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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

December 16: Democrats Came Extremely Close to Keeping the House

The more you look at the 2022 midterm election returns, the most it looks like a good if flawed Democratic result instead of a good but flawed Republican result, as I explained at New York:

After Election Day 2022, the standard narrative was that a solid Republican win in the national House popular vote (which looked to be as much as six percent initially) somehow didn’t translate into the kind of robust House gains you might expect. Even as late mail ballots drifted in across big blue states like California, reducing the GOP margin in the national House popular vote to 2.8 percent, the sense that Republicans got very unlucky in the actual results persisted. Now, the New York Times’ Nate Cohn has devoted a long column to investigating this alleged underperformance, concluding that Democrats may have actually had better candidates in both the Senate and the House:

“The red wave, to the extent it existed, may have come ashore in a relatively uninhabited area, but the red tide was still high enough to turn the House vote red in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada, even while the Democrats won the crucial Senate seats.

“How did the Democrats survive? Perhaps the simplest explanation: On average, they had better candidates thanks partly, but not completely, to weak Republican nominees.”

But another veteran number cruncher, Jacob Rubashkin of Inside Elections, looked at the final House results and found something remarkable:

“Ultimately, not only did a Red Wave fail to materialize, but Republicans barely cleared the lowest of bars they had set for themselves at the beginning of the cycle: winning back the House of Representatives.

“The GOP needed a net gain of five seats to win back the majority. While the party did net nine seats, in the five closest GOP wins in the country, the victorious Republican candidates outpaced their Democratic opponents by a combined 6,670 votes….

“The five closest races won by Republicans were Colorado’s 3rd (554 votes), California’s 13th (584 votes), Michigan’s 10th (1,600 votes), New York’s 17th (1,787 votes), and Iowa’s 3rd (2,145 votes).”

The combined margins in the “majority-making” races, Rubashkin calculates, were about a fourth of those in 2020 when Democrats won the same number of House seats and were widely thought to have skirted a major disaster. So you could definitely argue that Republicans got lucky to the tune of 6,670 votes.

Had those votes not materialized in the right places at the right time then instead of congratulating Democrats for not doing as poorly as everyone expected, we might be trying to figure out if Nancy Pelosi should serve one more term as Speaker or give way to Hakeem Jeffries. And 2022 might have been viewed as a historical anomaly ranking right up there with 1962, 1998, and 2002 (years in which the White House party gained net seats in midterms).

Nate Cohn also acknowledges that the results were close enough to merit different interpretations of their partisan import:

“Should it be understood as an outright good Democratic year that was interrupted by a few isolated Republican waves (Florida, New York, Oregon) and obscured by low nonwhite turnout in solidly Democratic areas? Or was it a good but not great Republican year that the party didn’t translate into seats because of bad candidates and somewhat inefficiently distributed strength?”

More to the point, an interpretation of this midterm as a lost Democratic rather than Republican opportunity might influence what we can properly expect in 2024, as Rubashkin notes:

“Not only did a ‘red wave’ not materialize for House Republicans, but their new majority rests on the narrowest victory in over a decade, setting up the fight for the House as the marquee congressional battle of 2024.”

In a presidential cycle, moreover, some of the Democratic-leaning voter groups that don’t turn out proportionately in midterms, including Black and under-30 voters, could very well tip the balance. So aside from the other issues he has in hanging on to a Speakership that depends to an unhealthy degree on the sufferance of MAGA extremists, Kevin McCarthy should deal with the real possibility that he’ll be back in the minority two years from now.

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