Congressional Elections

Midterm elections

Midterm elections often provide misleading signals about the subsequent presidential election. Republicans suffered significant losses in 1982, but Ronald Reagan was re-elected two years later in one of the greatest landslides in American history. Although Newt Gingrich’s insurgency routed the Democrats in 1994, Bill Clinton won re-election in 1996 with an enhanced margin of the popular vote. The Tea Party revolt repeated the Gingrich success in 2010, but Barack Obama nonetheless won re-election comfortably, stunning Republican nominee Mitt Romney and his senior political advisors.

There is a growing phenomenon of midterm elections being dominated by a larger national agenda. Midterms, which take place in the middle of a presidential term, are increasingly being seen as a referendum on the president, with the incumbent president's party losing seats in Congress.

The mid-term electorate is also very different- tends to be older, more ideological ie more conservative or liberal and less diverse. 2010 and 2014 saw lower turnout among young, Hispanic and black voters

However, the significance of these elections has been the subject of some debate:

· 1994 Republican revolution: The Republicans swept to victory with their Contract with America, gaining 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate.

· 2002: The midterm elections were held 14 months after 9/11 and saw unusual gains for Bush's party, which picked up ten seats in total,

· 2006: On the back of the liberal 100-Hour Plan, the Democrats swept to victory by taking control of both the House and the Senate for the first time since 1994.

In this way, although midterms tend to have a lower turnout and profile than presidential elections, they are significant in shaping the national political climate, by pushing issues onto the national agenda, and also in affecting the remainder of a president's term. This was best shown by the results and effects of the 2010 midterms.


Incumbents have a significant advantage in congressional elections with re-election rates rarely falling below 90% for the House, with the Republican surge of 2010 still witnessing an 85% incumbency rate.

Reasons for incumbency advantage

· Gerrymandering: The redrawing of political boundaries to gain a political advantage has created a system whereby very few seats are competitive. Political analyst Charlie Cook's political report claims only nine House seats will be in the balance in the 2014 elections.

· Finance: Incumbents enjoy a huge funding advantage — in 2012, for example, House incumbents raised on average $1.6 million compared to just $267,000 for challengers.

· Pork barrelling: Not only do incumbents have specific name recognition, they are also able to point towards a proven track record in benefiting their constituents. Senator Thad Cochran was labelled the 'king of pork' in 2010, attaching earmarks to 240 projects worth $490 million.

Results and effects of the 2010 midterms

Referendum on Obama: The results reflected discontent over Obama's healthcare and economic stimulus, forcing him to adopt a more compromising tone. ·

Republican resurgence: The Tea Party agenda of fiscal conservatism and limited government clearly dominated the 2010 midterms, with notable victories including Marco Rubio in Florida. However, more recently this faction has been forced to compromise its position following Obama's victory and the Republican failure to secure control of the Senate in 2012. 2010 and 2012 were seen as a missed opportunities for the Republicans since they failed to get control of the Senate. One reason was the number of extreme candidates who were chosen as the result of Tea Party activism. e.g 2010 Sharon Angle failed to defeat Harry Reid or Christine O'Donnell who failed in Delaware. 2010 also marked the continued demise of the 'Blue Dogs'-conservative Democrats and so continued the polarizing trend in Congress.

Congressional elections are increasingly dominated by a national agenda. This nationalisation of the mid term election is a consequence of the increasing polarisation of US politics. The party whose candidate lost in the previous presidential election will attempt to create a referendum on the first two years of the president- either to increase or gain control of Congress. Rather than seek election as a representative of district or state the candidate in Congressional election are now in a position of opposition or support for the president. For example the 1994 Contract with America, or the 2010 Republican strategy of making the election about Obama and health care. Traditionally congressional candidates might have benefitted from the 'coat-tails effect', where they benefit from the popularity of a presidential candidate, but usually, these elections had a more local focus, with many battles taking place over local matters and the issue of pork barrel politics. However, it is still true that congressional elections are not as dominated by national politics as is the case in the UK.

Results and Effect of the 2014 midterms

Why Republicans won the Senate 2014

The Democrats finally lost the Senate making Mitch McConnell Majority leader. With both House and Senate in Republican control, Obama is clearly a 'lame duck'- however the Republicans did not have a super majority- so Democrats can defend Obama's legislation with the filibuster. Obama was unable to pass any major bills and his appointments were blocked or delayed- most notably Merrick Garland.

2014 Karl Rove and American Cross Roads 'nationalised the campaign by insisting it was referendum on Obama - he also over saw the selection of more moderate candidates.

