The Midterm Storm Clouds Are Gathering For The GOP

With just over six months to go before the 2018 elections, the storm clouds are starting to gather for the Republican Party.

David Wasserman’s latest assessment of the midterm elections for the Cook Political Report should have Republicans shaking in their political boots:

Multiple indicators, including generic ballot polls , President Trump’s approval ratings and recent special election results, point to midterm danger for Republicans. But without robust race-by-race polling, it’s trickier to predict individual races six months out. Are Democrats the favorites to pick up the 23 seats they need for a majority? Yes, but it’s still not certain which races will materialize for Democrats and which won’t.

Our latest ratings point to 56 vulnerable GOP-held seats, versus six vulnerable Democratic seats. Of the 56 GOP seats at risk, 15 are open seats created by retirements. Even if Democrats were to pick up two-thirds of those seats, they would still need to hold all their own seats and defeat 13 Republican incumbents to reach the magic number of 218. Today, there are 18 GOP incumbents in our Toss Up column.

That Toss Up list is likely to grow as the cycle progresses. Out of the 65 GOP incumbents rated as less than “Solid,” 49 were first elected in 2010 or after, meaning more than three quarters have never had to face this kind of political climate before. And, Democrats have a donor enthusiasm edge: in the first quarter of 2018, at least 43 sitting Republicans were out-raised by at least one Democratic opponent.

In 2010, House Democrats suffered a backlash against their votes for two polarizing pieces of legislation: cap and trade (which died in the Senate) and the Affordable Care Act (which passed). 2018 may be a mirror image: House Republicans must defend their votes for the AHCA (which polled far worse than Obamacare and died in the Senate) and the tax bill. A new Gallup poll found voters still disapprove of the tax bill, 52 percent to 39 percent, four months after passage.

Wasserman’s full analysis is at the link and utilizes both the numbers noted above and data from the Federal Election Commission and other data to identify a series of risk factors to determine just how vulnerable a particular seat may be to being flipped. From this, they have derived a list of seven risk factors for each seat. At present, there are at least 56 seats held by Republicans that are subject to at least three of those risk factors and many that are subject to many more risk factors, as this chart from the report demonstrates:

As you can see from the map, the list of vulnerable Republican House seats is quite large and stretches from one corner of the country to another. Perhaps the most notable state impacted by these numbers and the general public sentiment is in California, where virtually every Republican member of the state’s Congressional delegation is vulnerable. The same is true of New York, which has already seen the Republican membership of its delegation decimated in recent years thanks to population shifts and the loss of Congressional seats after the 2010 Census. Even outside these blue states, though, Republican Members of Congress in red states are finding themselves facing political headwinds in a political year that already isn’t boding well for them. The same problem appears to be developing for Republicans in states that President Trump won in 2016 such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. While it’s unlikely that all 56 of these Republicans will lose their re-election bids, or that Republicans will lose in the open seats that are also represented in this map, the fact that so many seats are vulnerable and that the list is likely to expand in the months to come is not good news for the GOP.

In addition to the Cook Report’s analysis, veteran Republican strategist Alex Castellanos is projecting that the party stands to lose 40 to 50 seats in the House of Representatives in November and Gallup is finding in its polls that anti-incumbent sentiment is at levels similar to those that existed at this point in 2010 and 2014, both of which were years in which Republicans managed to defeat incumbent Democrats in both the House and the Senate:

U.S. voters are about twice as likely to say their U.S. House representative deserves re-election (51%) as they are to say most members of Congress do (26%). These readings are similar to voters’ opinions just days before the 2014 midterm elections and remain among the worst for incumbents dating back to 1994.


In 2010, Democratic voters were more than twice as likely as Republicans to say most incumbents in Congress deserved re-election, and the Republicans recaptured the House. The opposite was true in 2006, when twice as many Republicans as Democrats said most incumbents deserved to serve another term. That year, Democrats regained control of both houses of Congress.

n general, re-election rates of incumbent members of Congress are high, but there are fluctuations in how high. For the five midterms before 2014, in years when voters were less likely to say incumbents deserved to serve another term, the incumbent re-election rate in the U.S. House of Representatives was lower. The converse has also been true: when U.S. voters were more positive toward incumbents, incumbent re-election rates were higher.

