For the Decision Desk HQ newsletter Derek Willis spoke with Kyle Kondik, author of “The Long Red Thread: How Democratic dominance gave way to Republican advantage in U.S. House elections.” Below are some excerpts from our conversation that didn’t make it into the newsletter, and you can hear our full conversation here.
Q: In the unlikely event that there was a presidential candidate who won with close to 60% of the popular vote, what kind of House that would even produce? Because the combination of party loyalty and voter identity and sorting and redistricting would still sort of make it hard to produce the kinds of majorities that we saw decades ago.
A: Honestly the kind of person I could see winning a big kind of landslide presidential victory, it would probably be someone like a moderate Northeastern Republican. Like if Charlie Baker were to somehow become the Republican presidential nominee. He just announced his retirement as Massachusetts governor, but he was someone who had a ton of crossover appeal effectively. If by some fluke or something, that person got the nomination and the Democrats had like a super left-wing candidate or something I could imagine a world in which the Republicans do really well for president, but also that if you’re getting like 55 or 60% of the vote, you are cutting into the other party’s base presidential voters to some degree, but you might expect some of those voters to stick with their own party down down the ballot, as opposed to the kind of rigid presidential and House voting looking very similar today. I suspect at some point we will see more of a kind of a presidential blowout. Even though we haven’t really had, I mean, I guess you could say 2008 was, but even that was like Obama won the popular vote by a little over seven points. That doesn’t look anything like Reagan ‘84, Nixon ‘72, LBJ ‘64. But it’ll happen at some point. It’s just a question of what are the circumstances that lead to it.
Q: Are there risks in house races for running a nationalized campaign? It seems like there wouldn’t be that many at the moment, but maybe like potential risks at the regional or situational level to sort of tie yourself so tightly to a partisan identity or to a national party’s themes?
A: Historically speaking one of the things that some observers started to notice in the early nineties was that the Democrats were themselves kind of becoming more nationalized in their messaging. And that was a party that always relied on, particularly in conservative places providing a distinct identity from the national party. And so when 1994 came along and the Republicans ran this nationalized campaign against Democrats. Well some of the Democrats had kind of either the ones with strong local identities had already retired or what have you, or they themselves had sort of allowed themselves to be nationalized. And it was just a really bad year for Democrats and, and at long last, you finally had this Republican breakthrough. And so you just think about that maybe it’s less important in the presidential year than it is in the midterm year in that if your whole identity is sort of based on your kind of national politics and your ties to the leader of your party, if the leader of your party is struggling, then you’re probably going to struggle too. Now it may be that we’re in a period where what the individual House candidates do doesn’t mean as much as it used to, and that you’re sorta going to rise and fall with the top of the ticket no matter what. There are some Republicans in districts that Joe Biden won by 10 points who ended up winning and Democrats in recent years have been able to win districts that are pretty unfavorable to themselves as the national party, although at the national level, at the presidential level. Although they don’t really hold that many districts like that anymore. There’s only seven House seats that have Democrats that voted for Trump for president and there are only nine that voted for Biden and voted for Republicans down the ballot.
Q: Looking ahead to 2022, predictions are tough to make, but you make a case in the book, essentially that the Republicans are in a pretty good position at least at this point to recapture that House majority that the Democrats won in 2018 and maybe even have a pretty successful year. If the Republicans were to achieve a sizable majority above the 245 to 250 level, maybe even getting closer to 300 at some point, would a Republican majority of that size have some of the same factional issues that the largest Democratic majorities had?
A: I think they probably would, although a huge Republican House caucus would be more ideologically cohesive, I think, than the ones that Democrats had, because the Democratic house majorities of the sixties, seventies and eighties, they kind of span the ideological spectrum. You still had some pretty strong conservatives in the Democratic House caucus. And actually the Republicans had real moderates or even liberals from the Northeast in particular. It doesn’t seem like the Republicans have a ton of kind of moderate House candidates running, and there are a handful of maybe less conservative house members, like Brian Fitzpatrick from the Philadelphia area, or some of the other Northeastern Republicans like John Katko maybe from Upstate New York, but there aren’t that many of them.
