Washington Wednesday: Midterms

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 23rd of May, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s episode of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington and this is Washington Wednesday.

2018 midterm elections are now less than six months away, and the stakes are high. Control of both chambers of Congress is up for grabs.

History suggests it will be an uphill battle for Republicans. The party in control of the White House frequently loses seats in midterm elections. And in recent decades it’s become commonplace to see one or both chambers change hands.

That began with the wave election of 1994, dubbed the “Republican Revolution.” House Speaker Dick Gephardt became the first Democrat in a generation to hand the speaker’s gavel to a Republican—Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich.

GEPHARDT: So with partnership, but with purpose, I pass this great gavel of our government. With resignation, but with resolve, I hereby end 40 years of Democratic rule of this House. 

Many saw that election as a public rebuke of the Clinton White House, leading President Bill Clinton to famously declare:

CLINTON: The era of big government is over

Twelve years later, amid an unpopular Iraq War and sinking public approval of the Bush White House, Democrats rode a midterm wave to control of both chambers.

PELOSI: I accept this gavel in the spirit of partnership, not partisanship …

Nancy Pelosi became the first woman ever to take the gavel.

PELOSI: I look forward to working with you, Mr. Boehner, and the Republicans in the Congress for the good of the American people.

But four years later, she had to hand it over. In another wave election, Republicans resoundingly reclaimed the House in 2010 and took the Senate four years later.

While the president is never on the ballot in midterms, he is on the minds of many voters. President Trump earlier this year said he realizes history is not on his party’s side.

TRUMP: But I think because of what we’ve done, because of the tremendous success we’ve had, I have a feeling we’re going to do incredibly well in ‘18.

But like his predecessor, President Trump is heading into his first midterm election underwater with the public. An average of recent polls shows 53 percent of Americans do not approve of Trump’s performance.

And since 1970, when a president is below 50 percent approval, his party has lost an average of 33 House seats in midterm elections. Democrats need only 24 to win control.

In the Senate, they only need two seats, but there are three times as many Democrats on the ballot as Republicans.

So what do the numbers tell us so far? Can the GOP keep control of Congress or will 2018 be the latest wave election, sweeping Democrats back into power?

Here with some insight on that is pollster John Couvillon with JMC Analytics, based in Louisiana.

John, considering whether a “blue wave” is ahead, one of those indicators you’ve been watching is voter registration. So you say if a wave is in store, you’d expect to see big changes in partisan voter registration—more people registering as Democrats—so you’ve been looking at that. What are you seeing?

JOHN COUVILLON, GUEST: So, in this one factor, I did not see any perceptible move to the Democrats. In fact, what I really saw the independent registration relative to the increase in Republicans or the increase in Democrats since President Trump was inaugurated, the increase in independents that really was the most noteworthy. So from that perspective, I did not see a Democratic wave when looking purely at voter registration.

So, another thing you’re looking at, John, is party enthusiasm and turnouts in the primary elections heading into last night’s election. So what have we learned there? What are we seeing?

COUVILLON: So what I’ve seen so far, and this is where I am seeing evidence of there being a Democratic wave — because you have to appreciate that in the primary season, it’s basically the partisans who show up to vote in the primaries, and my theorem is that if you have enthused partisans during primary seasons, that typically carries over into the general election in November. I certainly saw that in 2010 and ‘14. What I’ve seen thus far with the primaries is in states where you’ve had both contested Democratic and Republican primaries, I’ve seen Democratic turnout up 80 percent relative to what it was in 2014 while Republican turnout was up 10 percent. So Democrats are more enthusiastic this year.

So, John, as we look at the races right now, one thing worth noting – and you’ve mentioned this – is almost all Republicans—Republican incumbents—have a Democratic challenger. Whereas many Democrats will run in November uncontested. So what’s going on there? What’s the significance of that?

