Control of the Congress: 2006 Electoral Math

Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza get page one of today’s WaPo for the startling news flash that a “Handful of Races May Tip Control of Congress.” Considering that the Republicans have only a 13 seat majority in the House and a five seat majority in the Senate, it took Woodward and Burnstein-like sleuthing to come up with that.

Not since 1994 has the party in power — in this case the Republicans — faced such a discouraging landscape in a midterm election. President Bush is weaker than he was just a year ago, a majority of voters in recent polls have signaled their desire for a change in direction, and Democrats outpoll Republicans on which party voters think is more capable of handling the country’s biggest problems.

The result is a midterm already headed toward what appears to be an inevitable conclusion: Democrats are poised to gain seats in the House and in the Senate for the first time since 2000. The difference between modest gains (a few seats in the Senate and fewer than 10 in the House) and significant gains (half a dozen in the Senate and well more than a dozen in the House) is where the battle for control of Congress will be fought.

Some fine journalism right there, folks. I smell Pulitizer. But not, however, a Nobel for mathematics:

The contest begins with Republicans holding 231 House seats and Democrats holding 201, with one Democrat-leaning independent and two vacancies, split between the parties. Democrats need to gain 15 seats to dethrone the GOP majority. In the Senate, Republicans hold 55 seats to the Democrats’ 44, with one Democrat-leaning independent. Democrats need six more seats to take power.

Let’s see: There are 435 seats. Divide by two . . . 217.5. Single member districts mean no half Republican/half Democrat seats. So, 218 would be a majority. So, 231 minus 218 is 13. Or 218 minus 201 is 17. So, the Republicans can lose no more than 13 seats and the Democrats must gain at least 17.

Those are small numbers, yes? But, as they correctly note, much more daunting than they’d seem.

History dictates a certain modesty about predictions. Early in 1994, few foresaw the size of the Republican landslide-in-the-making. By November, the anti-incumbent mood overwhelmed even well-prepared candidates. If the public mood deteriorates further this year, Republicans could be swamped; if not, the GOP could be adequately equipped to wage trench warfare state by state and district by district and leave Washington’s current balance of power intact.

At this point, the biggest challenge facing the Democrats is the narrow size of the battlefield. To win control of the House or Senate, Democrats must either capture the overwhelming percentage of genuinely competitive contests or find a way to put more races “in play” than is the case now.

Redistricting after the 2000 census left most House districts safely in the hands of one party or another. In 2004, just 32 districts were won with less than 55 percent of the vote — giving incumbents a grip on power, said Rhodes Cook, an independent analyst.

Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist and former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the odds strongly favor gains by the Democrats but not necessarily Democratic takeovers. “From almost every standpoint — the national political environment, the state political environments, recruiting, retention, fundraising — Democratic candidates are in exceedingly strong shape,” he said. “Because of the map, a flip in either chamber is significantly harder, but you can certainly see how it’s done.”

Sure–it’s done by winning virtually all of the close contests. But, then, you already knew that. The bottom line is that the Republicans have to remain the odds-on favorites to keep the House.

The Senate, however, is another matter. It always is. Because there is no gerrymandering, there are always governors and congressmen with name recognition primed to run, and plenty of national money, there are always a lot of very competitive Senate contests. Balz and Cillizza detail this year’s case-by-case. Several seats will change parties. It is way too early to tell what the final tally will be, however.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2006, Congress, Environment, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Herb says:

    The Democrats in control of the Senate?

    Thats all we need, a few more TV grandstanding liberal extremists and the whole country, our hard fighting, dedicated, troops in harms way, will go by the wayside in favor of higher taxes, more socialism, and a nation under siege from terrorists who are in love with, and support the democrats.

    Wasn’t it Lincoln who said, “A nation devided, cannot stand”. The Democrats have worked hard to keep this nation devided and have had some success, however, when it comes to fighting terror, they have lost the war. Everyone had best do a little thinking before voting for a democrat. The Future existance of our country is at stake.

  2. melvin toast says:

    Even Godel never won the Nobel price in Mathematics.
    The Nobel committee has never awarded a price for Math.

  3. Paul says:

    That math is ok, you just need to follow the logic.

    “The contest begins with Republicans holding 231 House seats and Democrats holding 201, with one Democrat-leaning independent and two vacancies, split between the parties. Democrats need to gain 15 seats to dethrone the GOP majority.”

    201 existing Dems + 1 Dem leaning Indy + the assumption of 1 vacant seat = 203

    203 + 15 = 218.

    You are both saying 17, they are just assuming 2 are aready in the can.

  4. I agree with your statement: “The bottom line is that the Republicans have to remain the odds-on favorites to keep the House.” However, if you do the race-by-race analysis for the Senate, you will come to a similar conclusion.

    As I’ve said on my blog, barring some major realignment, the Republicans look pretty formidable in 2006, despite the fact that Democrats should gain seats in both the Senate and House. It is a mid-term election, after all.