House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, the most inept congressional leader of the modern age, is struggling to pull together enough assurances from members of the House Republican Caucus to secure his election as speaker of the House in January. He may get the votes he needs, but the fact that he does not have them yet offers a measure of just how miserable the next two years will be for McCarthy and his partisan allies.
But McCarthy’s Republicans do have the majority—a 222-213 advantage that was secured by flipping nine seats previously held by Democrats.
It didn’t have to end this way. Yes, Republicans had significant advantages, not least the fact that opposition parties traditionally make substantial gains in a new president’s first midterm election. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats could have kept control of the House had they fought an offensive campaign instead of a defensive one. Instead of developing a coherent message, and a strategy that focused on getting financial and strategic resources to potentially competitive districts, Democrats ran a cautious strategy. They focused on reelecting incumbents and holding reliable seats rather than claiming new ground in rural swing districts. And it hurt.
We know this because Democrats did not lose the House by a lot. They lost by a little.
An analysis from the nonpartisan newsletter Inside Elections found that “in the five closest GOP wins in the country, the victorious Republican candidates outpaced their Democratic opponents by a combined 6,670 votes.” In other words, had a relative handful of votes shifted in a relative handful of districts, Democrats could have held the House.
It is not wishful thinking on the part of Democrats—particularly progressive Democrats who have long argued that the party must develop a more focused and functional strategy for turning out base voters in winnable districts—to suggest that the election could have turned out differently. The Inside Elections analysis, which was based on December 7 data from The Cook Political Report, spoke of multiple “missed opportunities for national Democrats.” Those missed opportunities included races where party leaders, such as defeated Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), failed to move money into districts that turned out to be winnable.
I’ve written previously about rural contests where Democratic congressional nominees received little or no support from the DCCC and political action committees aligned with the party. In a number of cases, these Democrats achieved dramatically stronger finishes than had been expected. One of the most compelling examples came in western Wisconsin’s Third Congressional District, where Democrat Brad Pfaff lost by a 52-48 margin among the 312,286 votes cast. After the votes were counted, Anthony Chergosky, a political science professor at the University of La Crosse, which is located in the district, wrote that “plenty of Democrats are going to be furious at the party organizations and affiliated PACs for not giving Brad Pfaff some help in this one.”
As it turns out, there were many closer contests where Democrats got beat. “The GOP came just 22,378 votes away from failing to net any seats at all. That’s the combined raw vote margin of Republicans’ nine closest victories,” the Inside Elections analysis noted.
That’s a compelling number.
Here are some other compelling numbers. In the 2018 midterm election, when Democrats won 41 seats and took control of the House, the total turnout nationwide was 113,412,989—a major increase from the miserable 2014 midterm election, when barely 78,000,000 Americans voted.
In 2022, the overall turnout fell by 5,835,851 from four years earlier to 107,577,138. That’s about 13,400 votes per congressional district nationwide.
All those votes may not have gone to Democratic candidates, but the numbers confirm that the drop-off from 2018 to 2022 was disproportionately damaging to Democrats. While Democrats outperformed in 2022 sufficiently to avoid the worst effects of the historic midterm falloff phenomenon, the party’s overall vote total in 2022 was down by roughly 9.1 million from 2018. On the other hand, the Republicans saw their vote total rise by roughly 3.6 million from 2018 to 2022.
If Democrats had been able to mobilize their voters as effectively in 2022 as they did in 2018, or if they had simply averted a larger proportion of the drop-off, their chances of keeping the House would have dramatically improved. That’s not something that can be undone in 2022. But it is something Democrats should be thinking about as they advance toward the presidential and congressional elections of 2024 and the midterm congressional elections of 2026.