Yet the 2014 election did not follow the same pattern as the five previous midterms. In 2014, just days before voters went to the polls, less than one-quarter said most members of Congress deserved to serve another term. This was the lowest reading dating back to 1994. Historically, the expectation would have been for fewer incumbents to be re-elected, but 95% were. Republicans were able to build on the large gains they had made in 2010 and take advantage of President Barack Obama’s flagging approval. And voter turnout in 2014 was the lowest since 1942.

Aside from 2014, in the years when the public was least likely to say incumbents deserved re-election — 1994, 2006 and 2010 — the opposition party gained control of the House.

Assuming the 2014 election was an outlier, the 2018 election is so far looking like the midterm elections of 1994, 2006 and 2010. Conditions in the U.S. are now similar to those years, with an unpopular president in office and his own party controlling both houses of Congress. These factors, along with a lower percentage of voters saying incumbents deserve re-election, could indicate that a wave election is brewing.

Earlier this week, I noted that the Generic Congressional Ballot was showing a narrowing of the gap between Republicans and Democrats, but that the enthusiasm appears to remain on the Democratic side of the aisle. Polling that has been released since then shows similar numbers. The new Economist/YouGov poll, for example, gives Democrats a five-point advantage in the Generic Ballot, as does the most recent poll from National Public Radio and Marist College. The newest Reuters/IPSOS poll, meanwhile, puts the Democratic advantage on the Generic Ballot at ten points, which suggests a bounce back from the recent narrowing but which could also be an outlier. All of this leaves Democrats with a 5.5 point advantage in the RealClearPolitics average, The Pollster average, meanwhile, gives Democrats a 6.9 point average, and the FiveThirtyEight average gives Democrats a 6.9 point average. Additionally, polling has shown that tax reform, which Republicans had hoped would be the issue that saves them in the upcoming election, is quickly fading from public consciousness, something that Republicans are now blaming President Trump for. Whoever is to blame, though, it seems clear that the political winds are blowing in a very specific direction, and it’s not one that should make the GOP feel very good about their prospects in November.

FILED UNDER: 2018 Election, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. EddieInCA says:

    The slow death of GOP economics is finally coming. With teachers striking in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arizona and West Virginia, the reality of what never-ending Tax Cuts mean to actual governing is forcing people to re-think their former positions.

    Voting for God, Guns, and against Gays and Abortion, doesn’t help you put food on the table or get a better job or education. I’d love to see the Dems fully embrace higher business taxes, a higher income tax for those making more tan $5M per year, and I’d love to see investment income taxes as personal income.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    I imagine we still have another handful of GOP House retirements. Dana Rohrabacher for example, is 70 years old and up to his balls in scandal. If he’s going to bank some pay-offs he needs to get while he can.

    I don’t like to count chickens, and I distrust all projections involving human behavior, but it looks good. If we take the House, the Trump administration is over as a political force and we’ll have two years of complete paralysis as Trump fights Mueller and Avenatti and the SDNY and the DNC’s lawyers. And the various other women who will come forward. And in due time lawsuits alleging unfair practices propping up Trump’s crumbling ’empire.’ And likely some state of New York charges against Don Jr. and Jared and Ivanka. At some point Putin will overreach again – as with the London assassination attempt – and of course we’ll get still more Trump meltdowns and madness.

    Pardon, Resign, Flee.

    Or try for a negotiated deal that would involve resignation in exchange for no prosecution. But I suspect it’s too late for that. There is no winning move for Trump, not a Trump with a discouraged 40%.

  3. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds:
    With respect to Trump and a negotiated deal: Maggie Haberman tweeted earlier, in response to a query from Preet Bharara this afternoon, that Trump has been frightened “for years” of Roger Stone. (I was mistaken when I speculated on another thread that Stone was the “drunk/drugged up loser” to whom Trump was referring in his rage-tweet about Maggie Haberman’s article; it was Sam Nunberg.) This just adds another onion to the stew, or two onions: Stone is named in the DNC lawsuit. And, clearly, if Trump is scared of him, he can turn on Trump. An he may know worse stuff than Cohen.

  4. michael reynolds says:

    It’s amazing. Tony Soprano is elected president and it doesn’t occur to him that his little fishing trip with Big Pussy is gonna come out. Silvio won’t stand up, Ton’, he’s gonna flip and relocate to Lillehammer.

