When Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., announced last week that he wouldn’t seek re-election next year, it was a timely reminder not to forget about the House of Representatives in the 2020 election cycle. Woodall’s 2018 challenger, Carolyn Bourdeaux, who came within 500 votes of beating him, has already announced she will running again. Also consider Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who is finally coming under fire for his long history of overt racism, has been stripped of his committee assignments and already has a Republican primary opponent. Then there’s Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who is under indictment and whose 2018 Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, is ready for a rematch.
This article first appeared on Salon.
Altogether, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is initially targeting 33 GOP-held seats, for 2020. Chairwoman Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., has declared that “2018 was just the tip of the iceberg for Democrats,” adding, “We have a clear path to expanding our Democratic majority, and by putting our plans in motion earlier in the cycle than ever before, we are demonstrating to Democrats across the country that the political arm of House Democrats is operating in high gear from the start.”
What’s more, the DCCC pointed out, 20 of the 33 seats it’s targeting “are held by an incumbent Republican who has never served in the minority before,” making them especially likely to retire and create a more winnable open-seat race.
Pundits have largely tuned out on the House amid the early furor of the impending presidential campaign. That’s a mistake. Just as 2018 was all about the House, 2020 is expected to be all about the White House — with a secondary nod to the Senate. But a second wave election in the House could be crucial for longer-term Democratic success. And making further gains in state legislative races will be crucial to the redistricting process after the 2020 census is complete.
Back-to-back wave elections have been crucial in establishing party dominance in American history, coupled with presidential victories. That’s an insight inspired by the theory of realigning elections, but in practical terms, even Yale’s David Mayhew, whose 2002 book “Electoral Realignments” mounted the most thorough critique of realignment theory (summary here), agreed that such a wave would be a big deal.
“If the Democrats could build themselves into the 260-plus seat area again, as they have done sometimes, that would be big, with policy consequences,” Mayhew told Salon. Then came his qualification: “Whether it would be lasting downstream is another matter. Consider 1966 and 1938.”
Those are examples of single wave elections (favoring Republicans) which significantly crippled the momentum of New Deal and Great Society legislation, respectively. Yet neither disrupted Democratic control of Congress, nor did they lead to reversing signature legislation, such as Social Security or Medicare.
Democrats won 52 seats in 1930 (a 12 percent gain) and 97 seats in 1932 (22 percent), and controlled the House for most of the next six decades — until the “Contract With America” wave election of 1994. That’s the kind of long-term dominance a double wave election can bring.
In the 1850s, the newly hatched Republican Party came from nothing in 1852 to winning 37 seats in 1854, 90 in 1856 and 116 in 1858, gaining a majority it held until 1876. Then, after a brief period of relative party balance, Republicans gained 38 seats in 1892 and 110 in 1894, controlling the House until 1910 — and the White House from 1896 to 1912.
These historical examples are impressive on a large scale, but things get messier the more closely you look — especially since the term “wave” is imprecise and the size of the waves varies enormously. The 2006 and 2008 Democratic waves combined only totaled a 12.5 percent gain, about the same as the Republican wave of 1994. The “Tea Party wave” of 2010 that wiped out those Democratic gains was 14.7 percent.
And there’s at least one stark counter-example: Democrats won back-to-back wave elections in 1910 and 1912 (totaling 22.9 percent), while electing Woodrow Wilson president. But their House majority vanished by 1916, and Republicans dominated government in the 1920s. One could argue that 1912 was an outlier election — the only time a “third party” came in second, as Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” Party relegated the GOP to third place. But oddball elections come with the territory, and 2020 could be one of them.