By Jim Ellis
April 4, 2017 — With so much talk reverberating about the Democrats’ chances of converting the vacant GA-6 seat (former Rep. Tom Price-R) in the coming April/June special election, conjecture about the party’s 2018 majority chances will soon follow.
Through a strong political effort and robust national fundraising operation that has to date produced over $4 million, Democrat Jon Ossoff has made himself a factor in Georgia but whether he actually wins the Republican seat is still far from certain.
Even if Ossoff fails but comes close in the final result, we will begin to see commentators and writers put forth the notion that Democrats could have a legitimate chance of converting the House majority in the 2018 mid-term elections. They will point to modern electoral history, which reminds us that big gains for the out party in a new president’s first mid-term election often occur. They will cite what will undoubtedly be low job approval numbers for President Trump as further support for the Democratic majority hypothesis, explaining that all of the aforementioned creates a poor political climate for Republicans.
But, the pure mathematics and political realities don’t necessarily suggest such an outcome. Right now, Republicans hold 237 House seats as compared to the Democrats’ 193 with five vacancies to be decided in special elections before the end of June. Assuming the parties hold each of the vacant seats they currently control, including the GOP retaining GA-6, the party division would return to 241R-194D, the same as when the new 115th Congress was officially installed.
With no special election upsets, Democrats will need to retain all 194 of their current seats, and then convert 24 current Republican districts to establish the minimum one-seat majority. This is, of course, a tall order, but both parties have gained considerably more in previous wave elections.
The net 24 number appears daunting when looking at the 2016 election records. Last year, only 51 winning US House candidates failed to reach 55 percent, down from the results in 55 such seats from 2014. In November’s close winners group, eight members won their elections with only a plurality. In 2014, that number was seven.
Therefore, the Democrats have only a small number of obviously vulnerable Republican incumbents to attack, which contracts to an even greater degree when removing the substantial number of Democratic under 55 percent members.
Of the 51 House members winning with less than 55 percent, a full 24 are Democrats, including four of the eight who won with just a plurality vote. This means only 27 Republican winners failed to reach 55 percent.
On the other hand, 60 additional Republicans won with margins between 55 and 60 percent, suggesting that many in this group could become 2018 Democratic conversion targets. The vulnerability factor, however, could be less than these numbers might suggest. Most from this group scored in the high 50s because such is the win-goal percentage planned for their particular district when the seat was re-drawn during the most recent redistricting. Therefore, winning with less than 60 percent may not be an under-performance, since these districts are not particularly elastic.
Obviously, it is way too early to predict with confidence how either party will perform in the 2018 election. Though political history might favor a Democratic rebound in the next election, overcoming the number of obstacles necessary to replace the Republican majority seems an improbable outcome.