republicans won in that election coupled with a decennial redistricting process that same year that strengthened lots and lots of incumbents in both parties means that there are just not that many House districts susceptible to even a moderately large wave.)
Republicans are also not likely to net seven governor's wins in 2014 either. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) is going to lose and Govs. Paul LePage (Maine), Rick Scott (Fla.) and Sam Brownback (Kans.) are all in nip and tuck contests. Republicans are on offense against Democratic incumbents in Illinois, Connecticut and Colorado and are well-positioned to pick up a Democratic-held open seat in Arkansas. But, it would take a major inside straight for Republicans to get to seven pickups -- particularly since they are defending 22 of their own seats to just 14 for Democrats.
The Senate is the place where Republicans could equal or even exceed the numerical standards of a wave election. Three Democratic seats -- Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia -- will turn over and another seven (Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, New Hampshire and North Carolina) are either tilting toward Republicans or toss ups. All three major Senate election models see a better than six in ten chance that Republicans will gain the six seats they need to re-take the majority on Nov. 4.
The fight for control of the Senate allows us to get into the second key element in Rothenberg's formulation of what constitutes a true wave election: People winning who wouldn't win in a less tilted national playing field. Under that definition, Republicans could win Montana, South Dakota, West Virginia, Alaska, Arkansas and Louisiana -- retaking the Senate in the process -- without it being considered a wave election. The former three states were made almost impossible holds by Democratic retirements while the latter three incumbents were always going to face very tough races given the underlying partisanship of their states.
You start to get into "wave" territory if Republicans also sweep Colorado, Iowa and North Carolina, and, especially, if they add New Hampshire to their win total. The first three states are places where Democrats can and, in the case of Iowa, should win statewide elections in neutral political environments. Yes, Republicans pulled a rabbit out of a hat when they lured Rep. Cory Gardner into the Colorado Senate race. But, under normal circumstances Gardner probably doesn't find himself pulling away from Sen. Mark Udall (D). Ditto Iowa where Republicans a) found a gem in state Sen. Joni Ernst and b) benefitted from Rep. Bruce Braley (D) being not-so-good but still probably wouldn't be in the position they are to win in the open-seat race in a less-good year. And New Hampshire is the best example of all: If former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown beats Sen. Jeanne Shaheen that will have lots and lots to do with a very favorable national environment for Republicans.
So, if you are looking to figure out whether 2014 is a wave, look to New Hampshire. If Scott Brown is delivering a victory speech in five days time, you can safely call 2014 a wave election.