“By the start of an administration’s second year, Washington grows obsessed with the looming midterm election, making ambitious reforms difficult. The president’s party generally loses seats in that election, further complicating reform prospects.”
Thanks to the filibuster, and the GOP’s uncanny cohesiveness in opposition to reform, the Democrats had to have 60 seats in the Senate to pass reform (barring a reconciliation strategy). That’s a rarely witnessed majority. As the quote points out, the president’s party loses seats in the midterm elections, because people tend to stay home unless they are dissatisfied with the status quo. We can probably expect to see that this November. And, like the quote says, we are already seeing the midterm election obsession.
But I find it interesting to think about how things are playing out now, and how they would have played out differently if reform had not yet been signed into law. With reform now law, there is some talk of the November elections serving as a referendum on reform, and some GOP candidates are even running on a platform of repealing the legislation. Of course, some people who are upset about health reform will likely turn out to vote for the Republicans in their respective races, but polls suggest that even those opposed to health reform’s passage now want Congress to give it a chance to work, and to focus on improving the reform law incrementally, rather than scrapping it entirely and starting over.
By contrast, if the debate over health reform were still ongoing as we headed into November, I think it would be fair to expect a much stronger focus on turning out the vote in order to stop the legislation. After all, that would be much closer to a true referendum–with people voting for a candidate based on their support or opposition to a policy that had not yet been implemented.
I’m going to do some very back-of-the-envelope election forecasting and leave the real high-caliber analytics to the likes of Nate Silver. There are 435 House seats (that’s everybody), 36 Senate seats, and 37 Governor seats up for election in 2010. In the past, on average, the president’s party has lost 28 seats in the House and 4 in the Senate. To gain control of the House, the GOP needs to pick up 39 seats. If health reform hadn’t already passed, I think they would have done it–probably matching the results of the 1994 elections when Newt Gingrich led the Republicans to retake the House by picking up 54 seats. But health reform is law, and I think that takes the edge off. I do think we’re in an above average year, but I’m going to put my money on the GOP picking up between 30 and 40 seats in the House. In other words, I think there’s a chance that they reclaim the majority, but I think it’s a very small chance. Similarly, in the Senate, I think the GOP picks up maybe 6 or 7 seats, but the Democrats retain the majority in that case.
What I think may be more interesting is the outcome of the gubernatorial races. I say this because the polling indicates that most of these races are toss-ups, and a lot of the action with health reform is no longer centered in Congress, but has shifted to the states and their decisions around implementation and legal challenges to the authority of the federal legislation. Therefore, I find it much more likely that the nation will see a host of Republican governors elected in 2010. Either way, look for my post-mortem of the elections about five months from now.