Category Archives: Congress

Why Trump Blinked

President Trump blinked. The 35-day partial government shutdown appears to be ending.
From the start of the shutdown, congressional Democrats said they would not negotiate regarding Trump’s proposal for a border wall until the government reopened. Trump said he would not agree to legislation opening the government unless it included money for the border wall. That standoff lasted until Friday. Congress is expected to pass a bill that funds the government through Feb. 15 and does not include wall money, and Trump said that he would sign it in a Rose Garden address.
Why did Trump back down? Well, for all of the reasons we’ve been talking about for weeks. Polls consistently showed that the public was largely blaming the president, more than congressional Democrats, for the shutdown. That “blame Trump” view had recently gained more traction:

Moreover, Trump’s approval ratings were declining amid the impasse:

The public response had clear effects in Congress. Congressional Republicans had been unified behind the president in the early stages of the shutdown, but cracks started to emerge as it dragged on. In public, this was demonstrated on Thursday by six Senate Republicans voting for legislation put forward by Senate Democrats that would fund the government without money for the wall. And, in private, disagreement with the president’s strategy extended beyond those six. A meeting between Senate Republicans and Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday reportedly turned into a venting session, with some senators scolding Pence for the White House’s strategy. Among the critics was Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has the power to bring forward legislation, whether Trump likes it or not.
We don’t know much about the private discussions between McConnell and the White House, but it’s possible that Trump folded in part because McConnell suggested Senate Republicans would likely move forward soon with legislation funding the government without paying for the wall — with or without the president’s support. Although Trump, in a Rose Garden speech on Friday, acted as if it were his decision to end the shutdown, the decision to fold may not truly have been Trump’s to make, and the speech may have been McConnell allowing the president to save face and concede before the Republicans in the Senate fully broke with him.

To be clear, it’s not certain that Trump has lost the broader fight over the wall. It’s hard to see congressional Democrats offering much funding for it, but maybe they will agree to some kind of compromise that includes a few billion dollars. (I wouldn’t bet on this, as liberal Democratic opposition to the wall seems to be hardening.) Or, as he suggested on Friday, Trump could declare a national emergency and reallocate funds from other parts of the government to finance a wall. Such a move will almost certainly draw legal challenges. But Trump might win in the courts, as he (eventually) did on his executive order banning travel from certain countries into the United States.
For now, however, we’re back to where we were when the shutdown began. Trump and Congress have three weeks to figure out a solution. In public, at least, all sides are staking out the same positions they held when the shutdown started. Trump will likely need a different strategy going forward. The one he employed over the last month — shutting down the government (which is unpopular) to get the wall (which is unpopular) — could not keep his party united forever.
In short, it was another example that Trump is not immune to broader political dynamics, despite his surprising win in 2016. The health care policy legislation he was pushing for much of 2017 was deeply unpopular — and it failed. He had high disapproval ratings going into the 2018 midterms — and his party lost a ton of House seats. And now, he pushed a shutdown strategy that seemed doomed to fail — and it did.


What Happens When Dozens Of Wave-Year Freshmen Join The House?

It might be hard to tell at the moment, but there are freshmen Democrats in the House other than New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive women have become the face of the new class in Congress, a total of 64 newly elected Democrats joined Congress this month, each of them with their own platform and political leanings. Yet all of them won their seats in the same wave election that swung at least 40 House seats to the Democrats10 — an election that has media wags wondering if the new Democratic representatives will cause headaches for the old guard.
The data suggests … probably not.
American politics have been inundated by big waves before, and a close look at how those freshmen classes voted may shed light on how today’s wave might affect the government. In 1994, for example, under the banner of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” the GOP ushered in a so-called Republican Revolution, swinging Congress 54 seats to the right. In 2010, Republicans did it again, this time powered by the tea party; the GOP picked up 63 seats. But American politics are turbulent. In 2006 and 2008, it was the Democrats’ turn to surf — they picked up 31 and 21 seats those years. While there is no widely accepted definition of a “wave” year, there seems to be some consensus that these four elections were waves, so that’s where I’m going to focus my analysis.
After they were elected, all of these wave-riding freshman representatives actually had to go to work and cast votes. Votes are data, and data, in this case, turns into ideology scores. Specifically, we can use Nokken-Poole ideology scores to see whether wave-year freshmen voted demonstrably differently from their more veteran peers. (This method boils down actual congressional votes into a single dimension, meaning that bigger negative numbers represent more liberal positions and bigger positive numbers represent more conservative positions.)

