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We the People: Parties in power often lose dozens of seats in Congress every midterm, but this year could be different

Sen. Patty Murray addresses gathered supporters at the Democratic party on Tuesday in Bellevue, Wash.  (Jennifer Buchanan/The Seattle Times)
Sen. Patty Murray addresses gathered supporters at the Democratic party on Tuesday in Bellevue, Wash. (Jennifer Buchanan/The Seattle Times)

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Why do U.S. representatives serve shorter terms than U.S. senators?

When the Constitution created the House of Representatives and the Senate, the founders had a vision.

The House would be larger, more diverse and more representative of the people. The Senate would be a smaller body where meaningful debate could take place.

To help the U.S. House more closely follow public opinion, representatives in the House serve shorter, two-year terms than the Senate’s longer, six-year terms.

A changing public opinion means that the membership of the U.S. House of Representatives changes often, and that most midterm elections end with the party in power losing a significant number of seats.

This year, however, things could look a little different.

As of Saturday evening, Democrats retained control of the Senate after days of uncertainty, while control of the House was still up in the air as the outcomes in a number of key races across the country were still being decided.

What was clear is clear: Democrats will not lose as many seats as many thought they might.

“By any historical standard, this is a huge victory for Democrats,” said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.

The average postwar midterm seat loss is 26 seats in the House and five seats in the Senate, Clayton said. In 2010, under former President Barack Obama, Democrats lost 63 seats in the House. Republicans lost 40 in the House in 2018 under former President Donald Trump.

As of Saturday, the number of seats Democrats will lose remained unclear, but Clayton said it likely will be much lower than the average.

The most likely scenario at this point is that Democrats lose control of the House, though the margins will be tight, and there are still a number of undecided seats that could help Democrats.

As of Saturday, Democrats had been declared the winners of 203 seats, while Republicans had 211, according to the New York Times. A party needs 218 seats to win a majority. Twenty-one were still undecided on Saturday.

As for the Senate, the key race in Georgia will not be decided for weeks as it heads to a December run-off after Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker failed to get 50% of the vote in the general election.

Though they’re not finalized, the midterm results are not what many people expected.

Going into the midterms, many were predicting a red wave, meaning Republicans would overtake control of Congress and state legislatures and governorships easily, but that has not been the case.

Clayton called this year’s midterms the strangest he’s seen .

What exactly happened to the supposed red wave isn’t totally clear, but Clayton pointed to two interesting points from this election: poor polling and Republican messaging.

In the past few weeks, a number of polls were released that pointed to huge Republican gains, but Clayton called them “cheap and dirty polls that put out the impression of momentum.”

Another reason is how much support Republicans put behind Trump-endorsed candidates across the country, many of whom were defeated on Tuesday.

“It’s not a good strategy for the Republican party, and they’re going to have to come to terms with that,” he said.

One of the reasons elections have gotten so close and many swing seats have become unpredictable: polarization.

Turnout has continued to go up in the past decade in part because of the increase in polarization across the country. Intense polarization in politics drives up participation, which is a good thing for democracy, Clayton said.

In turn, “swing seats have become even more volatile because the electorate is more closely divided,” Clayton said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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