Opinion House Republicans have two critical advantages in 2022

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in March. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

Democrats hold the balance of power in Washington, D.C., but their margin is wafer-thin: Joe Biden is president, and the party controls both houses of Congress only very narrowly. They’ve already enacted $1.9 trillion of economic stimulus. They’re haggling with Republicans over the size of a bipartisan infrastructure bill. And they’re keen to pass a new voting rights law, although moderate Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) might scuttle the effort.

Still, their time in the majority might be limited. We live in an era of bitter, closely divided elections. And in 2022, Republicans have two advantages that might soon give them the edge in the House.

The Republicans’ first advantage: The other party holds the White House. If Biden follows the path of other recent presidents, he’ll spend political capital, navigate crises — and lose supporters in the process.

Net approval for presidents,

from start of term to midterm

Carter

Reagan

1st term

80

40

0

Biden

−40

0

600

Days since inauguration

H.W. Bush

Reagan

2nd term

80

40

0

Biden

−40

0

600

Days since inauguration

Clinton

1st term

Clinton

2nd term

80

40

0

Biden

−40

0

600

Days since inauguration

W. Bush

1st term

W. Bush

2nd term

80

40

0

Biden

−40

0

600

Days since inauguration

Obama

2nd term

Obama

1st term

80

40

0

Biden

−40

0

600

Days since inauguration

Trump

80

40

Biden

0

−40

0

600

Source: Author calculations based on data

collected by Gallup, RealClearPolitics,

FiveThirtyEight, New York Times and

other pollsters

Net approval for presidents, from start

of term to midterm

Carter

Reagan

1st term

Reagan

2nd term

80

40

0

Biden

−40

0

600

Days since inauguration

H.W. Bush

Clinton

1st term

Clinton

2nd term

80

40

0

Biden

−40

0

600

Days since inauguration

W. Bush

1st term

W. Bush

2nd term

Obama

1st term

80

40

0

Biden

−40

0

600

Days since inauguration

Obama

2nd term

Trump

80

40

Biden

0

−40

0

600

Days since inauguration

Source: Author calculations based on data collected by Gallup,

RealClearPolitics, FiveThirtyEight,New York Times and other

pollsters

Net approval for presidents, from start of term to midterm

Carter

Reagan

1st term

Reagan

2nd term

H.W. Bush

Clinton

1st term

Clinton

2nd term

80

40

0

Biden

−40

0

600

Days since inauguration

W. Bush

1st term

W. Bush

2nd term

Obama

1st term

Obama

2nd term

Trump

80

40

0

−40

0

600

Days since inauguration

Source: Author calculations based on data collected by Gallup, RealClearPolitics, FiveThirtyEight,

New York Times and other pollsters

Barack Obama summarized this dynamic two years into his presidency: “In the rush of activity, sometimes we lose track of the ways that we connected with folks that got us here in the first place.” This is true of nearly every recent president. Ronald Reagan lost supporters as the 1981-82 recession tore through the economy. Obama alienated swing voters and energized tea party activists as he tried to advance the Affordable Care Act (later known as Obamacare) in Congress. And Bill Clinton lost voters when he attempted to pass a health-care reform bill of his own.

How many House seats each

president lost in midterms

−60

−40

−20

0

Eisenhower, 1st term

Eisenhower, 2nd term

Kennedy

Johnson

Nixon, 1st term

Nixon, 2nd term

Carter

Reagan, 1st term

-26 seats

Reagan, 2nd term

H.W. Bush

Clinton, 1st term

Clinton, 2nd term

Bush, 1st term

+8

Bush, 2nd term

Obama, 1st term

-63

Obama, 2nd term

Trump

Sources: The Brookings Institution; Clerk of the

House of Representatives

How many House seats each president

lost in midterms

−60

−40

−20

0

Eisenhower, 1st term

Eisenhower, 2nd term

-48 seats

Kennedy

Johnson

Nixon, 1st term

Nixon, 2nd term

Carter

Reagan, 1st term

-26

Reagan, 2nd term

H.W. Bush

Clinton, 1st term

Clinton, 2nd term

Bush, 1st term

+8

Bush, 2nd term

Obama, 1st term

-63

Obama, 2nd term

Trump

Sources: The Brookings Institution; Clerk of the House of

Representatives

How many House seats each president lost in midterms

−60

−40

−20

0

Eisenhower, 1st term

-48 seats

Eisenhower, 2nd term

Kennedy

Johnson

Nixon, 1st term

Nixon, 2nd term

Carter

Reagan, 1st term

-26

Reagan, 2nd term

H.W. Bush

Clinton, 1st term

Clinton, 2nd term

Bush, 1st term

+8

Bush, 2nd term

Obama, 1st term

-63

Obama, 2nd term

Trump

Sources: The Brookings Institution; Clerk of the House of Representatives

On rare occasions, the president’s party can gain House seats after only two years: George W. Bush saw an outpouring of support after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But, in the average midterm election, the president’s party loses 27 House seats. In 2022, Democrats are likely to have a five-seat edge in the lower chamber — meaning that Republicans are already within striking distance of a majority.

