Republicans should disband if they don’t win back the House in 2022

History, redistricting set expectations sky-high for party

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, here with fellow Republicans at a news conference in December, says he would “bet my house” on his party winning back the chamber in the midterms.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, here with fellow Republicans at a news conference in December, says he would “bet my house” on his party winning back the chamber in the midterms. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 5, 2021 at 6:00am

ANALYSIS — Failure, disappointment and embarrassment. Those three feelings should come to mind for Republicans if they don’t win the House majority in 2022. 

Democrats have their narrowest majority in more than a generation, and Republicans have redistricting and history on their side in the midterm elections. There’s really no excuse for the GOP if it can’t pull this off. 

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is certainly optimistic. 

“We’re going to get the majority back. … I would bet my house,” he proclaimed at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year. 

More recently, David Brody of Real America’s Voice asked McCarthy how confident he was, on a scale of 1  to 10, that Republicans would be in the majority in the next Congress. “Majorities are not given, they’re earned,” he said. “But I believe in a 10. We’re going to do it.”

Simple math is fueling the GOP excitement. 

Republicans need a net gain of five seats to get to the magic 218. 

The president’s party has lost 30 seats, on average, over the past 25 midterm elections. And according to post-apportionment analysis from The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman, Republicans could gain up to eight seats through redistricting alone.

30-seat cushion?

If that happens, simple back-of-the-napkin calculations point to a Republican majority with 30 or so seats to spare. 

That’s a lot of wiggle room for potential candidate flameouts, message problems or tepid fundraising. Republicans have figured this out, and that’s what makes them so confident, and so unwilling to give ground on legislation this Congress. They can smell the majority.

Democrats know it too. Some party strategists are already admitting that by the time new district lines are finalized in each state, Democrats might already be in the minority, when counting seats the party controls or has the advantage in before the 2022 elections. 

To be clear, this is not a prediction or a projection that Republicans will recapture the majority. It’s still too early for that. It’s just an acknowledgment of historical midterm trends and the initial realities of redistricting. 

So how could things go wrong for House Republicans? 

1998, 2002 bucked trend

Averaging a batch of midterm election results masks the two times in recent history when the president’s party gained seats: 1998 and 2002. Both cycles were marked by extraordinary circumstances. In President Bill Clinton’s second midterm, in 1998, Republicans overreached on impeachment and voters responded accordingly. In 2002, Republicans enjoyed a rally-around-the-flag effect from 9/11 that kept President George W. Bush’s job approval rating higher than usual.

This 2022 cycle could be another outlier as the country recovers physically and economically from the worst pandemic in 100 years. A sense of contentment and confidence that the country is headed in the right direction could tame normal angst from midterm voters toward the party in power. 

Without Donald Trump on the ballot, Republicans could struggle to turn out his entire coalition, including voters who see GOP and Democratic leaders as part of the same swampy problem. Trump could also complicate typical midterm trends by interjecting himself into the national conversation and making 2022 more of a choice between two parties rather than a referendum on Democrats’ control of Washington.

More broadly, Republicans could become defined as a party too narrowly focused on its base and too out of the mainstream for moderate voters, all the while inciting the Democratic base. 

But don’t bet your own house on those scenarios coming to fruition to save Democrats and wiping away Republicans’ 30-seat cushion.

There’s still plenty of time in the fight for the House, and it would be nice to have the new district lines and know who’s running before doing any real handicapping. We also have to “play the game,” or in political terms, let the races play out and let the voters vote.

But expectations are sky-high for Republicans in the House in 2022, as the math tells us they should be.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.