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President Barack Obama’s second inauguration this week marks the beginning of another midterm election cycle, a period that has proved to be historically unkind to the party in the White House.
In 2014, Democrats can lose no more than five seats to keep their hold on the Senate and must net 17 additional seats to win the House majority. If congressional history is any guide, the latter is highly unlikely.
Still, the outcome next November will be the result of the atmospherics, which are impossible to predict at this early point in the cycle, and, in the case of the House, the most recent round of redistricting, which has left relatively few House districts up for grabs this cycle.
“I just think it will be tough for Democrats, historically, and with the lack of competitive seats,” said former Virginia Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee in the 2000 and 2002 cycles. “But, in this business, rules are being rewritten all the time.”
While it’s often assumed that a president’s second midterm — commonly referred to as the “six-year itch” — is the most difficult, the president’s party usually has found little success in midterms no matter what term the commander-in-chief was in.
The last two midterm cycles produced big wave elections for the party out of power in the White House. Democrats lost 63 House seats and seven Senate seats in 2010, during Obama’s first midterm, and Republicans lost 30 House seats and six Senate seats in 2006, during President George W. Bush’s second midterm.
In fact, the president’s party lost House seats in all but four midterm cycles dating back to the Civil War. The most recent anomalies happened in 2002 and 1998, thanks in large part to unique circumstances. But even those midterms in the wake of dramatic events produced just single-digit gains for the president’s party.
Republicans added seats in both the House and Senate in Bush’s first midterm in 2002, a year after the 9/11 attacks. Democrats gained only a handful of seats in the House in 1998, President Bill Clinton’s second midterm, just as House Republicans were pushing for impeachment.
“We had a really good group of candidates, who worked very hard, and also the Republicans made some outrageous mistakes, which was helpful,” said former Texas Rep. Martin Frost, who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1996 and 1998 cycles. “The conventional wisdom was that we had no chance at all to pick up seats in the sixth year, and we fooled them.”