I suspect that if the Republicans bring in, let’s say they have some sort of like mega wave and they net like 50 or 60 seats, which seems like a lot to me right now, but who knows how it, it it shakes out, one of the reasons why the Republicans won so many seats in 2010 was that the Democrats were really overextended. They had almost 50 seats that John McCain had won in the previous cycle’s presidential. If the Republicans have this big, huge House majority it probably would be relatively ideological cohesive in that you know, so many of the people who got elected be conservatives, but I think also a lot of those folks that have a hard time winning in a presidential year, assuming the presidential election, isn’t some sort of even some sort of blowout.
I think that those Republican members would be wise to try to cultivate some sort of independent identity from the national party. But they might not necessarily have voting records to reflect that. I think that a really big Republican House majority would be more ideologically cohesive than the Democratic ones were, but you’d still have some arguments. I mean, look, the, you know, one of the big stories recently has been this sniping back and forth between Marjorie Taylor Greene who frankly is a pretty extremist member of Congress and Nancy Mace, who’s certainly conservative, but more of a mainstream person.
Q: When you look at voting behavior in the House, the Republican caucus is pretty tightly aligned and has been for a while. They’ve kind of lost those Northeastern and maybe some Midwestern, more moderate folks who would maybe deviate from the party line 15 or 20% of the time. And now that’s a pretty rare thing to do when you have the majority now for any party.
A: Right. And what happens in these wave elections is that the kind of hard ideological folks, usually aren’t the ones who lose unless they’re sitting in swing districts. I think the word moderate is almost obsolete in American politics because I don’t think there are really that many or any genuine moderates in either party caucus. It’s just a question of how liberal/progressive are you, or how conservative are you. But generally speaking, the people who are a little bit closer to the middle are the ones in the marginal districts and the marginal districts are the ones that flip and wave elections. I’m not making any predictions here necessarily, but who are the kinds of members who might end up losing if 2022 is a bad year for Democrats. Probably people like Elissa Slotkin in Michigan and Abigail Spanberger in Virginia. And some of the relatively newly elected New Jersey members, for instance. But we’re not talking about Ilhan Omar or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez losing a general election. You know, we’re talking about members who certainly have positioned themselves a little bit closer to the, or in some cases a lot closer to the middle, even though they’re also kind of mainstream Democrats. They’re not like, certainly not like Southern Dixiecrats or kind of Northeastern Rockefeller Republicans just to use kind of the old model of members who were a lot different than their than necessarily the national meaning of their party label.
Q: Obviously your book had some really great details and stories about individual elections and even individual contests. But it also, at the end of it acknowledges that there are lots of other factors that impact elections: money raised and spent, how the elections themselves are administered. I’m curious if you think that there’s one of those that is most impactful and most deserving of more attention or further exploration at this point.
A: One thing that I think could use maybe a little bit more research is whether the incumbency advantage which I think does seem to be on the decline and there’s some evidence of that, but does incumbency still dissuade strong challengers to some extent? You know, what goes into the decisions of candidates to run? It’s like, sometimes these things become sort of like a self-fulfilling prophecy in what the history is. And so therefore you act in such a way that maybe helps that history continue, if that makes sense. The Democrats who are retiring, maybe they know the history, they know what the polling says. They know that this is a challenging environment. And so therefore they retire and then that sort of contributes to why it’s a tough environment in the first place. All of that sort of decision-making, I think, is important.
But I also don’t think that the reason that, or a big reason that Republicans are better-positioned in the House now, and Democrats used to be better-positioned, I don’t necessarily know if money is a huge part of that story. I mean, I do think that Democrats dissuaded a lot of strong challengers back in the sixties, seventies and eighties. But I don’t know if money is a huge piece of that. And I don’t think that necessarily the rise of these big spending outside groups, I don’t know if the rise of those groups has necessarily changed the overall partisan trajectory of the House all that much. I think a lot of this is just kind of underlying kind of realignment trends that I think have more to do with kind of changing broad changing opinions across the electorate, as opposed to how much money is spent in an individual cycle.
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