That pre-spinning has begun, with Kellyanne Conway noting last week that it’s rare for the president’s party to gain Senate seats in a midterm election. “Think about that. That’s historic,” she told Fox News.
Trump has acknowledged difficulty in the House but said, “I think we’re doing really extraordinarily well in the Senate.”
The story is nuanced and well worth a read, but we’d do well to be careful about regarding such a result as anything amounting to a split decision or mixed result. Yes, Republicans would technically be improving their lot in the Senate, while Democrats would be surging in the House. And Conway is right that it’s rare for a president’s party to gain Senate seats; it’s happened only three times since World War II.
But it would also owe almost completely to some highly unusual circumstances — for which there is very little historical precedent — and it wouldn’t exactly indicate an evenly split electorate.
The idea that Democrats even have a shot at winning the Senate is not something we were able to say for a good portion of the 2018 election cycle. They only had two obvious pickup opportunities at the start (Arizona and Nevada), and they needed a three-seat gain. Since then, they’ve won the Alabama special election — reducing their majority-winning threshold to a two-seat gain — and added Tennessee and Texas as possible, if perhaps unlikely, pickups. That those states are even in play tells you everything you need to know about where things are at, red-vs.-blue-wise.
The reason Republicans might gain seats is pretty simple: The map is distorted. Democrats had to defend 10 states that went for Trump, while Republicans had to defend only one that went for Hillary Clinton (Nevada). If Republicans gain seats, it’s almost definitely going to be in territory Trump won by double digits. These are states they should be winning; they just happen to be held by Democrats because 2006 and 2012 — the last time these seats were up — were both good Democratic years.
Look at the seats that are in play:
- West Virginia: Trump +42
- North Dakota: Trump +36
- Tennessee: Trump +26
- Montana: Trump +20
- Indiana: Trump +19
- Missouri: Trump +19
- Texas: Trump +9
- Arizona: Trump +4
- Florida: Trump +1
- Nevada: Clinton +2
That’s six of Trump’s 16 best states that Republicans are trying to win — and don’t even have locked down. You’d have to put blinders on to think that winning such favorable territory makes up for potentially losing the House (where the map also tilts Republican, by the way).
The point is that if we had anything amounting to a neutral map, we’d almost definitely be talking about a Senate takeover by Democrats. And even if they keep things close, they will be setting themselves up well for 2020 and especially for 2022, when they have more opportunities and less tough defense to play. As Nathaniel Rakich has argued at FiveThirtyEight, defending these red states in a good year for Democrats might be the best thing that could have happened for them, even if they don’t actually gain seats, because they were actually hold-able under these circumstances.
But the idea that it’s a split decision when one party gains in one chamber and the other gains in the other — or even that Republicans gain in the Senate while Democrats take over the House — is plausible enough on its face that plenty of people are likely to accept it at face value. It has the doubly attractive distinction of bucking the conventional wisdom, which is something every analyst is fond of.
That doesn’t make it true. And it won’t mean Democrats didn’t have a good night — assuming they actually do well in the House. If Republicans hold the House, then we can talk about how they had a pretty good night.