COUVILLON: Right, so, to quote the Wayne Gretzky, he once said that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. So if a party’s enthusiastic about its chances, it’s more willing to field candidates and you have candidates more willing to take a chance and run. And so filing for Congressional races has not concluded across the nation yet. But in the states where filing for congressional races has concluded, all but two Republicans have partisan opposition. Whereas about 20 percent of Democrats are escaping Republican opposition.

And just to use one example, back in 2016 and several other election cycles before that, I would typically see, just to use one example,multiple uncontested Republican seats in Texas and Florida. Well, that did not happen this year. So, in other words, the Democrats feel enthusiastic enough about their chances and/or what they think is happening demographically in these districts to where they’re fielding people. Whereas two or even four years ago, that was not the case.

Now, another thing we’ve seen in past elections that were lopsided in favor of one party or the other is that we see a lot of retirements from one party. When a particularly tough election is coming up for certain lawmakers, you’ll see them grab the parachute and jump out the back and suddenly they say it’s time to spend more time with family at that point. Right?

COUVILLON: It’s really two factors. It’s not just the prospect of a tough election, but let’s say that you’ve been through a rough election cycle where your party lost a bunch of seats and/or lost power. If the next election cycle comes along and you had a bad one that already happened, you’re much more inclined to retire because the idea is, well, I’m out of power now. There’s not much I can do. I’m hanging it up. So, what’s happening in this case, I think, is that the Democrats had a bad election year in 2014 and theoretically you would think a lot of them would retire now that they are out of power in both chambers. However, given that there’s all kinds of Democratic enthusiasm going on that’s making them competitive and/or victorious in seats where they would not have been a few years ago, all these Democrats are holding on, whereas you’re seeing more than twice the number of Republicans retiring this year.

And how does that compare, again, going back through recent history, how does the number of retirements compare to what we’ve seen in other lopsided elections?

COUVILLON: It’s a record number of Republicans. For Democrats, it’s a more normal number. In other words, what I’ve seen so far is 39 to 17 on the Republican side and that’s pretty lopsided that, number one, it is that biased for the Republicans and, number two, that’s a pretty high count for incumbents to decide not to run for election again.

We’ve seen some special elections thus far and different schools of thought on that about whether that really matters very much. Do special elections tell us anything about what might happen in November?

COUVILLON: One or two special elections in themselves do not matter. A series of special elections where you’re consistently seeing a surge in a Democratic enthusiasm, that does matter. And that’s what has happened ever since the spring of 2017 when a lot of House seats became vacant because President Trump was appointing incumbent congressmen and senators for his cabinet, which, of course, created open seats that Democrats performed far better in than they would have normally.

So, handicap for us what we’re looking at in the House. I think the last time we really took a look at this we kind of– our evaluation of it was that the House looked like something of a coin toss. Where do you see the battle for control of the House at now?

COUVILLON: I think it’s going to be very tough for Republicans. And just to illustrate to you why I think it’s tough: so, in these special elections, I’m constantly seeing the Republican congressional candidate running in the 6 to 9 point range behind Donald Trump, which means, if, say, Donald Trump got 59 percent of the vote in a district that a Republican congressional candidate’s struggling to get into the low 50s. So given that 42 House Republicans are sitting in seats where Donald Trump got less than 50 percent of the vote, I’m seeing enough evidence of this consistent drop in support to where those 42 seats immediately are imperiled in my opinion.

Okay, so what kind of odds are you laying right now for the Senate flipping?


Okay. And so in the House you feel that’s a slight edge for Democrats, significant edge for Democrats? How do you see that one?

COUVILLON: I’d say 2-1. 2-1 in favor of the Democrats taking the House.

Wow, okay. Alright, well, John, thanks very much for your time and your insight, sir. We appreciate it.

COUVILLON: Always a pleasure.

(AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel) In this May 21, 2018, photo, a roll of stickers awaiting distribution to early voters sits on a table at the check-in station at the Pulaski County Courthouse Annex in Little Rock, Ark.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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