Republicans may soon find out that the only thing worse than losing the House is winning it. That’s because the foundation on which the GOP’s new majority rests is as shaky as they come—and that’s no mere opinion. It’s an unassailable fact, borne out by hard data.
The 222 seats Republicans will control in the coming Congress is the same number that Democrats held in the outgoing one. But not only do Republicans lack anyone remotely resembling Nancy Pelosi—one of the most accomplished legislative leaders in American history—a critical portion of their caucus represents districts that Joe Biden would have carried.
This batch of 18 “crossover” seats (so called because they voted for different parties for president and the House) is small by historical standards but looms very large indeed when set against the miniscule five-seat advantage Republicans enjoy in the chamber. How Pelosi accomplished so much with so little will be studied by a generation of scholars, but one key factor was doubtless the fact that only seven of her members sat in districts Donald Trump had won following the 2020 elections. (There will still be five Democrats in Trump seats come 2023.)Campaign Action
And it’s not just the quantity of crossover seats but their quality, as well. We can rank-order every district by its presidential vote (a more useful metric than the results of House elections, which can be affected by varying candidate quality, competitiveness, and uncontested seats) to see which seat gave Pelosi that crucial 218th vote. It turns out to have been the previous version of Michigan’s 8th District around Lansing, which backed Trump by less than a single point and is represented by a reliable Democrat, Elissa Slotkin.
Needless to say, Kevin McCarthy—or any Republican who might have the misfortune to take his place—won’t have anything resembling that good fortune.
Quite the contrary: The seat tipping the GOP over the edge will be upstate New York’s redrawn 17th District, which would’ve gone for Biden by a vastly larger 10-point spread. And Republican Mike Lawler (who beat DCCC chair Sean Patrick Maloney) is already concerned with his immediate political survival—which means, in a blue district like this one, distancing himself from the Marjorie Taylor Greene lunatic brigade.
In 2016, Lawler served as a Trump delegate at the Republican convention, but just days after the midterms, Lawler told CNN that he’d “like to see the party move forward” from the GOP’s overlord and expressed a lack of interest in pursuing the witch-hunts and impeachments his far-right colleagues are frothing for. “I think the top priority is to deal with inflation and the cost of living,” he said. “I don’t want to go from one issue to the next without dealing with the issues that got me elected in the first place.”
It will be quite something to watch when the Greenes and Boeberts and assorted other miscreants grow enraged at the likes of Lawler, but he’ll by no means be the only House Republican prioritizing self-preservation over party unity. And what makes the case of Lawler and his fellow travelers so destabilizing is that their districts are much further to the left than those of similarity situated majority-makers in any recent Congress where Republicans have been in control.
We can say this with certainty. At Daily Kos Elections, we have a deep archive of robust data going back many years, allowing us to analyze the political lean of the 218th seat over time. Below we list the tipping-point districts for every Congress dating back to 2008, along with the results of the most recent presidential election in all of them:
During the last period of Republican control following the 2010 elections, you can see that these districts have generally been clustered right around dead even according to presidential margin: Trump +0.1 in 2016, Mitt Romney +1.1 in 2014, and Barack Obama +0.1 in 2012. 2010 might look like something of an outlier, but don’t forget that Obama won the national popular vote by 7 points. Compared to the nation as a whole, then, that version of Iowa’s 4th was only a touch bluer, as you can see in the column on the far right of the table above; in subsequent years, the GOP’s 218th seat was actually to the right of the country overall.
(By the by, Democrats now hold the current versions of Virginia’s 10th and Minnesota’s 2nd. They also won the successor to Iowa’s 4th in 2018 but lost it by less than a percentage point this year.)
To put Lawler’s district in the same context, it’s almost 6 points left of center. That makes it much more liberal than any pivot-point seat Boehner ever had to contend with, and Lawler knows it. That also goes for all the other Republicans in similar districts—or at least, if they don’t grasp this reality now, they will after they’ve lost re-election in 2024.
Pelosi, by contrast, has regularly handled similar situations and even tougher ones: After the 2008 elections, with the majority-making seat 10 points to the nation’s right, Democrats nevertheless managed to pass a massive stimulus package, a major Wall Street reform bill, and, of course, Obamacare. Republicans don’t even have a legislative agenda, let alone the ability to pass anything so far-reaching.
And this, of course, assumes that McCarthy or another Republican can even put together enough votes to win the speakership in the first place, which is far from assured. But even if he manages to, he’ll find that his authority rests on an exceptionally rickety base—one that both the pragmatists and the crazies will have no hesitation blowing up.
Raphael Warnock needs all the support he can get to help our Democratic majority in the Senate. Chip in $5 today to his runoff campaign.