Twice this week, President Trump complained publicly about how the results of the midterm elections are being covered. He did so Thursday evening on Twitter, writing, with his idiosyncratic capitalizations, that the “Fake News Media” never mentions “the fact that Republicans, with the very important help of my campaign Rallies, WON THE UNITED STATES SENATE, 53 to 47?”
At an event Friday in Missouri, he said much the same thing.
“I keep listening to the fake news that, ‘They won the House! House — House — House,’ ” he said. “Nobody ever talks about the Senate. We won the Senate easily. In fact, we picked up two, and that hasn’t been done in a long time. For a person as president, you just, for whatever reason, that doesn’t happen very often, and we have the Senate now, 53 to 47, and we’re very proud of that. But you never hear that. You only hear the ‘House — House — House.’ ”
(He also complained that some candidates “look[ed] good” but then “choke[d] like dogs,” prompting him to think that he “picked the wrong person.” Identifying which of the losing Republican candidates he was referring to is left as an exercise for the reader.)
Trump’s wrong that the media never talks about the Republicans winning additional seats in the Senate, of course. But that’s also not really what he’s complaining about. What he’s complaining about is that the Senate results, about the only bright spot on election night, are not primarily what the media is talking about.
And there’s a good reason for that. First, the Senate results weren’t really all that surprising. Second, the House results largely were — and they were more significant.
Consider the state of the Senate contests coming into last month’s elections. It was obvious that the Democrats had a tougher fight, given that they were defending far more seats (a function in large part of how well they did six years ago, in 2012). So while most of the seats being contested were held by Democrats and while most of those contested seats were considered safe for the Democratic incumbents, there were six Democratic seats considered either leaning Republican or toss-ups by Cook Political Report — compared with four seats that were toss-ups for Republicans.
Guess what: The Democrats won two of the Republican toss-ups and the Republicans won three of the Democratic ones and that seat that was leaning Republican. Net gain for the Republicans of two seats. More on this in a second.
Now consider what happened in the House. There, every seat was up — and the Republicans were the ones with a significant uphill climb.
The result? The Republicans flipped three seats — and the Democrats flipped 43.
Let’s look at this another way. Of all the races on the ballot last month, the Democrats won 54 percent of the House contests and 69 percent of the Senate races. In both cases, that includes seats that were not likely to be flipped by the other party, but those, nonetheless, were the results.
(On this chart, the light blue and light red indicate the net seats that were flipped.)
Trump’s claim that Republicans “WON THE SENATE, 53-47” is incorrect. Considering only races on the ballot, Republicans lost the Senate, 24-11.
What’s more, the swing in the House was more historically significant. It was the fourth-biggest gain for either party in 50 years and the second biggest for Democrats since 1974. On net, the Democrats flipped 9 percent of the House seats that were up.
The Republican gain in the Senate was the first time a president’s own party had gained two seats in a midterm election cycle since 1970 — but there are a lot of qualifiers in that sentence, each of which diminishes its importance. Overall, the Republicans flipped, on net, 6 percent of the Senate seats that were being contested.
But more importantly, nothing really changed in the Senate. Republicans already controlled the Senate; Democrats gained control of the House. That’s the biggest change that’s coming to Washington, and that’s a large part of why the media is discussing what it means.
Sure, Trump would rather have everyone focus on the fact that, in a tough climate for Democrats, Democrats didn’t do as well. But there are good reasons that this isn’t the media’s focus.