So that happened.
Unless you were abroad the past week, you probably know by now that the Republicans gave the Democrats a painful shellacking in the 2014 midterm elections. In addition to gaining (probably) nine Senate seats on Tuesday, the GOP stole three more governorships, and added at least thirteen House seats to their already sizable majority. Working as a Democratic Party staffer in Maine, these election results made me want to curl up in a dark room for the next two years and dream of 2016’s young, diversity-infused electorate. A few days later (2016 is a long way away) I woke up wondering just how much of a set-back 2014 was for my party. I researched the question, and what I found made me want to try to whole “two years of sleep” thing again.
Here’s what we know so far: the Democrats lost at least eight Senate seats on Tuesday (probably nine after a December 9 runoff in Louisiana), no less than thirteen House seats, and three Governorships. Those numbers might not sound awful, but they were an unpleasant surprise to Democrats on Tuesday. Sites such as FiveThirtyEight and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball predicted we would lose only about seven Senate seats, nine House seats, and gain one to three Governorships. This slight departure from expectations made November 4th feel worse for Democrats than it actually was. But the reality was still horrifying. The loss of nine Senate seats was the heaviest defeat Senate Democrats have suffered since 1980 and represents 16 percent of their total Senate caucus. In contrast, the thirteen House seats may not seem like much, especially when you think back to the bloodbaths of 2010 and 1992 (years in which the GOP gained 63 and 54 House seats, respectively). But unlike in 2010 and 1992, the Democrats did not have a House majority to begin with. The loss of each of those thirteen seats, then, puts House Democrats in their weakest position in years.
As I hinted above, the Democrats’ despair cannot be measured in lost seats alone: we also have account for their new general position in the House and Senate. In the Senate, there have only been six years between 1949 and 2014 when the Democrats had fewer seats than they will have now. The Democrats averaged 53.7 Senate seats during that period, with a standard deviation of about 6.8 seats. Assuming their seat counts are relatively normally distributed, this year’s 46 seats put the Democrats in the 10th percentile of their seat counts over the last 65 years. Suffice to say, the Democrats are in poor shape in the Senate. However, with 46 seats, they can still easily raise the 40 votes necessary to filibuster most legislation they oppose.
House Democrats, though, benefit from no such mechanism. According to Politico, House Democrats will retain at best 188 seats, and at worst 185 seats. The Democrats have held as few as 188 seats only once since World War II, and they have not held less than that since Herbert Hoover was in office. If they wind up with 185 seats, the Republicans will only need to peel off 41 Democratic representatives to muster the two-thirds they need to override a veto. This could be significant on issues where certain Democratic Representatives and Senators lean right, such as construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Finally, between the House and Senate, the Democrats will have no more than 235 members of Congress. That total represents the lowest number of congressional Democrats since 1949. This is what net loss totals miss: the degree to which Democratic power has waned in Congress.
Meaning for the Democratic Party’s Future
Even before the election, columnists of all stripes dismissed the importance of the impending Republican takeover. They argued that the 114th Congress would be mired in gridlock regardless of who won the Senate, and even suggested that a Republican Senate majority might help the Democrats in 2016. After all, they reasoned, the failure of a Republican-controlled Senate to accomplish anything would tar incumbents with the stigma of being “do-nothings.”
I agree that Congress is unlikely to pass landmark legislation in the next two years, and it is entirely possible this could hurt Congressional Republicans in 2016. However, I also think the damage done to the Democrats by the 2014 elections far outweighs any long-term benefit. The Democrats now trail the Republicans by eight Senate seats, meaning that they need to flip at least four to regain the majority in 2016. Some undits have suggested this is probable given the 2016 Senate map, but I disagree. The Republicans will be defending the vulnerable seats of Kelly Ayotte (NH), Mark Kirk (IL), Pat Toomey (PA), Richard Burr (NC), Ron Johnson (WI), Marco Rubio (FL), and Roy Blunt (MO). With the possible exceptions of Kirk and Toomey, all of these candidates will start out as favorites in 2016, and the Republicans will also get shots at relatively unpopular incumbents Harry Reid (D-NV) and Michael Bennet (D-CO). Aside from Kirk, the Democrats also will not have the advantage of targeting incumbents in solidly blue states. One reason the Republicans were so successful this year is that they could challenge sitting Democratic senators in a whopping six bright red states. The states on the map for Democrats in 2016 are traditionally swing states in Presidential elections, rather than those of the deep blue variety. This suggests a difficult fight, at best, for the Democratic Party in 2016.
In 2018, the Senate map will again swing towards the Republicans. During those midterms, Republicans can attack red state Democrats Joe Donnelly (IN), Claire McCaskill (MO), John Tester (MT), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), and Joe Manchin (WV). They will also be able to challenge swing-state Senators Tim Kaine (VA), Bob Casey (PA), and Bill Nelson (FL). Given the Republican gains in 2014 and the tepid 2016 map for the Democrats, 2018 may secure long-term Republican control of the Senate.
The Democratic prospects of retaking the House in the near future were dismal long before the 2014 midterms interceded. However, November 4 did the party no favors in that regard. Veteran Democrats Nick Rahall of West Virginia and John Barrow of Georgia lost in conservative districts, further reducing House Democrats meager presence in the South and Appalachia. The depletion of the Democratic minority to around 188 seats means the party must pick up at least 30 seats to regain the majority. Given the difficulty of winning any new seats due to Republican gerrymandering, House Democrats may be facing years in the minority.
The 2014 midterms were more than just a hard night for Democrats. They put the party in a historically difficult position, and threaten to consign it to minority status in Congress for years to come. With a conservative majority intact in the Supreme Court, the Democrats need to prevail in both the 2016 and 2020 Presidential elections to avoid a complete loss of power. On that note, I’m going back to sleep. Wake me in 2024.
Brett Parker, a sophomore studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.