As ballots continue to be tallied, two things seem fairly certain about the midterm election: Republicans had a disappointing showing relative to expectations. Nevertheless, in January, they will find themselves in control of the House of Representatives after four years in the minority. While the exact size of the House GOP majority will not be known until a number of outstanding contests are resolved, in the 118th Congress the party is likely to control somewhere around 220 seats in the 435 seat chamber. That working majority will be, at best, a tad less narrow than the one Democrats have had previously. So what should this new GOP majority be working for?
The temptation for ascendant Republican leaders in the House will be to shrug off all of the criticism coming their way, emphasize that they gained ground for the second cycle in a row, and insist that the American people have given them a clear mandate to implement an agenda diametrically opposed to the one Democrats have pursued for the last two years. That impulse is understandable, given that Democrats passed major spending bills without a single vote from the minority and urged on the most expensive unilateral executive branch action in the nation’s history.
But for a party that does not hold the White House and may not hold the Senate, mandate-thinking can be quite dangerous—especially with such a tenuous hold on the chamber.
Historically, midterm elections are invitations for course corrections rather than mandates to override the sitting administration. If soon-to-be Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his conference act like they have been charged with stopping the Biden administration cold, or even entirely overriding the White House, they can easily alienate the voters who brought them to victory in 2022.
If they are to build on their success in 2024 and beyond, Republicans must bring their constituents’ concerns to the fore as they act as partners in governing. Half a loaf is usually the most any group should hope for, and trying to hold out until the other side utterly capitulates is a recipe for self-destruction.
With all of its members subjected to election every two years, the House is capable of registering truly dramatic swings to match a changing national mood. To give the most dramatic example, Democrats began the 1890s with a commanding majority of 238 seats (out of 332), only to face a near-total wipeout in the midterm election of 1894, in which voters took out their frustration for the Panic of 1893. Republicans gained a remarkable 117 seats in that election, and more than half of the members of the 54th House were freshmen. United behind an imperious leader and an industrialist agenda in stark contrast from their increasingly populist-tinged Democratic opponents, that incarnation of the Republican Party rightly perceived a governing mandate from the American people. It proceeded to consolidate its advantages and control Washington for the next decade-and-a-half.
But examples from more recent history show the perils of over-interpreting midterm election returns. With a 54-seat net gain in the 1994 midterms, Republicans ended four decades in the minority. Their leaders, especially the big-thinking Newt Gingrich, (questionably) believed that Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory had been a fluke caused by H. Ross Perot’s outsized influence. Their midterm victory had been not just a rejection of the president’s unpopular healthcare plan, but an invitation to enact an entirely different vision of government, including an ambitious roll-back of the welfare and regulatory state.
At the behest of his membership, and especially the zealous group of 73 Republican freshman, Gingrich precipitated a dramatic confrontation in the winter of 1995-1996 that included prolonged government shutdowns and a threat not to raise the debt ceiling. But the support he believed would carry him to victory evaporated, especially as it became clear that Republicans themselves were far from unified in their ambitions to cut government. If voters had punished Democratic overreach in 1994, they soon punished Republicans for over-correcting, giving Clinton an easy reelection victory in 1996. In 1998, a Republican-launched impeachment that most Americans believed unnecessary led to an unusual midterm gain for the president’s party (and the end of Gingrich’s speakership).
Some commentators have talked about 2022 as if it might deliver a chance to fundamentally reorient American government, but in fact a fairly standard course correction was always more likely. This year did see fourteen House incumbents fail to regain their party’s nomination—the most since 1992. The roughly 50 retirements were on the high side of normal, rather than indicating any kind of 1894-style housecleaning. The 118th House should have something like 80 freshman members, noticeably less than the 94 in the 112th Congress elected in the 2010 midterms.
Going into the election, it was obvious that most Americans find something lacking about the Biden Administration. But that is only normal for an incumbent. Rather than delivering results that would encourage a super-charged opposition to Biden (as only Florida voters did), Americans instead delivered a mixed result suggesting that they prefer moderation. Voters of a normally-solidly-Republican district in western Michigan rejected Trump administration veteran John Gibbs, who unseated their sitting congressman Rep. Peter Meijer in a primary. On the other hand, early data do not suggest the electorate is turning left, either. In Oregon, progressives notched a victory when they deprived centrist Democrat Kurt Schrader of his party’s nomination. But their nominee, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, seems to be on her way to losing to Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer.
In this muddled electoral environment, we have little reason to believe that the median voter will be delighted if the GOP-controlled House threatens to default on the nation’s debt commitments for the sake of reversing recent Democratic spending decisions or pushes through a third presidential impeachment in the last four years. For Republicans to prepare the ground for a third consecutive cycle of House gains, they will need to show that they are capable of delivering policies that directly help ordinary Americans—a feat that will necessarily require compromise in this closely split chamber, and with a Democrat in the White House. That will require patience, and a willingness to disappoint certain elements within their party. But incremental policymaking capable of building their coalition has far more to offer the party than using a thin majority to lash out.