Kevin McCarthy—The House GOP Minority Leader—wants to be Speaker. In the upcoming 2022 midterms he has a decent shot at achieving that goal, as unfortunate as that sounds to many—including myself. Many political analysts you’ll hear on cable sing the same tune when asked about the GOP’s prospects in the midterms: The Republicans are favored to win back the House of Representatives at the very least. The Senate is also well within their reach. I’m not writing this to make a prediction on who will win, and those that try to clearly haven’t learned from 2016. What I want to interject into this conversation is this: a better explanation for why Republicans win back power—if they end up doing so.
Oftentimes—when I listen to some political analyst on cable talk about the upcoming midterms—their answers for a Republican victory center around things like messaging and history. The President’s party usually lose seats in their first midterm or the Democratic Left’s embrace of “socialism” is too…well…far to the left. The latter point is one I usually hear from the Democratic middle or from Never-Trump Republicans.
These aren’t necessarily wrong per say, but they’re missing an important point, one that I think better explains a hypothetical GOP victory in the midterms. The most foundational explanation for a Republican win in 2022 is simple: they are playing the game with a stacked deck.
The Senate’s heavy skew towards Republicans
Senate Democrats represent a drastically larger number of voters than Senate Republicans. In 2018, 34,987,109 Americans voted for Republican Senate candidates while 53,085,728 voted Democratic. In this current Senate, Democrats represent tens of millions of more people than Republicans. Clearly, there’s some lopsidedness to the Senate, and Republicans are reaping in the advantages.
Often what you hear from conservatives when these numbers are presented is a monologue on Congress’s design during the constitutional convention. This disparity is supposed to happen; it is a reflection of the Senate’s purpose. The U.S. Senate was part of a compromise. At the constitutional convention, big states wanted a national legislature where representation was based on a state’s population. Small states wanted a one based on equal representation (every state gets the same number of representatives). For obvious reasons, neither side could live with the other’s proposals. Eventually a compromise was reached. Congress would have two chambers: a House of Representatives with representation based on population and a Senate which gave each state the same number of Senators. We all know this story.
But I’m not persuaded at all by this justification for our current lop-sided politics and think the Framers would have been appalled at these disparities.
For one thing, the differences between the largest and smallest state in the Union in 1789 are miniscule compared to today. California—with its population of almost 40 million—has the same number of Senators as Wyoming, which has a population of just under 600,000. In the 1790s, the difference between a large state like Virginia and a small state like Connecticut were substantially lower.
Due to the equal representation of the Senate, it has a heavy skew towards less populated rural America and by extension the Republican Party. America as a whole is pretty evenly divided by area, but the average state—the division of political representation in the Senate—is much more rural.
As Nate Silver from 538 puts it:
Because there are a lot of largely rural, low-population states, the average state — which reflects the composition of the Senate — has 35 percent of its population in rural areas and only 14 percent in urban core areas, even though the country as a whole — including dense, high-population states like New York, Texas and California — has about 25 percent of the population in each group.
It’s one thing to try to account for the voice of small states. It’s another to have a legislative chamber so demonstrably unrepresentative of America that one political party can gain seats even after receiving almost 20 million fewer votes. When you factor in Senate procedures like the filibuster—which give a minority of senators an effective veto on any piece of legislation—you get a politics in which a tyrannical minority wields disproportionate power in American life, all the while justifying this unbalanced power distribution by claiming to be the stewards of James Madison and stalwart crusaders against the tyranny of the majority.
Bringing down the House
The House of Representatives hasn’t expanded in almost 100 years. When it was created, the House was supposed to grow along with the population, in essence helping to balance out the disparities of the Senate listed above. As more states were admitted or as a state’s population increased, they would get more representation. Proper apportionment was deeply important to the Framers, especially James Madison. In the draft document later known as the Bill of Rights the real 1st amendment outlined how many people would preside in congressional districts. This original 1st amendment capped the number of constituents in a congressional district at 50,000 people; slightly lower from today’s average: around 700,000.
It is probably for the best that it wasn’t accurately recorded as ratified (which it turns out it was). If it had we would have thousands of members of congress today. That said, our current capped 435 members is too low, and the reason for its stagnation—like many explanations in politics—is quite frustrating. After the 1920 census, rural representatives noticed Americans had started migrating to urban areas; their power was on the verge of dilution. So Congress prolonged reapportionment until 1929 when they passed the Permanent Reapportionment Act of 1929, capping the House of Representatives to levels established after the 1910 census: 435 members, the number we still have today.
Since we haven’t grown the House in the last 100 years, places with higher populations—for instance urban centers—haven’t received the subsequent increase in representation that their population numbers reflect. With less seats in congress dedicated to these high density—and most likely Democratic—areas, the whole purpose of the House is moot. I’m not sure that if we had continued to expand the House that Democrats would have consistent majorities today, but I think today’s illiberal Republican Party would have a much harder time winning a majority in the 2022 midterms if there were more representatives from urban and suburban areas.
Stacked deck politics
These institutional flaws will make it much harder for Democrats to win the midterms. The average state—and by extension the Senate—is more rural, white, and conservative than America as a whole. The House, where one would think the Democrats advantages in numbers would be reflected, hasn’t expanded in 100 years. This leads to a politics where the deciding voter in the midterms will most likely be to the right of the average American, and substantially further to the right of a Democratic base voter. Add in our hyper-polarized America and the chance of persuading the more conservative-leaning voter rapidly evaporates. This may all seem like a gigantic whine of a post. Fair enough, I’ll admit to that. But this point deserves attention in our mainstream political analysis, and it often gets none or is overshadowed by the polling horse-race or messaging wars. Those topics are important, but are only part of the equation I think.
Republicans may very well win the 2022 midterms. But let’s not credit that win to some genius strategy from the GOP or Democrats embrace of “crazy left-wing policies” like giving people healthcare or taxing the rich (crazy, I know!). Republicans will have won because in a polarized America where our institutions care more about the average state than the population as a whole, they don’t have to worry about winning more votes than Democrats.
In essence, they’re 50 yards ahead in a 100 yard dash.
Photo of Kevin McCarthy Courtesy of Gage Skidmore