Is the Senate More Volatile Than the House in 2014?

by Stuart Rothenberg June 26, 2013 · 11:16 AM EDT

Next year, voters will go to the polls to elect 435 House members and 35 United States senators, but it seems quite possible that there will be more net change in the Senate than in the House.

If this occurs, it would be worth noting, since it has happened only twice during midterm elections going back to the Civil War, according to “Vital Statistics on American Politics 2007-2008.”

In 1986, Republicans lost seats in both chambers of Congress, but their losses were greater in the Senate (eight seats) than in the House (a mere five seats). The only other case of this happening since 1866 occurred in 1934, when Democrats gained nine seats in the House but added 10 seats in the Senate.

During most midterms (and indeed during most elections), including those with partisan waves and those without them, the net change in the House has been larger than it has been in the Senate. Given the relatively few Senate seats up compared with the number in the House, it isn’t at all surprising that the sheer number of Senate swings have tended to be smaller.

But this year, with the House playing field so narrow and Democrats having to defend a large handful of Senate seats that could prove difficult to hold, the net change in the Senate could be larger than the net change in the House. There are 21 Democratic seats up, but only 14 GOP seats in 2014 (two of those seats, South Carolina and Hawaii, are special elections).

Republicans seem almost guaranteed to net additional Senate seats in the 2014 midterms. With two highly vulnerable Democratic open Senate seats already on the books (West Virginia and South Dakota) and at least five other Democratic seats at greater risk than even the most vulnerable GOP seat, Democratic Senate losses are virtually assured.

But, of course, there is a big difference between a Republican gain of two Senate seats, versus netting six or seven seats.

In at least one respect, the situation in the House is more unsettled, because it is not yet clear which party will net House seats. Since there are so few retirements to this point and candidate recruitment is still far from over, we probably won’t have a good idea about individual races until early next year. But if 2012 was any indication, there are only a relative handful of competitive House seats — maybe 30 seats, divided roughly evenly between the parties — that could flip party control next year.

If this assessment confuses you because you read the June 21 Democracy Corps memo, which asserted that the 2014 battleground presents more opportunities for Democrats than many assume, don’t worry. The Democracy Corps memo is an advocacy document, not an analytic one. It seeks to create competitive races, not merely reflect the competitive nature of the 2014 midterm elections. For example, few, if any, of the districts in the memo’s Tier 2 GOP Battleground districts table will be very competitive next year.

The handful of well-established folks who follow individual House races on a daily basis — and that’s a very limited universe that includes the Cook Political Report, Roll Call, The Hotline and the Rothenberg Political Report — all agree that the House playing field this cycle is narrow and Democrats will have great difficulty making large gains.

It is, of course, possible that Republicans, not Democrats, could make House gains next year, but again they have relatively few opportunities, especially in a relatively neutral national political environment.

There is another way that next year’s elections could be unusual.

Only three times in 24 midterm elections since World War I — in 1962, 1970 and 1982 — has the party that gained seats in the House lost seats in the Senate. That, too, is possible next year, if Republicans make Senate gains but Democrats make a small gain in the House.

Thankfully, Democrats have been careful not to talk about winning back the House this cycle. It is refreshing when a dose of realism, however small, creeps into the national discussion. But it is still too early to know how the 2014 midterms will unfold, since there are so many domestic and international question marks.

For now, however, there is at least some reason to believe that next year’s midterm elections could go down as an oddity in American history.