2020 vision

Pelosi’s Grip on the House Will Tighten After the Election

Pelosi should have no trouble controlling the House in her last two years as Speaker. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

In all the obsessive coverage of this highly fraught and very strange election, the 435 contests for U.S. House seats have been often underplayed or even ignored. In part that’s because there is far less public polling in these contests than for statewide races in which Senate seats or presidential electoral votes are at stake. But additionally, despite periodic triumphalist Republican claims of an impending House takeover, there’s never been much doubt that Democrats will retain their control of the lower chamber. Back in the spring of 2019, I quoted Charlie Cook (quoting his brilliant underling David Wasserman) on the historical unlikelihood of a Republican re-conquest of the House after the GOP’s miserable 2018 cycle:

Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman points out that control of the House has not flipped in consecutive elections since 1954, and the last time the House changed control in a presidential election year was 1952. The House rarely flips — five times (1954, 1994, 2006, 2010, 2018) in the last 65 years — but when it does, it is almost always in midterm years, which tend to be more explosive.

Wasserman also points out that Democrats have gained House seats in five of the past six presidential election years, with newly redrawn maps in Texas making 2004 the lone exception.

A year later Wasserman was pointing out that whatever dreams Republicans had for flipping the House probably were destroyed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which froze candidate recruitment and fundraising at a point where Democrats had a big advantage, while making impeachment (and any potential backlash to it in conservative districts) very much yesterday’s news. It also didn’t help the GOP that Joe Biden (as opposed to more controversial or less-well-known candidates) was at the top of the Democratic ticket.

Now that the election is nigh, the experts all agree: Democrats will not only maintain control of the House, but should pick up additional seats. But with Nancy Pelosi poised to retire as Speaker at the end of 2022, it looks like she will have a firm grip on the gavel until she voluntarily hands it over. The generic congressional ballot (a simple polling question about the party voters want to control the House) shows Democrats up by 7.5 percent at FiveThirtyEight and 8.0 percent at RealClearPolitics. But a Republican incumbency advantage hollowed out by retirements and a continued Democratic surge in the suburbs is the real source of strength for Pelosi’s troops, says Wasserman:

A combination of President Trump’s unpopularity in the suburbs, a fundraising disadvantage, and 32 open seats for the GOP to defend (to Democrats’ dozen) has weighed down Republicans’ prospects. And in the final week, Republicans are spending heavily trying to stave off losses in unlikely places like Little Rock, Southside Virginia and western North Carolina.

In 2018, Democrats gained the majority mostly in suburbs of heavily blue metro areas like Orange County (outside of LA), North Jersey, Northern Virginia, Denver and Minneapolis. But this cycle, Trump’s toxicity is imperiling GOP-held seats in traditionally conservative suburbs of metro areas like Indianapolis, St. Louis, Omaha, Cincinnati, Phoenix and San Antonio.

Cook projects Democratic gains of “10 to 15 seats as the likeliest outcome, with anything from five to 20 seats well within the realm of possibility.” Sabato’s Crystal Ball shows Democrats with net gains of 10 seats. And Nathan Gonzales of Inside Politics is slightly more bullish on the Donkey Party, projecting net Democratic gains of 14 to 20 seats. Meanwhile FiveThirtyEight shows Democrats enjoying a 97 percent probability of maintaining House control. Just as California was ground zero for Democratic gains in 2018 (they flipped a remarkable seven seats in the Golden State), Texas could be the wellspring for 2020 gains; Cook lists seven Republican-held seats in the Lone Star State as vulnerable this year.

Political trends don’t last forever: last time Democrats had two consecutive “wave” elections in the House (2006 and 2008) their gains were wiped out in the historic Republican landslide of 2010. If Democrats win the “trifecta” (control of the White House and both chambers of Congress) this year, the 2022 midterms could give Republicans a good chance for a comeback, particularly if they do well in the redistricting process (itself highly influenced by what happens this year in state legislative races).

Pelosi’s Grip on the House Will Tighten After the Election