By most objective measures, Democrats had a good night in the 2018 midterms. They flipped the House, winning a number of GOP-leaning seats to return to the majority for the first time in eight years and winning the popular vote by about a seven-point margin. They also flipped seven governors’ mansions, including some in red states.
But the Senate was a killing field for Democrats, largely because of how unfavorable the Senate map was for them heading into election night. And the bad news is it doesn’t get all that much better for them going forward in either chamber of Congress.
Simply put, if Republicans swept every Senate seat in the states President Trump won and Democrats won every Senate seat in the states Hillary Clinton won, the GOP would have a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate. Looking at just the most partisan states, not counting the six states Trump won that President Obama carried twice, Republicans would naturally start with a 48 to 40 lead in the battle for the Senate.
If Democrats hope to keep their newfound House majority and cut into the GOP’s newly expanded Senate majority, they’re simply going to have to keep winning races on unfavorable turf. That includes holding a number of the new House seats they gained in districts that have normally leaned slightly Republican — and winning some even tougher races in the Senate in a political environment that’s grown more sharply polarized with President Trump in the White House.
Democrats lost Senate seats in deep-red Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri, fell far short in their attempts to win deep-red Tennessee, came up just short in heavily Republican but Democratic-trending Texas and flipped their only target in a state Trump lost, Nevada, to see the GOP grow its Senate majority to at least 52 seats and likely more like 54, pending results in Florida, Arizona, and Montana.
The 2020 map will be easier for them. There’s only one Democrat up from a deep red state – Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL). Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) is the only other one up from a state Trump won. Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Susan Collins (R-ME) both hail from states won by both Obama and Clinton. Democrats will likely have another crack at an open seat in GOP-leaning but Democrat-trending Arizona, and Sens. David Perdue (R-GA), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Thom Tillis (R-NC) could be vulnerable as well in GOP-leaning but not safely Republican states.
The House will likely get a bit easier in 2022, as Democrats now hold governorships in some big states that have GOP-gerrymandered maps where they’ll be able to fight for court-drawn or compromise maps after the next census.
It’s a big deal that they now have governorships in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — as evidenced by Democrats’ netting three House seats in Pennsylvania alone Tuesday night after a court-drawn remap. And while they fell short in races for Florida and Ohio governor, new state laws aimed at curtailing gerrymandering could keep the GOP from drawing quite as egregious redistricting maps.
But the fight for Congress will still feel like an away game for Democrats for years to come. It’s not realistic to expect Democrats to win the popular vote by seven points every election, the number that was just enough to give Democrats the House this time around. With Trump’s deeply polarizing presence making it harder for moderates in both parties to win in unfavorable territory, the effort for Democrats to hang onto and pick up red-leaning districts and states in presidential election years becomes even more difficult.