The GOP’s second advantage: It draws the lines.

Who controls redistricting

Democrats

Republicans

Split

Commission

One district

Sources: Cook Political Report; FiveThirtyEight

Who controls redistricting in each state

Democrats

Split

Republicans

Commission

One district

Sources: Cook Political Report; FiveThirtyEight

Who controls redistricting in each state

Democrats

Split

Commission

One district

Republicans

Sources: Cook Political Report; FiveThirtyEight

In most states, the state legislature is in charge of redrawing congressional districts every decade. So in 2020, when the GOP gained full control of the legislature in 30 states, they won line-drawing power. According to FiveThirtyEight’s count, Republicans will control the redrawing in 187 districts in 2021, bipartisan and independent commissions 167, and Democrats only 75.

The GOP will gain seats just by redrawing these districts. Republicans will push Democrats into a few, highly blue districts and spread Republicans into many lighter red, but still safe districts. Their strategy was evident in North Carolina’s 2011 redistricting:

North Carolina before

Republican redistricting in 2011

Seven McCain districts, six Obama districts

After redistricting

Ten McCain districts, three Obama districts

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau; Daily Kos Elections

North Carolina before

Republican redistricting in 2011

Seven McCain districts, six Obama districts

After redistricting

Ten McCain districts, three Obama districts

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau; Daily Kos Elections

North Carolina before Republican redistricting in 2011

Seven McCain districts, six Obama districts

After redistricting

Ten McCain districts, three Obama districts

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau; Daily Kos Elections

The North Carolina map was later struck down by courts — but the GOP could use similar tactics to cement a new House majority. Early estimates from the Cook Political Report suggest that Republicans could gain three to four seats from redistricting alone.

And, as FiveThirtyEight analyst Geoffrey Skelley has argued, Republicans might use their line-drawing power to pressure once-reliable Democratic candidates out of the House. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) is mounting a Senate campaign, possibly in part because state-level Republicans seem poised to redraw his Youngstown-area district. Similarly, Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.), once the state’s Republican governor, is seeking his old job, now as a Democrat, perhaps to avoid reelection in a newly drawn, increasingly competitive St. Petersburg seat. Rep. Filemon Vela — a Democrat who would have faced reelection in heavily Latino, red-trending Texas — announced his retirement before even seeing how Republicans would redraw his district.

Put simply, the GOP doesn’t have to gain any political ground to win the House. It could take back the majority just by drawing district lines anew.

Democrats could still hold the House. Biden might benefit from a post-coronavirus boom; a deal on infrastructure could see roads, bridges and other transportation hubs under construction as the 2022 elections approach. Trump could retake the spotlight, unifying Democrats, reminding swing voters of the Jan. 6 insurrection and splintering rank-and-file Republicans who disagree on how he fits into the party.

Percent of Republicans who

think their leaders should be:

Conservative,

completely loyal

to Trump

28%

12%

Moderate,

completely loyal

to Trump

33%

Conservative,

willing to stand up

to Trump

18%

Moderate,

willing to stand up

to Trump

Note: Unsure responses not included

Source: Echelon Insights

Percent of Republicans who think

their leaders should be:

28%

Conservative,

completely loyal to Trump

12%

Moderate,

completely loyal to Trump

33%

Conservative,

willing to stand up to Trump

18%

Moderate,

willing to stand up to Trump

Note: Unsure responses not included

Source: Echelon Insights

Percent of Republicans who think their leaders should be:

Conservative,

completely loyal

to Trump

Moderate,

willing to stand

up to Trump

Moderate,

loyal to

Trump

Conservative,

willing to stand up

to Trump

28%

12%

33%

18%

Note: Unsure responses not included

Source: Echelon Insights

But history — and, for now, the redistricting clout — is on Republicans’ side. In three of the past four midterm elections, the president’s party has lost control of the House. We no longer live in the mid-20th century, when Democrats built stable, enduring House majorities. The United States is bitterly and closely divided. If voters shift right, even temporarily, Democrats could lose the House — leaving Republicans, most likely, with a wobbly, unstable majority of their own.

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