  5. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Yes; I think he assumed that the omerta that was rigidly observed within his family-run enterprise would continue when he moved into the White House–another indication of how deeply stupid and militantly ignorant of politics he is.

  6. Todd says:

    @michael reynolds: I’m still kind of cautious about these projections too. The Democrats (in general) are just so bad at politics, it’s hard not to expect that they’ll do something to screw this up. Perhaps though, this year the GOP is just so much worse that it won’t really matter what the Democrats do. One can hope.

  7. Mister Bluster says:

    how deeply stupid and militantly ignorant of politics he is.

    But he’s not a politican, he’s a successful businessman! That’s why the Bozos voted for him!
    Not to mention he pandered to american Nazis and racist KKK.
    His voters don’t just believe him when he said he could shoot somebody dead in the middle of Gotham and get away with it.
    The bastards want him to do it.

    Or give them approval to do it.

  8. al-Ameda says:

    @michael reynolds:

    @michael reynolds: I’m still kind of cautious about these projections too. The Democrats (in general) are just so bad at politics, it’s hard not to expect that they’ll do something to screw this up. Perhaps though, this year the GOP is just so much worse that it won’t really matter what the Democrats do. One can hope.

    The midterm election is about 7 months out – that’s 49 in dog years right?
    So much can happen between now and then – I’m keeping my expectations low, almost low as Trump’s character.

  9. Kylopod says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It’s amazing. Tony Soprano is elected president and it doesn’t occur to him that his little fishing trip with Big Pussy is gonna come out. Silvio won’t stand up, Ton’, he’s gonna flip and relocate to Lillehammer.

    As I mentioned in my discussion with de stijl on the other thread, the problem with Sopranos comparisons (and Godfather comparisons, and comparisons with just about any of the classic mob films) is that the characters are too smart. Tony Soprano is brilliant. Not book-smart, but intensely clever, a guy who knows instinctively how to manipulate people like pawns in chess. As Artie Bucco tells him, “You can see twenty moves down the road…. It’s like an instinct, like a hawk sees a little mouse moving around a corn field from a mile up.”

    That’s why I keep invoking the Coen Brothers, especially the movie Fargo, a highly intelligent movie about absolutely idiotic criminals carrying out one of the most inept and badly executed crimes ever seen in a film that isn’t strictly a comedy (but is often quite funny). As I’ve said, if there’s ever going to be a movie about the Trump saga, the Coens would be the perfect choice to direct it (and John Goodman wouldn’t be a bad choice to play Trump).

  10. Charon says:


    The Hoarse Whisperer calls this “Stupid Watergate.” Which seems about right, Watergate by stupid people. Instead of Hunt and McCord and Colson we have Uday and Ivanka and Jared. Instead of John Mitchell we have Michael Cohen as the legal talent. Etc.

  11. Kylopod says:

    @Charon: I thought John Oliver had coined the phrase, but no matter who came up with it first, I’m hearing it everywhere, and it fits.

  12. george says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    95% of his votes came from people who always vote GOP, because that’s their team. The same is true for Democrats, 95% of their vote is also absolutely secure. Its a team sport for them, you cheer for your team, even if the quarterback is a criminal asshole, because they are your team. I’d bet that most of that 95% of Trump supporters couldn’t tell you a single thing he said other than vaguely remembering “You’re fired!” from his reality show. Seriously, there’s no point over-analyzing why these people voted for Trump, they simply voted the way they always have – its a habit, no different than the kind of food you eat or the TV shows you watch.

    Only 10% of the people who bother voting (40% don’t bother) are ever in play. And it was hard for Clinton to get them, largely because its very difficult for a party to hold the Presidency three terms in a row, but also because a perfect storm of little things cost her 80,000 votes in a few key states. So instead many of them went either Libertarian (they were mainly potential GOP voters, so its good the Libertarians ran) or Green (Stein’s voters were never going to vote for Trump, and might have given Clinton the victory if Stein wasn’t there, though many probably simply wouldn’t have voted at all).

    Most people vote their whole lives the way they first voted. The stats on this are very clear. So the trick is to get young adults to vote Democrat, they’ll continue doing so for the next few decades. Wonks think that Trump should have been a game changer in this regard are spending too much time talking to other wonks. Most people simply find all politics mind numbingly boring, and automatically shut it out. All the excitement, protests, and internet activity comes from a couple million people – which seems like a lot until you realize there are 200 million potential voters in America.