One might have expected that two years after Republicans picked up 63 House seats—the biggest gain in a midterm election since 1938—Democrats would be on track to win back a boatload of those districts that the GOP didn’t have much business winning in the first place. But a little more than four months out from the election, the tides seem about as neutral as they can be. Both parties have surprisingly comparable levels of exposure, largely because of redistricting. The relatively calm surface of this year’s waters belies a lot of offsetting tumult and change underneath. But for House Republicans, who hold a 25-seat majority, a status quo election producing minimal net change would be good news.
At this point in the past three “wave” election cycles—the great Democratic years of 2006 and 2008 and the monumental GOP year of 2010—two things were true: First, one party had nearly all the momentum; every week a new strong candidate emerged or a new, surprising district came into play. Second, Tip O’Neill’s “all politics is local” adage had left the building. Voters focused almost entirely on sending a national message, opposing President Bush in 2006 and 2008, and then President Obama in 2010. It didn’t matter that Democrat Alan Grayson (FL-08) had attended CodePink rallies before running in 2008, or that Republican Joe Walsh (IL-08) was railing against Washington for spending beyond its means, while a bank foreclosed on his condo in 2009. They both won. Likewise, it didn’t matter that Republican Christopher Shays (CT-04) had worked closely with Democrats on campaign finance reform or that Democrat Gene Taylor (MS-04) had voted to the right of many (if not most, at one point) Republicans in the House. They both lost.
If anything, this year feels like a weird hybrid. On one hand, neither party can claim broad momentum; developments in House races are tit for tat. One week, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, a Michigan Republican and former hopeless presidential aspirant, announced he had failed to file the requisite 2,000 signatures to seek reelection. He sent his party scrambling. Democrats, though, suffered their own embarrassment in California. The new top-two primary system enabled a pair of Republicans to close the door on promising Redlands Democratic Mayor Pete Aguilar and his party’s chances of winning a new Latino majority seat in San Bernardino. The same night that Democrat Ron Barber, the former aide to retired Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, won a contested special election in Arizona, the party lost its favored candidates in the Arkansas and South Carolina primaries. (It is doubtful, though, that Democrats would have been competitive in those districts.)