With a possible exception of Republicans elected in 2010, when the tea party was big, first-year representatives entering Congress in a wave year don’t look all that different from any of the other representatives — they tend to be distributed across the ideology score spectrum in about the same way as their longer-serving peers. That could be good news for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she tries to keep her caucus in line.
But it’s not just the wave-riding freshmen who aren’t that different from the veterans. Freshmen of all classes tend to vote similarly to — or, if anything, slightly to the right of — their party elders. These are the ideological distributions of all freshmen and all non-freshmen from 1994 through 2018.

But what became of these freshmen who rode into Congress on electoral waves? Did those who were re-elected (and, in some cases, re-elected and re-elected and re-elected …) begin to alter their legislative behavior after they’d served for a while? Where could Ocasio-Cortez and her peers end up, ideologically speaking, in a decade’s time, if they follow roughly the same path as those who came before them?
There is some weak evidence that those congresspeople who rode in on recent waves — be they Democrats or Republicans — shifted to the left over time. (For the universe of all congresspeople, there is some evidence that spending more time in Congress means a person takes, on average, a slightly more extreme ideological position.) The Republicans of the class of 1994, for example, became on average more moderate than their fellow congressmen, while the Democrats of the classes of 2006 and 2008 became on average more liberal. Practically speaking, however, these effects appear small, especially when each wave-year class is viewed as an aggregate. The single red and blue lines on the chart below represent the careers of each newly elected member of that year’s wave party, while the thick black lines show a smoothed trend for each class. The members of the wave classes thin out over time and, in some cases, shift their ideologies.

There are a couple of notable outliers clearly visible above. In 1999, Rep. Michael Forbes, who had been a freshman in the Republican Revolution class, announced he was becoming a Democrat. And in 2009, Democratic Rep. Parker Griffith became a Republican while still a freshman — he’d been elected in a Democratic wave just over a year before.
There’s an important caveat to all this: the Nokken-Poole scores are built only on how congresspeople vote. The scores don’t tell us anything about what the congresspeople are voting on, or the ripple effects that freshmen may have on senior members by, for example, threatening to vote as a bloc, introducing legislation the House might not otherwise have considered, or using their public appearances to rile up segments of senior members’ electorates who might not normally contact their representatives. For instance, some pundits have argued that the tea party changed “the very DNA of the GOP.” (Congress has tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act many times since 2010, for example, which was one of the main planks of the tea party movement.) Others have argued that Gingrich’s Republican Revolution is linked to “the upheaval now taking place around the globe.” Only time will tell what effects the recent and ongoing blue wave might have. Already, we can see how young left is trying to expand which ideas Democrats are willing to entertain — including, perhaps, remaking the country’s very economic system.
We don’t yet have ideological measures for the freshmen swept into the House on 2018’s wave, of course — they haven’t participated in enough votes in D.C. But if today’s freshmen stick around long enough to become senior statesmen, there are hints here that they may shift the House even further to the left. Cowabunga, dude.


Democrats Have A Chance To Win One Of The Reddest Districts In The Country

West Virginia’s 3rd District doesn’t seem like a district that should be competitive. It should be an easy Republican hold. After all, President Trump won the 3rd District, anchored by Huntington, by 49 percentage points, and the district’s FiveThirtyEight partisan lean13 is R+37, meaning it is 37 points more Republican than the country as a whole. In fact, the West Virginia 3rd is one of the 50 most GOP-leaning seats in the country, according to our calculations. Yet the election prognosticators have tagged the race as “Lean Republican” or even a “Toss-up,” and nonpartisan polls have found mixed results since the May primary.
So how did such a deeply Republican seat become competitive? For one thing, it’s an open seat held by the presidential party, which can make it particularly susceptible to large swings in party vote share. The seat’s incumbent, Evan Jenkins, ran for a U.S. Senate seat instead of seeking re-election, so the 3rd is among the 41 seats Republicans are defending where the incumbent either retired, ran for another office or lost renomination.14 Another crucial factor is the cross-party appeal of state Sen. Richard Ojeda, the Democratic nominee, and his in-your-face populism. We know Ojeda could be a real threat because he won his state Senate district 59 percent to 41 percent in 2016, even as it backed Trump 78 percent to 19 percent.15
Despite all that, the “Classic” version of FiveThirtyEight’s House forecast currently gives Ojeda’s GOP opponent, state Delegate Carol Miller, around a 9 in 10 chance of winning — making West Virginia’s 3rd one of the districts where our forecast most disagrees with election handicappers. Our “Lite” forecast, which tries to rely as much as possible on the polls, has her as only a 3 in 5 favorite, though — it agrees with the handicappers.
The disagreement between our “Classic” forecast in West Virginia 3rd on one side and our “Lite” forecast and the handicappers on the other, basically comes down to this: Could a Democrat really win such a red district? If Ojeda were to win in November, his victory as a Democrat in an R+37 seat would rank as the largest “crossover” midterm party flip — by far — since at least 1998.16 It’s also the only district in our forecast17 that has a realistic chance at surpassing the record for a crossover flip in a midterm.

