Tuesday’s odd-year election results have many Democrats ecstatic and looking forward to 2018. In Virginia, Democratic candidate Ralph Northam trounced to an unexpected landslide victory. Even more shockingly, Democrats may have won back control of the legislature’s lower house.
The Democrats have some reasons for optimism
Democrats have good reasons to be optimistic. Virginia showed a blue wave in a purple state. Other elections, including special elections in Republican-leaning districts earlier this year, show a pronounced trend towards Democrats over-performing baseline expectations.
All of this has many dreaming of a goal long written off as effectively impossible: Winning back the House of Representatives in the 2018 mid-term elections.
Doing so would require the Democrats to pick up 22 seats. That’s many more than normal, but not unprecedented. In 1994, when Republicans under Newt Gingrich retook the majority for the first time in decades, they managed to pick up 54 seats.
All presidents inspire a backlash. Indeed, for the last five presidents, the opposing party has won the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections, which are held a year into the presidential term. The president’s party almost always loses seats at mid-term elections, too.
Will a stronger backlash than usual in 2018 overcome the huge hurdles?
With Donald Trump, there are a lot of signs that the backlash will be stronger than usual. Gallup records his approval rating as reaching a new low, at just 33 percent. Almost twice as many Americans disapprove as approve of President Trump.
And this year, Democratic voter turnout was up sharply, after a decline in 2016 helped put Trump in the White House.
Yet there are still hurdles to overcome. One is gerrymandering. Republican control of state legislatures has resulted in House districts that heavily favor the GOP in most states. Those lines won’t be redrawn until after the 2020 census, or in time for the 2022 elections three congressional cycles from now.
At the same time, the Democrats are heavily on the defensive in 2018 Senate races, with many more vulnerable incumbents versus relatively few vulnerable Republicans. That will draw resources away from the longer-shot bid to take the House.
Nancy Pelosi is a big albatross around the necks of national Democrats
More than anything else, though, if Democrats want to win back the House majority in 2018, they need to do one thing: Replace Nancy Pelosi. The former Speaker has been at the head of the House Democratic caucus for almost 15 years.
Pelosi single-handedly remains the most effective boogeyman against whom to run negative attack ads in House races across the nation. Toxically unpopular and far too disliked, Pelosi hails from an ultra-liberal district in San Francisco and is an albatross around the neck of Democratic candidates in red states and purple districts.
Democrats desperately need a new name and a fresh face. A vote to make Nancy Pelosi speaker is not a survivable proposition for Democratic candidates in key swing races. Negative ads featuring Pelosi remain the most reliable feature of the House GOP playbook. It’s because they work.
There are many younger, less toxic House Democrats who could lead the conference back to the majority. Some, like Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, would have geographic and ideological appeal to swing voters and moderates.
Others, like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, could help energize the Democratic base and inspire greater turnout. Either option could help win back the majority, unlike Pelosi.
(House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks to the media during her weekly news conference at the Capitol October 26, 2017. Moments before Leader Pelosi spoke, the House passed a fiscal 2018 budget 216 to 212, beginning a process for the Senate to move forward on an overhaul of the tax code. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.)