The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP midterm wave is set — and Democrats can’t do anything about it

Supporters of former president Donald Trump attend a rally at Westmoreland Fairgrounds in Greensburg, Pa., on May 6. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
4 min

Respected political analyst David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report created a stir last week when he projected Republicans would gain between 20 to 35 House seats in the midterms. If history is any guide, that number will almost surely increase by Election Day.

Political analysts characterize elections where one party makes outsize gains as “waves.” The metaphor is apt: Political currents develop well before elections. They gather strength as the big day approaches and then crash ashore with great power, destroying whatever vulnerable seats the opposing party holds in its wake.

The key to understanding these waves is the knowledge that once they are underway, there’s nothing the other side can do to stop it until voter anger renders its verdict. The only question is how high the wave will become and how far “inland” it will go — that is, how many seats and members previously thought impervious to challenge will be swept out to a watery political grave.

That’s the situation Democrats are in today. They desperately want to believe this won’t happen to them. Better messaging! A new Build Back Better bill! Attack “ultra MAGA” Republicans! They are seizing anything they can to convince themselves that doom is avoidable. But that is simply wish-casting.

Recent political history shows that the course of a fall election is almost always set by Memorial Day. RealClearPolitics Senior Elections Analyst Sean Trende recently noted that “election outcomes are more-or-less baked in” by the end of the second quarter of an election year. Not even the financial crash of 2008 made a significant dent in that year’s outcome, which Trende says was largely expected in May of that year. One probably needs to go back to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 to find an event that might have significantly helped the party in power on the eve of a midterm vote.

Political waves also take predictable courses, and the final outcome is almost always worse for the losing party than analysts predicted six months out. In May 2010, the Rothenberg Political Report (now Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales) projected a big Republican year, with GOP House gains of two to three dozen seats. Their final pre-election forecast predicted gains between 55 and 65 seats. The GOP ultimately picked up 63 from Democrats.

In 2018’s Democratic wave, Cook’s June 1 House ratings listed seven GOP-held seats as leaning or likely Democrats and another 23 as toss-ups. Its final pre-election analysis had 18 GOP-held seats in Democratic territory and another 29 as toss-ups. Democrats gained 40 seats and retook House control.

It’s perfectly understandable why election analysts tend to be cautious, even if they suspect the election cycle is developing in a particular direction. There’s always a chance something will intervene, and individual races do matter. Even in wave years, some candidates outperform the partisan fundamentals or get lucky and face an extremely weak challenger. That happened in a few high-profile Senate races in the 2010, when Republican candidates Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware both lost winnable races because they were so outside the mainstream (O’Donnell had to cut an ad clarifying that she wasn’t “a witch” after clips surfaced of her saying she had “dabbled in witchcraft”). No serious analyst wants to call a race before all the facts are in.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t make general projections. Presidents rarely improve their approval ratings in the run-up to a midterm vote, and people who disapprove of how a president is doing the job usually decide to give the other party a shot. Some vulnerable incumbents will stand against the tide, but the massive swell will also surprise a few people thought to be safe. The result is that the odds are heavily in favor of analysts rapidly revising their projections in Republicans’ favor as campaigns gain traction in the fall.

All this means Democrats will be thankful if they lose only 20 to 35 House seats this fall. They know they could lose as many as 40 or even 50 seats, propelling Republicans to their greatest House majority since 1928. The GOP, meanwhile, knows they can make history if they keep their heads down, nominate sane candidates and keep the focus on President Biden.