What Counts As a GOP Wave in 2014?

by Stuart Rothenberg October 28, 2014 · 10:56 AM EDT

Most neutral observers expect Republicans to take the Senate and make at least small gains in the House, but talk about a possible GOP political wave has all but disappeared.

However, ten days to go until Election Day, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a “wave” election just yet.

I know of no formal, widely accepted definition of the term “wave.” On the other hand, as United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said when referring to obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

Clearly, a wave requires one party to make sizable net gains in the House and/or the Senate. In the past, I’ve often used a net change of 20 House seats as the minimum for a wave, but that number is arbitrary and not set in stone. In fact, in the past, I’ve talked about small waves, big waves and tsunamis, suggesting that there are different levels of waves.

In my view, the number depends, in part, on how many seats the party benefiting from the wave already had before the election. After all, the larger the number of seats held before the election, the more difficult it is to add seats – and the lower the bar for what I’d view as a wave, assuming other requirements are met.

For me, the “political wave” metaphor evokes the image of a surging ocean wave that is much larger than normal and deposits debris that otherwise would not have made it ashore without the violent surf.

Politically, that translates into an election surge that is strong enough to sweep candidates who wouldn’t ordinarily win – because of the make-up of their districts or the limited funding of their campaigns, for example – to victory.

GOP victories in 1994 by Michael Patrick Flanagan of Illinois, and Texas Rep. Steve Stockman fit that profile, as did the 2006 Democratic victories by David Loebsack of Iowa, and Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire. In 2010, many of the Republican victories reflected the surge, though the victory by underdog challenger Chip Cravaack over Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., may be the best example.

Others have suggested to me that a wave can be said to occur when almost all of the most competitive races fall toward one party. I would think that that would be evidence of a wave, assuming that the ratings were correct at the time of the balloting.

That’s exactly what happened in 2006 in the fight for the Senate. Democrats added six Senate seats and swept the most competitive contests – in Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Rhode Island and Virginia – most or all of which Republicans would have held in a more neutral political environment.

No matter the definition, waves happen when one party’s turnout drops precipitously or surges noticeably, and/or when independent voters behave like partisans of one of the parties. That could happen this year. Turnout, as we always note, is crucial and difficult to predict.

This cycle, I think classifying Republican Senate gains as a wave would require some combination of GOP victories in Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire and Louisiana.

The first three states are politically purple, and “all things being equal” would favor the Democratic nominee. And incumbent Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., has demonstrated the ability to win re-election and would be much better positioned to win yet another term this cycle without the strong anti-Obama drag that is apparent in her state.

Republican gains in only West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana, Alaska and Arkansas would not lead me to talk about a wave hitting for the GOP, given those states’ Republican bent. Even if Louisiana falls along with those five, giving Republicans a net gain of six seats and control, I would not be inclined to see that outcome as a wave, though it would unquestionably be a good year for Republicans.

For many, New Hampshire is the clearest test of a wave. If Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen loses, that in itself, would be a sign of a Republican wave. At this point, my ratings suggest GOP Senate gains falling in the 5-8 seat range, but without a former Sen. Scott P. Brown victory in the Granite State.

Still, an eight-seat GOP gain would likely mean Republicans would have won at least three Senate races that they would not have won in a more neutral environment.

The situation in the House is more complicated.

Republican gains of eight or ten seats certainly would not qualify as a wave, no matter which Democratic seats fell.

But if the Republican gains get into the low to mid-teens (not likely but far from impossible), and if a handful of longer shot GOP challengers were to win — such as former Rep. Bobby Schilling in Illinois, state Assemblyman Jeff Gorell in California, state Sen. Torrey Westrom in Minnesota, just to pick some of the most obvious examples — that would be clear evidence that a Republican wave had hit. Obviously, even larger GOP gains would be compelling evidence of a wave.

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter whether we characterize an election as a wave or not.

What matters is whether control of a chamber has flipped or whether the party that has suffered losses feels that it has drowned in a sea of electoral defeats.