Battle for The Hill: Unconventional Election Shifts Balance of Power in Congress, Raises Broader Questions About the Electorate

Image Courtesy of NCOA Blog 

By Justin Lamoureux 

   The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many aspects of American life to a standstill as cases surge to record highs in a number of states. Nevertheless, news feeds, televisions, and conversations across the country were focused on a completely different topic last week: the election. 

    On both television and social media, the majority of election coverage was devoted to the presidential race, which evolved from a seemingly insurmountable “red mirage” to a comparably impenetrable “blue wall,” until victory was projected for Democratic nominee Joe Biden on Saturday morning. Equally (if not more) crucial to the foreseeable future of American politics, however, is the battle for control of the U.S. Congress. 

   Let’s start by focusing on the House of Representatives. The lower chamber of Congress comprises 435 seats, all of which were contested in last week’s election. As it currently stands, Democrats hold a comfortable majority of seats, with 232 (or 53.3% of the grand total) in their caucus. Republicans, meanwhile, went into this election with 197 seats (or 45.3%). Additionally, the Libertarian Party currently holds 1 seat in the House (or 0.4%), and an additional 5 seats (or 1.1% of the total chamber) are vacant. 

     In the next Congress (which begins on January 3), Democrats are currently projected to have 215 seats (three short of the majority threshold), having accrued a net loss of 4 seats. Conversely, the GOP is tentatively in possession of 198 seats. Despite this being 1 fewer than their current number, they emerged from this election with a net gain of 5 seats. It should be noted that 22 contests remain uncalled as of the writing of this article; the Republican candidate leads in 14 of these races while the Democrat is ahead in 8. 

     Assuming the trajectory of each uncalled house contest does not change, Democrats will conclude the election with 223 seats in the House of Representatives (51.3% of the total). The GOP, on the other hand, will have won 212 seats (or 48.7%), substantially undercutting the existential Democratic majority. 

     Interestingly, there is one seat that will go to a runoff: In Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District, none of the four major party candidates received a majority of the vote. The state utilizes a “jungle primary” system, in which all the candidates from each party are featured on the same ballot, and the top two finishers (regardless of party affiliation) advance to the second round of voting at a later date. In this case, however, the top two finishers are both Republicans, meaning the balance of power in Congress will not change once this election is held. 

     The GOP’s ability to gain a multitude of House seats stunned many pollsters, who had largely predicted a “blue wave” of proportions similar to the 2018 midterm elections. Of course, this begs the question of how they managed to overcome such great odds to expand their caucus. We can start with a broad geographic analysis: The majority of newly-Republican seats are located in largely pro-Trump areas, or red states where the president galvanized his core base of conservative rural voters. A closer look at such gains, however, reveals some clear demographic implications. For example, Republican candidates managed to flip two districts in South Florida, where the party is known to have overperformed with prominent local voting blocs, such as Latinos. An additional two districts in the Industrial Midwest (one in Iowa, another in Minnesota), where Trump himself is known to be popular among white working-class voters, also fell into GOP hands. 

    Despite underperforming in comparison to forecasts leading up to Election Day, Democrats did flip three seats in the House of Representatives. One is located in the Atlanta suburbs; in this key region of Georgia, a substantial overperformance among college-educated white voters and a growing minority population leaves Democrats poised to score an upset victory at the statewide level. The other two, meanwhile, are located in North Carolina, where the party forged modest inroads among suburban voters. 

    Let’s shift our focus to the U.S. Senate. Unlike the House, the seats in this chamber are staggered, meaning that only a handful can be up for re-election at any given time. In this election cycle, 37 (of 100) seats were contested, 35 (12 Democratic, and 23 Republican) at their regular intervals, and two (both held by Republicans) that were subject to special elections due to recent vacancies. 

    Let’s begin our analysis by looking at the current balance of power: In this Senate, 53 seats are held by Republicans and 47 by Democrats. So far, the GOP is known to have lost 2 seats: 1 in Colorado and 1 in Arizona.. 

     Currently, the balance of power in the Senate is deadlocked with the GOP controlling 49 seats compared to 48 seats held by Democrats. In addition to a (highly competitive) seat in North Carolina that was called for the Republican incumbent Tuesday afternoon, the GOP is expected to prevail in another contest in Alaska. This will expand the GOP’s total number of seats to 50, but leave the party with a net loss of 3 seats. Their presumptive retention of these seats, coupled with their ability to effectively fend off strong Democratic challengers in states like Texas, South Carolina, and Iowa, clearly indicate that the party maintains a secure following among its core constituencies in traditionally conservative states. 

      By a similar token, Democrats’ gains in Colorado and Arizona (and resilience in Michigan, despite a closer-than-expected race between incumbent Gary Peters, and Trump-backed Republican John James) can be attributed primarily to growing momentum among suburban voters, who have increasingly gravitated toward the party in recent years. Ironically, such trends failed to materialize in Maine, where State House Speaker Sara Gideon mounted a formidable challenge to the marginally popular Susan Collins, who is the sole Republican in New England’s entire congressional delegation. 

     The GOP might hold a numerical advantage, but control over the Senate remains in the balance. In an unprecedented scenario, both of Georgia’s senate seats, one of which was contested at its regular interval and the other in a special election, have advanced to runoffs. Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler both fell victim to increased Democratic enthusiasm (with the latter also facing a tough challenge from a fellow Republican), and record voter turnout. If the Democrats pick up both of Georgia’s seats, this would bring their membership in the Senate to 50; with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casting the decisive vote in cases where the body was deadlocked, the party would constitute the majority. Clearly, Democrats benefitted from a growing base in the Peach State during this past election cycle, but whether they manage to keep the momentum going (and in doing so, build on such inroads) remains to be seen. 

    So, how does the evolving balance of power in Congress reflect the nation’s political climate as a whole? Well, for starters, it solidifies any notion that the party landscape is changing; in other words, Republicans and Democrats each maintain a strong grasp on their own base, but are eating into each other’s support among various demographics. For Republicans, this evolution is playing out largely in the suburbs, once a bastion of American conservatism. Democrats, meanwhile, find themselves on defense in the battle for Latino voters, a diverse electorate with a broad array of political interests.

    The results of this election also debunk what many have come to regard as conventional wisdom: When voter turnout is high, Democrats inherently benefit. Indeed, this election did have record turnout and that played a critical role in electing a Democrat to the White House. At the congressional level, however, the party suffered as a result of such a large and diverse electorate.      Make no mistake: This election is not over. Quite a few contests remain uncalled, and a lot of broader questions remain unanswered. Despite the uncertainty, though, one important conclusion can be made: The electorate is changing.

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