COMMENTARY: The arc of the midterm election: Think 1910

While NBC commentator Chuck Todd reminds us that there has never been an election where a president’s party has gained seats in one chamber of Congress while losing majority control of the other, there is an analogy to the likely outcome of the 2018 midterm election.

In 1910, Republican president William Howard Taft saw the Senate lose three seats but retain in Republican hands while the House of Representatives lost 57 seats and flipped to Democratic control. Assuming that outcome this year, President Trump should educate himself on Taft’s final two years as chief executive.

The 2018 midterm election can be viewed in immediate terms or over a history of the last eight such elections. As an election on its own, this midterm election comes at a time when the president has a low popularity rating but enjoys good economic performance.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

It comes when the poles of both parties have focused on losing something — for the Democrats, health care; for the Republicans, a conservative court. Pardoxically, the strange mixture of political forces has resulted in a nationalization of issues associated with the Senate, where Democrats began the year having to defend 23 of 35 seats up for election.

The races where Democrats need to win to turn the Senate seem to be breaking toward the Republicans. The predicted result is that the Republicans will narrowly remain in control of the Senate, perhaps needing Vice President Pence to routinely break ties.

The prospect for the Democrats are much better in the House of Representatives, where the election season started with 40 open seats, nearly a tenth of entire House membership. The findings that there are many more Democratic than Republican candidates and the energy among young minority voters points to a scenario where the Democrats should be able to add the average number of seats gained by the out-party in the 21 elections since 1934: 34. The Democrats only need a switch of 24 seats to seize political control of the House.

If assessed on a long-term basis, the 2018 election shares a number of features with midterm elections dating to 1986.

First, most of the eight midterm elections over the latter span led to one or both chambers changing political control from one party to another. Second, except for the 1998 and 2002 elections when the president’s party gained seats, the other midterm elections resulted in an average loss of 33 seats.

Even the 1990 midterm election, where there was neither a large number of seats lost nor a party overturn of either chamber, led to reforms emanating from several financial-based scandals involving House members.

Back to President Taft: A progressive Republican, he continued his antitrust policies after the 1910 election, succeeding in breaking up two large corporations in 1911.

Further, he led the admission of New Mexico and Arizona as states in 1912 and was still in office when the 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913. However, the loss of party control in the House led Taft to significantly increase veto use, leading to the only veto override in 1913. Moreover, the split in the Republican ranks over support for Taft versus his predecessor and former friend Theodore Roosevelt created a schism, which resulted in a Democrat being elected president in 1912.

While it is unlikely that Donald Trump will eventually end up on the U.S. Supreme Court as Taft did following his presidency, it would be advisable for Trump White House and 2020 campaign staff to heed the Taft tale. For while the Senate controls the treaty and appointment process and is necessary for veto overrides and constitutional amendments to be successful, the House of Representatives begins the impeachment process and is in charge of initiating revenue bills and deliberation of the annual fiscal budget.

Split party control of Congress could spell trouble for a president who has shown little willingness or adeptness at playing both sides of the fence, though that could be his most realistic route to reelection.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Program Director at Delaware State University. He served in three congressional staff positions from 1978-1986. In 2009, he was a member of the Military Academy Selection Committee for U.S. Senator Ted Kaufman, D-Del.

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