When Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., announced last week that he wouldn’t seek re-election next year, it was a timely reminder not to forget about the House of Representatives in the 2020 election cycle. Woodall's 2018 challenger, Carolyn Bourdeaux, who came within 500 votes of beating him, has already announced she will running again. Also consider Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who is finally coming under fire for his long history of overt racism, has been stripped of his committee assignments and already has a Republican primary opponent. Then there's Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who is under indictment and whose 2018 Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, is ready for a rematch.
Altogether, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is initially targeting 33 GOP-held seats, for 2020. Chairwoman Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., has declared that “2018 was just the tip of the iceberg for Democrats,” adding, “We have a clear path to expanding our Democratic majority, and by putting our plans in motion earlier in the cycle than ever before, we are demonstrating to Democrats across the country that the political arm of House Democrats is operating in high gear from the start.”
What’s more, the DCCC pointed out, 20 of the 33 seats it's targeting "are held by an incumbent Republican who has never served in the minority before,” making them especially likely to retire and create a more winnable open-seat race.
Pundits have largely tuned out on the House amid the early furor of the impending presidential campaign. That's a mistake. Just as 2018 was all about the House, 2020 is expected to be all about the White House — with a secondary nod to the Senate. But a second wave election in the House could be crucial for longer-term Democratic success. And making further gains in state legislative races will be crucial to the redistricting process after the 2020 census is complete.
Back-to-back wave elections have been crucial in establishing party dominance in American history, coupled with presidential victories. That’s an insight inspired by the theory of realigning elections, but in practical terms, even Yale's David Mayhew, whose 2002 book “Electoral Realignments” mounted the most thorough critique of realignment theory (summary here), agreed that such a wave would be a big deal.
“If the Democrats could build themselves into the 260-plus seat area again, as they have done sometimes, that would be big, with policy consequences,” Mayhew told Salon. Then came his qualification: “Whether it would be lasting downstream is another matter. Consider 1966 and 1938.”
Those are examples of single wave elections (favoring Republicans) which significantly crippled the momentum of New Deal and Great Society legislation, respectively. Yet neither disrupted Democratic control of Congress, nor did they lead to reversing signature legislation, such as Social Security or Medicare.
Democrats won 52 seats in 1930 (a 12 percent gain) and 97 seats in 1932 (22 percent), and controlled the House for most of the next six decades — until the "Contract With America" wave election of 1994. That’s the kind of long-term dominance a double wave election can bring.
In the 1850s, the newly hatched Republican Party came from nothing in 1852 to winning 37 seats in 1854, 90 in 1856 and 116 in 1858, gaining a majority it held until 1876. Then, after a brief period of relative party balance, Republicans gained 38 seats in 1892 and 110 in 1894, controlling the House until 1910 -- and the White House from 1896 to 1912.
These historical examples are impressive on a large scale, but things get messier the more closely you look — especially since the term “wave” is imprecise and the size of the waves varies enormously. The 2006 and 2008 Democratic waves combined only totaled a 12.5 percent gain, about the same as the Republican wave of 1994. The "Tea Party wave" of 2010 that wiped out those Democratic gains was 14.7 percent.
And there’s at least one stark counter-example: Democrats won back-to-back wave elections in 1910 and 1912 (totaling 22.9 percent), while electing Woodrow Wilson president. But their House majority vanished by 1916, and Republicans dominated government in the 1920s. One could argue that 1912 was an outlier election — the only time a “third party” came in second, as Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” Party relegated the GOP to third place. But oddball elections come with the territory, and 2020 could be one of them.
“If the public is of a mind to wipe out Trump in 2020 in the fashion of wiping out Goldwater in 1964, that would of course be big,” Mayhew noted. “The Goldwater nomination seems to have thrown the congressional elections out of kilter in 1964, with very big policy consequences, some of them long-term,” he said.
“It's not so much whether there are one or two waves but whether the results of a wave election stick -- and what kind of new member is brought into Congress,” said Gary Jacobson of the University of California, San Diego. Democrats gained 12 Senate seats and 49 House seats in 1958, for example, and all of those were outside the South. That was immensely important for the passage of the Civil Rights Act five years later. Jacobson called it “a single wave that brought significant change."
Mayhew drew particular attention to the Senate side, noting that Republicans elected in 1946 (known as the "meat-shortage election") and solidified by Dwight Eisenhower's election in 1952 "were pretty much wiped out in 1958, which had no such GOP-favoring stimuli and featured a sagging economy as well as the usual in-party midterm drag. These Democratic Senate gains in 1958 (a single election) supplied a platform for party policy drives for most of a decade, at the least.”
The racial and gender diversity of 2018 could have similar long-term impacts. But followup matters. Democrats added another 37 House seats in 1964, even as Republicans made inroads in the South.
Size matters, too. The 2006 and 2008 waves were modest by historical standards, though not compared to the stability of elections from 1996 to 2004. More often, waves of roughly similar size cancel each other out. The GOP wave of 1946, which recaptured the House after seven terms of Democratic control, was quickly reversed by an even larger Democratic wave in 1948. The more modest Democratic wave of 1964 was reversed by a larger GOP wave in 1966, while those roles were reversed 16 years later: A modest Republican wave when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 was followed by a larger Democratic wave in 1982. Back-to-back waves are significantly less common, and significantly harder to reverse.
As Mayhew and Jacobson both make clear, there’s significant variation between wave elections and many do have lasting impacts, at least for a time. Jacobson cited the "Watergate wave" of 1974 as one that “brought significant internal changes to Congress," although those were eroded in 1980, and the 1994 wave as establishing “Republicans as a fully equal competitor for the Congress” after decades of Democratic dominance.
