NLBMDA: The Midterm Elections and Control of Congress

Senate Democrats, who currently hold a 10-seat advantage over Republicans, are mostly playing defense this fall trying to keep their majority.


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According to most political analysts, Republicans, at worst, have a 50/50 chance of gaining the Senate majority. If history is any indication, Republicans should be optimistic about their chances as the second midterm elections for a president, sometimes referred to as the “six-year itch,” are usually bad for the president’s political party.

Republicans must pick up a net of six seats to take control of the Senate. Although they are favored to pick up three seats currently held by Democrats (Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia), winning the other three seats will be no easy task. Several endangered Democrats come from families with deep political roots and have won close races before.

Since the direct election of U.S. senators began in 1914, there has only been one time that the second midterm election of a sitting president did not result in a loss of Senate seats.

In 1950, Democrats lost five Senate seats in Harry Truman’s second midterm election. Eight years later, Republicans lost 12 seats in Dwight Eisenhower’s second midterm election. Senate losses totaled four seats in 1966 and 1974, six years into the split Kennedy-Johnson and Nixon-Ford administrations.

More recently, in 1986 Republicans lost eight seats in President Reagan’s second midterm, and in 2006, Republicans lost six seats in President George W. Bush’s second term. The only exception to this second midterm rule is 1998, when Democrats gained five Senate seats as voters disapproved of efforts to impeach President Bill Clinton.

In addition to historical trends, a quick look at the Senate map illustrates why Republicans are optimistic and Democrats are concerned. Of the nine races currently rated a “toss up” by The Cook Political Report, seven of the seats are held by Democrats and two are held by Republicans. Of those nine seats, President Barack Obama won four of them in 2012 (Colorado, Iowa, Michigan and North Carolina), while losing five of them to Mitt Romney (Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and Louisiana).

A few incumbent Senate Democrats such as Mark Begich (Alaska), whose father was a congressman, Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), whose father is a former Mayor of New Orleans, and Mark Pryor (Arkansas), who now holds the Senate seat once held by his father, are hoping that coming from well-known political families will propel them to another term.

At the very least, Democrats are going to need to win a few Senate races in the southeast, a region of the country that has become increasingly Republican over the last 20 years, to retain their majority.

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