Exactly a year out from the 2024 elections, the battle for control of Congress is as tight as it possibly could be and might be headed for one of the more historic outcomes ever.
Needing a net gain of just five seats to claim the majority, House Democrats are close to an even-money bet to prevail Nov. 5, 2024, according to a survey of top nonpartisan analysts, with 11 Republican seats in deep-blue California and New York among the Democrats’ top targets.
Democrats are trying to buck almost 75 years of history in which the House majority has not changed hands during a presidential election cycle.
And Senate Republicans, needing a two-seat gain for a full majority, enter 2024 without a single seat of their own in jeopardy, so far, as Democrats defend three seats in states Donald Trump won easily in 2020 and four others the ex-president lost narrowly.
All this turmoil has created the possibility of a historic anomaly that would befit the incredibly volatile political climate of the past three decades: Never before have the House and Senate majorities switched hands in the same election with a different party taking over in each chamber.
Amy Walter, the editor of the Cook Political Report, labeled this the era of “both incredible stability and volatility all at once.” So many voters reflexively support their political team that neither party can gain much of an edge, but these majorities are changing hands at a historically unusual pace.
The House has flipped five times since the 1994 elections, the Senate six times.
The post-World War II era of Congress had a similar but brief period of flip-flopping majorities. But the 1954 elections started a 40-year run in which the House remained Democratic and the Senate majority changed just twice.
As Nathan Gonzales, the editor of the nonpartisan Inside Elections, noted, the result is that both chambers are locked into such close ranges that predicting majorities is like a roll of the dice.
Even the outcome of the presidential race, with a rematch of Trump against President Biden appearing likely, could produce strange down-ballot effects because of the differing political territory each party is targeting.
“Republicans can win the Senate by simply winning states that Trump could win in a presidential loss. And Democrats can win the House by winning districts Biden could win in a presidential loss,” Gonzales said.
Think about that: A narrow Trump win in the electoral college could give the GOP a Senate majority, but could come with Republicans losing the House, while a narrow Biden win probably would help Democrats reclaim the House but not do enough to help them hold the Senate.
Recent political events that have dominated the news cycle — such as the Israel-Gaza war or the three-week-plus shutdown of the House during the GOP’s speaker melodrama — might not have any impact a year from now on the small percentage of undecided voters in those few House districts and Senate races that will determine the outcomes.
“Things that would have had huge consequences back in the 1990s — impeachment, House speaker chaos, a January 6th type of event — only move things slightly on the margins,” Walter said.
In eight of the last 17 presidential campaigns, the victor helped his party down ballot but not enough to deliver a House majority. In two other races — 2000 and 2016 — the Democratic nominee won the popular vote while losing in the electoral count, helping gain a few seats, but the GOP majority held on in the House. (The other presidential contests ended with a winner whose party already held the House and retained control.)
Recent midterm elections have brought political upheaval: Five of the last eight resulted in the House majority changing hands.
But the coming House elections are considered a toss-up, the best chance the minority has had to win the chamber in a presidential year since 1952, when the House GOP swept to the majority after Dwight D. Eisenhower’s landslide victory for the White House.
Gonzales’s Inside Elections rates 16 GOP seats in its most competitive range, either pure “toss-up” or a “tilt” toward the Republicans. Just 10 Democratic seats fall into those categories. The Cook Political Report has a similar range, with 15 GOP seats and nine Democratic in the most competitive range.
Dave Wasserman, a senior editor and analyst with the Cook Political Report, laid out some stark numbers for House Republicans in an essay published Wednesday:
18 Republicans hold seats in districts that favored Biden in 2020.11 of those are in California and New York, deeply Democratic states that expect much better liberal turnout in a presidential election.A majority of those endangered Republicans are freshmen, with less brand durability built up on the basis of their voters.Democrats are defending just five seats in districts won by Trump.
By some estimates, House Republicans whiffed on eight seats last year because of far-right candidates who were out of touch with most voters.
Wasserman credited House GOP leaders with an early focus on raising money directly into their incumbents’ campaign coffers, putting less focus on donations to the National Republican Congressional Committee. That approach has produced a median cash on hand of $1.4 million for endangered Republicans, as of Oct. 1, more than triple the cash-on-hand median for their Democratic challengers, according to Wasserman’s analysis.
This is a new focus for Republicans, who have spent the past several elections relying on a dozen or two megadonors who give seven- and eight-figure checks to their super PACs, the con Leadership Fund and the Senate Leadership Fund, trying to offset the overwhelming fundraising edge that Democrats have with individual, small-dollar donors.
Inside Elections and the Cook Political Report are awaiting the resolution of legal disputes about the redrawing of congressional district maps, along with better information about some potential retirements, before getting into detailed overall predictions about the House. Republicans are poised to gain several seats in North Carolina, barring the outcome of lawsuits, but Democrats should pick up a few seats from newly drawn districts in the Deep South to meet a Supreme Court ruling to uphold the Voting Rights Act.
A potential new map in New York state could give Democrats the overall edge, very slightly, in this bout of redistricting.
“Developments that used to seem like drops in the bucket — a court striking down a redistricting map here, a retirement or special election there — have taken on outsize importance,” Wasserman wrote.
In the Senate, currently 51-49 in favor of the Democrats, the biggest wild card, just as in the House races, isn’t likely to be the national political environment.
It’s the looming decision of Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who is considered the only Democrat who could possibly win in that deeply conservative state.
Should Manchin, 76, retire, Republicans should easily win that seat and Democrats would be forced to win every other competitive race and retain the White House to maintain control of the Senate.
The majority in a 50-50 Senate will be determined by whoever holds the vice president’s tiebreaking vote in 2025, as was the case in 2021-2022 with Democrats and Vice President Harris.
The Trump effect remains a key concern for Senate Republicans, after they saw poor candidates closely aligned with the ex-president lose four 2022 races that should have been a coin flip, at least.
The GOP believes Dave McCormick, the runner-up in the 2022 U.S. Senate primary in Pennsylvania, and Tim Sheehy, an aerospace chief executive in Montana, are those types of candidates — and both are super rich and can self-finance their races.
But in Arizona, Trump-fixated Kari Lake is the front-runner, and in Ohio, a multicandidate field has emerged with the top contenders trying to run to the right.
Charlie Cook, the unofficial godfather of American political analysts and the founder of the Cook Political Report four decades ago, believes Trump, not abortion rights, played the biggest role in saving Democrats from big losses in the 2022 midterms.
From the 2018 midterms to 2022, Democrats’ vote total dropped from about 61 million to 51 million in all 435 races for the House, Cook Political Report estimated, with Republicans going from 51 million to 54 million.
The 2018 races provided extraordinary liberal anti-Trump energy, except in deeply conservative states, which helped Senate Republicans gain two seats as Democrats picked up more than 40 and won the House majority.
In the 2022 midterms, more-mainstream Republicans held up just fine, or won big, in congressional and gubernatorial races. If Trump is on the ballot again, his presence should energize those voters in conservative states such as Montana but also energize liberal voters on the coasts.
That could help shift the Senate to Republicans and the House to Democrats.
“I don’t think,” Cook said, “the two chambers flipping in opposite directions is so crazy at all.”