The biggest “crossover flips” in modern midterms
The 20 House midterm races that changed parties with the most extreme partisan leans away from the party of the winning candidate, 1998-2014

Year
CD
Incumbent
Inc. status
Winner
cd Partisan Lean

2006
TX-22

Tom DeLay
Resigned

Nick Lampson
R+29

2006
PA-10

Don Sherwood
Lost

Chris Carney
R+19

2006
IN-8

John Hostettler
Lost

Brad Ellsworth
R+18

2006
KS-2

Jim Ryun
Lost

Nancy Boyda
R+17

2006
IN-9

Mike Sodrel
Lost

Baron Hill
R+15

2014
FL-2

Steve Southerland
Lost

Gwen Graham
R+14

2006
OH-18

Bob Ney
Retired

Zack Space
R+14

2014
IL-10

Brad Schneider
Lost

Bob Dold
D+13

2006
NC-11

Charles Taylor
Lost

Heath Shuler
R+12

1998
KS-3

Vince Snowbarger
Lost

Dennis Moore
R+12

1998
NJ-12

Mike Pappas
Lost

Rush Holt
R+12

2006
AZ-5

J.D. Hayworth
Lost

Harry Mitchell
R+11

2006
WI-8

Mark Green
Ran for gov.

Steve Kagen
R+11

2006
TX-23

Henry Bonilla
Lost

Ciro Rodriguez
R+11

2006
FL-16

Mark Foley
Resigned

Tim Mahoney
R+11

2014
NY-24

Dan Maffei
Lost

John Katko
D+10

1998
KY-4

Jim Bunning
Ran for Sen.

Ken Lucas
R+10

2006
PA-4

Melissa Hart
Lost

Jason Altmire
R+9

2006
IN-2

Chris Chocola
Lost

Joe Donnelly
R+9

2014
IA-1

Bruce Braley
Ran for Sen.

Rod Blum
D+9

In FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean formula, 50 percent of the weight is given to the 2016 presidential elections, 25 percent to the 2012 presidential election and 25 percent to state legislative elections. In the partisan lean column, negative values represent Republican leaning districts and positive values represent Democratic leaning districts.
Source: Gary Jacobson

The largest crossover flip to date came in 2006, when Democrat Nick Lampson won former GOP House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s district, the Texas 22nd — a R+29 seat. Wounded by the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, DeLay withdrew from his re-election race and then resigned. Texas Republicans could not replace DeLay’s name on the ballot, which helped Lampson cinch victory against Shelley Sekula Gibbs, the principal Republican write-in choice.18 As for the other races in the table, controversy surrounded some of the incumbents who lost or abandoned their seats while others were ideologically extreme, but most fell in cycles more advantageous for the opposing party.19
Here’s the bad news for Ojeda, even if he wins: These extreme midterm crossovers tend to be short-term blips. Of the 18 seats in the table above that do not include incumbents running in the 2018 cycle, 12 reverted to their district’s previous party within two cycles.20 Looking at our partisan lean data and the current Congress, just 25 House seats are “crossover seats” out of 435.21 In our highly polarized political era, it’s understandably challenging for a party to hold a seat that predominantly leans toward the other party by default.
Still, when it comes to control of the House, every seat matters, no matter how short-lived the victory may be. After all, political winds change and a district might shift — either naturally or through redistricting — in a way that could make it easier to retain. Plus, the winning candidate could become a particularly formidable incumbent. Case in point, the longest-serving winner in the table above was Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore, who won the R+12 Kansas 3rd in 1998 and then five more times. From 1998 to 2008 — the years Moore sought office — the Kansas 3rd’s partisan lean ranged between R+9.5 and R+13, yet Moore managed to hold off the GOP each time. He retired in 2010.
For Democrats, the West Virginia 3rd may be a reach, but as we’ve seen in previous elections, it’s one Democrats could still grab on Election Night.