The Republican Party will keep control of the House of Representatives, extinguishing Democrats’ hopes of a new progressive era in Washington.
Plenty of races still haven't been officially called, but the odds of the remaining Democrats running the table are so vanishingly small as to be practically impossible. Democrats needed to pick up 30 seats to regain a majority, but now it’s clear they’ll fall short of that goal. (Two news networks, ABC News and NBC News, have projected that the Republicans will keep the House.)
Failing to retake the House is a sign that liberals will have to somewhat temper their expectations after Election Day. With both branches of Congress and the White House, Democrats could have passed a cap-and-trade bill to combat climate change. They may have tried thrusting through immigration reform. There could have been a real chance at implementing a nationwide paid family leave program or universal pre-K. Perhaps there were enough congressional Democrats to dramatically raise the minimum wage, or pass campaign finance reform, or tackle any of the rest of the party's key agenda items.
All of that is now probably off the table. At the very least, the odds of any of those things happening are massively diminished.
From the conservative perspective, of course, this is great news. Republicans already fear the consequences of a Hillary Clinton administration. Having her totally unchecked by the legislative branch would allow an expansion of a federal government that they already think has grown far too big and does far too much.
But that's not the only reason keeping the House is such welcome news for Republicans. The GOP now has a foothold in the federal government even if Donald Trump loses and Democrats retake the Senate. Speaker Paul Ryan won’t just be able to effectively block any big-ticket legislation — he’s also poised to extract significant concessions from a Clinton White House. And all of the evidence suggests his power is only set to grow from here.
Why Democrats failed to retake the House: history, gerrymandering, poor recruitment, and a huge uphill climb
There was always little reason to believe Democrats could pull off the huge number of gains they needed.
For one, there have only been a handful of "wave elections" in modern American history in which a party wins that many seats or more — and they’re typically backlashes against an unpopular incumbent. Lyndon Johnson’s landslide reelection in 1964 is the only time since World War II that the incumbent president’s party gained as many House seats as Democrats need to secure a majority in 2016. That’s the feat Clinton and the Democrats were trying to pull off this year, and they didn’t do it.
They had a lot of factors working against them. Four of the best political science models built around the "fundamentals" in elections (things like GDP growth, the employment rate, and the president’s approval rating) all suggested Democrats were only on track to pick up between five and 15 seats. We still need to wait for the final tally to come in, but that’s more or less what looks likely to happen.
Making matters even more difficult was that the Democratic Party struggled in 2015 to recruit enough House candidates for what then looked like suicide missions. Trump’s wild unpopularity made a lot more House seats look winnable later on in the election, but Democrats were largely stuck with the candidates they had found earlier in the cycle — a beekeeper in California, an unemployed man with a checkered history of failed debt payments in New Jersey, and a Kansas commodities trader with no experience running for elected office.
All of those pale in comparison to what was the most important obstacle for Democrats: gerrymandering. Because of the extraordinarily safe seats in districts drawn by Republican-controlled state legislatures in 2010, the GOP can receive millions fewer total House votes and still win a majority of seats.
It looks like that fortress was strong enough to withstand the Trump bulldozer.
In 2017, the House GOP is probably going to be even more opposed to Democrats
It is true that there will be more Democrats in the House in 2017 than there are right now. And in a theoretical sense, that should increase their bargaining power and influence in the legislative chambers.
But what’s not clear is if the House overall will be more willing to pass the kind of legislation progressives want. If anything, there’s reason to believe that Democrats will be dealing with an even more ferociously opposed opposition party in 2017.
The results are still being counted, but the House Republicans are likely to lose today among the most moderate members of their caucus. In turn, that will only increase the relative influence of the 15 or so “Freedom Caucus” hard-liners making up the Republicans’ most conservative faction, according to Georgetown political scientist Michele Swers.
“Let’s say the GOP loses 10 seats or 15 seats — that’s just 10 or 15 more Freedom Caucus votes Ryan is going to need to get his bills passed,” said Swers, a congressional expert, in an interview in October. “And the Freedom Caucus members are in safe seats, so they won’t be the Republicans who lose.”
Perhaps the growth of the Freedom Caucus will force Ryan to negotiate with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi because he’ll need Democrats to pass bills. After all, if Ryan wants to restore the Republican Party’s standing after Trump, maybe he’ll have an incentive to be a responsible steward of government — and reject some of the high-wire acts we saw from the GOP’s extreme right flank over the past few years.
But that seems like wishful thinking for liberals. Given that the House GOP caucus is both moving right and retaining power, the prospects for progressive legislation may be scarcely less bleak in January than they are right now.
And the long-term outlook for things to get is much worse.
Democrats have no good plan for winning back the House
As difficult as the map was for Democrats this year, 2016 still represented the best chance they had at winning back the House of Representatives for at least four years — and probably more.
There are a few reasons for that, but the most obvious one is that the party that controls the White House almost always gets “shellacked” — to use President Obama’s phrase from the 2010 elections — during the midterms. In fact, the president’s party has lost House seats in all but four midterm cycles dating all the way back to the 1860s, according to Roll Call.
“The most recent anomalies happened in 2002 and 1998, thanks in large part to unique circumstances,” said Kyle Trygstad of Roll Call. “But even those midterms in the wake of dramatic events produced just single-digit gains for the president’s party.”
Democrats already have a built-in structural disadvantage in midterm years. The party does better when turnout overall is high, but voter participation falls by as much as two-thirds when there’s no presidential race. That’s one reason Democrats have lost so badly in recent congressional elections, as Princeton professor Sam Wang wrote for the American Prospect in 2014.
Then there’s the fact that midterm elections often function as referenda on the sitting president. Hillary Clinton, who is already the second-least-popular presidential nominee in history, seems likely to be a millstone around the necks of many Democratic House candidates.
“When it comes to choosing candidates for Congress, it is opinions of the president’s performance that matter,” writes Alan Abramowitz, an Emory political scientist, looking at data from the Bush years.
It’s a grim picture for the Democrats. Republicans look almost certain to make big gains in the House in 2018. The path to big progressive legislation looks narrower now than it has in years.