American Crossroads Ad 2014 -links local candidate Mark Pryor to Obama

In the 2016 congressional election the Democrats hoped to regain the Senate and had an outside chance to regain the House- they did neither. In order to take the Senate back, Democrats needed to gain five seats in 2016. They fell short of this goal, only picking up two seats in the general election. The majority of vulnerable seats were held by Republican incumbents, many of whom were freshmen ( In their first term)who were swept into office in the Tea Party wave of 2010. As a result of this wave, Democrats only had 10 seats to defend in 2016, while 24 Republican incumbents were up for re-election.

The unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on February 13, 2016, placed even greater importance on the 2016 Senate elections. Confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice requires 60 votes in the Senate.

Appointment and confirmation of the replacement justice will be left to the newly elected president and Senate in 2017. This put increased pressure on both parties to win the Senate in 2016, as the chamber has the ability to confirm or deny the next president's nominees.

Although it was extremely unlikely for Democrats to retake the House, the possibility had been discussed prior to the election. In order to flip control of the chamber, the Democratic Party would have needed to pick up 30 seats.. As expected, the Republican Party easily held the chamber, losing just six seats.

The fact that 2016 was a presidential election year was expected to be a boon for Democratic candidates. In the past decade, Democrats had made gains in both chambers in presidential elections, while they had suffered losses in the midterms. Ultimately, Donald Trump's victory at the top of the ticket led to smaller gains in both chambers by the Democratic Party than initially expected.


  • Was it the Trump factor- i.e. the energising effect Trump had on white working class voters?

  • Was it the anti Hilary vote-in hindsight Hilary's unpopularity was a contributing factor to the low Democratic vote- particularly among the young.?

  • Was it a reverse Trump factor- i.e. most people expected Hilary to win so many voters felt disinclined to give her Congress as well.?


The Democratic Party gained two Senate seats in 2016, resulting in a 52-48 majority for Republicans. The two independent members of the Senate are included in the Democratic totals, as they caucus with Democrats.

The Democratic Party gained only six House seats in 2016, resulting in a 241-194 majority for the Republican Party.

There were only 21 states that featured at least one battleground race in either the House or the Senate. The rest were largely noncompetitive.

2018 Congressional Election- Mid Term Brookings Analysis The article below suggests the long term indications of the 2018 results are a changing political geography in the USA-with demographic canges opening up the south to Democrat success.

The Republican party lost control of the House as Democrats capitalised on anti-Trump anger and the retirement of a large number of incumbent Republicans. Of the 111 seats rated “competitive” by the Cook Political Report, 98 were Republican .

The Republicans increased their previous 51-49 Senate majority by two seats. The Democrats needed a net gain of two seats to take control, but were defending 26 of the 35 seats up for election including 10 in states won by Donald Trump in 2016.

Turnout in 2018 reached 49 percent, the highest for a midterm since 1966 and within two points of its all-time high in 1914. The 2018 vote was closer to a typical presidential election than to a standard midterm.

A strong midterm result usually reflects strong voter mobilization for the winning party and low enthusiasm for the loser. Here again, 2018 was different. Republican turnout rose from 40 million in 2014 to 51 million in 2018, a healthy 27 percent increase. But this growth was dwarfed by a 70 percent increase for Democrats, from 36 million to 61 million. In this way too, the strong turnout on both sides made 2018 look more like a presidential election than a midterm.

Looking forward to 2024 and 2028, a southern-tier strategy may well prove feasible, as what has been called a “coalition of transformation” (millennials, minorities, and college-educated whites) becomes strong enough to challenge the Republican grip on these traditionally red states. And this may prove to be a smart long-term strategy in the Electoral College as the population of states throughout the Sunbelt is expected to grow more rapidly than in the northern-tier states.

Looking forward to 2024 and 2028, a southern-tier strategy may well prove feasible, as what has been called a “coalition of transformation” (millennials, minorities, and college-educated whites) becomes strong enough to challenge Republican grip on these traditionally red states.

But with the 2020 presidential election less than two years away, the party’s future does not seem to be arriving fast enough.

2020 Congressional elections

Trump lost but his party did surprisingly well.

Senate Narrow Republican majority- but two special elections in Georgia could change that.

At least three seats changed partisan control in the 2020 elections, as Democrats defeated Republican incumbents in Colorado and Arizona, and the Republican candidate defeated the Democratic incumbent in Alabama. Georgia will hold run-off elections for both of its Senate seats on January 5, 2021, as Georgia law requires a run-off for Senate elections if no candidate wins a majority of the vote. Republicans would retain control of the Senate unless Democrats win both run-off elections in Georgia .

House- Democrats hang on to their majority- just.

Democrats maintained the majority they won back in 2018, but the party has lost seats as Republicans defeated incumbents in conservative-leaning districts in South Carolina, Iowa and New Mexico. Longtime Republicans also held on in Missouri, Michigan and Ohio. The results mean that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will have the smallest majority in 18 years.