Since the Civil War, midterm elections have enabled the president's party to gain ground in the House of Representatives only three times, and those gains were in single digits. The last few midterms have been typical: In 2006, with Republican George W. Bush in the White House, his party lost 31 House seats. Under Democrat Barack Obama, his party lost 63 seats in 2010 and then 13 in 2014. Under Donald Trump, in 2018, Republicans lost 41 seats. Overall, since World War II, losses by the president's party have averaged 27 seats in the House.
Next year, if Republicans gain just five House seats, Rep. Kevin McCarthy or some other right-wing ideologue will become speaker of the House, giving the GOP control over all committees and legislation. In the Senate, where the historic midterm pattern has been similar, a Republican gain of just one seat will reinstall Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader.
To prevent such disastrous results, Democrats would need to replicate what happened the last time the president's party didn't lose House or Senate seats in a midterm election — two years after Bush entered the White House. The odds are steeply against it, as elections analyst Nathaniel Rakich points out: "Bush was very popular in 2002 in the aftermath of 9/11. According to a retrospective FiveThirtyEight average of polls at the time, he had a 62 percent approval rating and 29 percent disapproval rating on Election Day 2002. And in this era of polarization — where presidential approval ratings are stuck in a very narrow band — it's hard to imagine [President] Biden ever reaching that level of popularity."
It's not just history that foreshadows a return to Capitol power for the likes of McCarthy and McConnell. All year, Republican officeholders have been methodically doing all they can to asphyxiate democracy. And they can do a lot more.
With new census data, the once-in-a-decade chance to redistrict means that Republican-dominated state legislatures can do maximal gerrymandering. "Because Democrats fell short of their 2020 expectations in state legislative races," FiveThirtyEight politics reporter Alex Samuels says, "Republicans have the opportunity to redraw congressional maps that are much more clearly in their favor." All this year, awaiting census figures to manipulate, Republican legislatures have been enacting outrageous new voter-suppression laws, many of the sort recently greenlit by the Supreme Court and calculated to destroy voting rights.
In the face of impending election disasters in 2022 and beyond, denial might be a natural coping mechanism, but it only makes matters worse. Reality should now spur a sustained all-out effort — in courts, stated legislatures, Congress and public venues — to safeguard as many democratic processes as possible for next year's elections, while organizing against the dozens of major voter-suppression tactics of recent years.
At the same time, truly bold political actions — culminating in landmark legislation to improve the economic and social well-being of vast numbers of Americans — will be essential to improve the slim chances that Biden's presidency won't lead to a Republican takeover of Congress midway through his term. Though largely drowned out by the din of mainstream punditry urging "bipartisan" approaches, many astute voices are urgently calling for measures that could transform political dynamics before the 2022 general elections.
- "We've got to go big, and take it to another level," first-term Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., said in an email to supporters this week. "We've got to deliver and get this done for our communities. So why on earth are we wasting time trying to compromise with Republicans?" Bowman added: "If we do not fight for our communities and put them in the center of the work we do — if we continue to prioritize the myth of 'bipartisanship' over the people we were elected to fight for and represent in Washington — we will lose elections. If we want to maintain control and the opportunity to do great work beyond 2022, Democrats need to deliver in this very moment."
- Nina Turner, who's likely to become a member of Congress in November after a special election for a vacant seat in northeast Ohio, said recently: "When are we going to learn? Republicans plan for the long term. What can we do right now before the next election cycle and get it done and go big? Because power is fleeting. You've got to use it while you've got it."
- Days ago, in a Washington Post column, The Nation's editorial director Katrina vanden Heuvel posed "the critical question" as Congress reconvened after a holiday break: "Are Democrats ready to act?" She wrote: "While President Biden is selling the bipartisan infrastructure deal as a 'generational investment,' the real effort will come from using the budget reconciliation process to pass vitally needed public investments with Democratic votes only. For all the focus on Biden's ability to work across the aisle, the true challenge is whether he and the congressional leadership can work with all Democrats. That test will do much to determine whether the party can retain or increase its majorities in the next election — and whether the country will begin to address the cascading crises that it faces."
What remains to be determined is whether such warnings will end up being the tragically prophetic voices of Cassandras — or clarion calls to action, heeded in time to prevent an unhinged Republican Party from taking control of Congress when 2023 begins.