More recently, he called 2010 a “major wave" whose effects have largely been "done in" by President Trump. "With such a strong economy," he noted, "an even moderately popular president would have allowed Republicans to hold the House” in 2018. Obviously it didn't go that way.
Jacobson regards 2018 as a “major wave” as well, but says he's not sure whether it can be sustained in 2020. “It probably will be if Trump is on the ticket,” he said, because that may allow Democrats to hold "the upscale suburban districts that gave them their majority. Trump helps here because he is so unpopular in these precincts.”
State legislative races often get ignored but are critically important, largely because of the congressional redistricting process that will follow the 2020 census. For insight into that, I turned to Steve Rogers of St. Louis University, author of the forthcoming book, "Accountability in American Legislatures.”
“I think the easiest parallel to draw for 2020 is 2010,” Rogers said. “In 2010, Republican state legislative candidates benefited greatly from voters being upset with Democrats at the national level,” and that wasn’t a one-off accident. “My research generally shows that national political conditions are one of the strongest determinants of state legislative election outcomes,” he said. Republicans' big legislative victories in 2010 “allowed them to build somewhat of a redistricting firewall that benefited them throughout the decade,” and even limited Democratic gains in 2018. Now he anticipates something of a reversal.
“Overall, voters are largely unaware of who their state legislators are, let alone what they do from day to day," Rogers said. "So voters often end up relying on views of national politics or their partisanship when making their decisions in state legislative elections.” He's wary of how much difference organizations can make, but says it's critical that “voters have candidates to vote for," meaning that Democratic candidates actually run for office. Democrats did well in this regard in 2018, he noted. “This is something Republican-leaning organizations have a better track record doing, so this is one strategy that progressive groups should likely take up again,” he said.
In addition to its traditional state legislative arm, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the Democratic Party also has its own redistricting committee, working together with Organizing for America, which has targeted 12 states for its efforts. Redistricting is also a high priority for Swing Left, which targeted swing House districts in 2018 (Salon stories here, here, and here) and now hopes to help win key legislative races through an integrated strategy it calls “Super States”:
If you overlay the target maps, the most important battles to win the White House, the Senate, and the once-in-a-decade fight to control redistricting are concentrated in the same few states. By focusing on them, we can maximize the impact of our efforts, working on many or all of these important contests at the same time.
Although Swing Left’s initial strategy doesn't mention House races, those will also clearly be important. Fourteen of the 25 most vulnerable GOP-held seats are located in Swing Left “Super States,” with six in Texas alone, three in Pennsylvania and two in Ohio, along with one each in Georgia, Michigan and North Carolina. (The other “Super States” are Maine, Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado and Arizona.)
“In 2020 we can defeat Trump and set up decades of progressive victories,” a Swing Left spokesperson told Salon. “That requires winning the White House, the Senate, key state races that will determine redistricting, and protecting our majority in the House. Put simply, the blue wave can't be a temporary movement, and it can't be confined to the House. We need to build a comprehensive and sustained approach to activating grassroots energy to win elections up and down the ballot.”
Swing Left intends to continue and expand its formula of “providing simple, strategic and meaningful actions for people to take” within a framework that’s both geographically and temporally targeted. For 2018, they focused on turnout, “because only around 65 percent of registered voters typically vote in midterm election years,” as the group's strategy memo notes. But in 2020, the focus shifts to registration since we can expect that a large majority of registered voters will turn out in a presidential election -- especially this one.
There is, however, a core need that Swing Left's strategy does not address: Engaging with rural voters who live in outside the targeted Super States. I reached out to Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska and chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
“Democrats and Independents exist in the middle of the country and the Democratic Party can no longer treat us as flyover voters,” Kleeb told Salon. “There's no question that Democrats need rural voters in order to win back the White House, as well as to win statewide races like U.S. Senate,” she said. “Unfortunately, Democrats have lost an entire generation of rural voters because there's been this cycle of mutual neglect. Democrats don't invest in the state parties, and then they don't have the money to talk to rural voters. We don't talk to rural voters, so they don't vote for Democrats.”
One old-timer put it bluntly to her husband at a town hall, Kleeb recalled: “Let's just be honest, if there's only one church in your community, guess what religion you become.” Kleeb added that Democrats “have to start including the solutions that rural people are already putting on the table to the big issues facing our country and our party.”
Rural residents and activists are already involved in climate struggles — fighting pipelines and fracking, advocating for wind and solar power, Kleeb noted, “Yet when Democrats talk about rural communities, they usually talk about us with a sneer or negative language, that we're the problem -- that agriculture is the problem for climate change, rather than looking to rural people for solutions. So we've got to start there. Because if we are really going to solve the big problems our country faces, we have to have all ideas on the table, not just the coastal ideas.
"Rural communities look at climate change through a very different lens,” Kleeb continued. "In rural communities there’s this deeply rooted culture that that we are all in it together. So for ranchers, that means if your fence is down in the middle of winter, your neighbor’s going to come and help you. You also are deeply engaged in government. There's a lot of people in small towns that are the government,” meaning they serve on school boards and local commissions, “so there’s a really strong ecosystem and tradition of knowing that government is part of our lives,” as well as being a source of things like rural electrification that the marketplace was never going to provide on its own.
“Real investments have to be made in red and rural states if we’re going to win the White House and critical statewide elections,” Kleeb said. “Specific examples are investing in state parties who know their communities best; opening up our primaries to independents, since we need their votes to win elections; and talking about issues that matter to rural people, like ending eminent domain for private gain, providing broadband access and ensuring competitive markets for family farmers and ranchers.”
It’s easy to get sucked into the latest Trump drama. But restoring America’s democracy for the future lies in looking elsewhere — not just to those who would replace Trump in the White House, but to all the other levels of government that deserve our attention, as well as the people we may wrongly assume have nothing to say to us. They have a world to share with us, if we're ready to listen.