The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The coming Republican threat may be even bigger than Democrats imagine

Supporters of Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin cheer during a rally in Chesterfield on Nov. 1. (Steve Helber/AP)
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The shift against Democratic candidates in Virginia and New Jersey in last Tuesday’s elections has shocked the left. But if anything, Democrats understate the widespread danger their party faces.

To understand the magnitude of last week’s electoral earthquake, one must grasp the concept of “margin shift.” This is the difference between one party’s winning margin in one election vs. the same margin in the next election. This measures the change in voter attitudes and can be used to assesses what might happen in other contests if the same shift were to occur.

Tuesday was an utter disaster for Democrats by that assessment. Joe Biden won Virginia by 10.1 points in 2020 and carried New Jersey by 15.9 points. Although some votes are still being tallied, the margin shift for the GOP is 12.1 points in Virginia and 13.3 points in New Jersey. Moreover, GOP candidates for the legislatures in each state obtained nearly identical shifts. Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman estimates that New Jersey’s GOP state Assembly candidates obtained a median 10.8-point margin shift while their Virginia counterparts received a median 12.3-point shift. This shows how much Tuesday was a rejection of a party rather than a verdict on individual candidates.

The margin shift was similar or higher in Pennsylvania and New York. Republicans recaptured four countywide partisan offices in Bucks County, Pa., that Democrats had seized in their 2017 wave, obtaining a margin shift of between 10 and 11 points compared with Biden’s 2020 lead. New York Republicans likely recaptured the position of Nassau County executive and won the Suffolk County district attorney’s office with margin shifts of 14 and 14.6 points, respectively. And in the New York mayoral race, Republican Curtis Sliwa received margin shifts of 26.5 points in Staten Island and 23.1 points in Queens. Republican City Council candidates also gained, winning or leading in seven of the council’s 51 districts

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These margins would shatter Democratic congressional majorities if they recur in next year’s midterms. Wasserman estimates that Republicans would gain between 44 House seats on the New Jersey State Assembly swing and 51 on the Virginia House of Delegates shift. Swings on the scale of the New Jersey’s gubernatorial race and the Long Island local offices would likely push GOP gains close to the record 63 seats they picked up in the 2010 midterms. Any of these results, added to their current 213 seats, would give the GOP more House seats than at any time since 1928.

Republicans would also be favored to gain massively in the Senate. A 10-point margin shift would likely cost Democrats four seats — Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire — while denying them shots to pick up in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. A 12-point shift would put Colorado in play for the GOP, while New York-style shifts could place seats in Oregon and Washington at risk. Imagine Mitch McConnell as majority leader with 55 seats or more at his disposal.

It’s clearly premature to predict that Tuesday’s wave will continue beyond next year’s midterms. There’s evidence that Democratic-leaning independent voters, for example, did not vote at the same rates on Tuesday as they likely would in a midterm or presidential year. Should they return to normal voting levels, they would cut the margin shift by a lot.

But it’s also worth noting that incumbents invariably receive within one point of their final job approval ratings if they run for reelection and that congressional races increasingly reflect the presidential nominee’s score in that state or seat. Biden’s current job approval rating in the RealClearPolitics average is a paltry 42.7 percent. Anything close to that in 2024 — especially if former president Donald Trump is not on the ballot — would likely usher in a Republican domination not seen since the days of Babe Ruth.

A 10-point shift from Biden’s 51 percent showing in 2020, universally applied, would imply that a Republican candidate would win the popular vote by about 5.5 points. A 12-point shift would give the GOP a 7.5-point advantage. That latter advantage approximates George H.W. Bush’s margin over Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988 and could give the Republican nominee as many as 358 electoral votes. That alone would reduce the Democrats to a regional rump party based largely on the Pacific Coast and the upper Northeast.

It would be even worse in the Senate, where Republican gains could propel them to record highs. Democrats will defend 12 seats in 2024 where Biden’s 2020 margin was 12 points or less, including Maine’s seat held by Sen. Angus King (I), who caucuses with the party. A repeat of Tuesday’s margin shift here would likely cause more of them to lose, possibly giving Republicans more than 60 seats. To put that in perspective, the GOP has never had more than 60 seats since the direct election of senators started nationwide in 1913.

Democrats held 257 House seats and a filibuster-proof 60 seats (achieved after moderate Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties) in the Senate in 2008 following two consecutive elections that featured 10-to-13-point margin shifts from 2004. That let them pass Obamacare and decisively move the country to the left. After Tuesday’s results, a Republican majority of that magnitude is no longer a pipe dream.