Blue Wave….Or Not?

By Mike Koetting       October 30, 2018

I really want a blue wave. Really.

Blue Wave

But I have no intention of predicting whether it will or will not happen. There are people out there who follow it more closely and have access to a lot more data. And, as Nate Silver reminds us, the degree of uncertainty is much more than anyone wants to believe, certainly more than the media acknowledges.

Moreover, perhaps more than some other elections, this one is going to be decided by turnout. It is indisputable that the country is deeply divided and votes will be cast accordingly. But a blue wave will require a lot of turnout by people who don’t usually vote their weight—young people and minorities, particularly Latinos. I don’t know if there are good ways of predicting that, but I certainly don’t have access to any of it.

Accordingly, the goals of this post are very much more modest. I am going to set down my idea of what a blue wave would like before the election. Afterward, we can look at what happened and see how we want to score it.

The Senate

There are many elections taking place and they by no means have identical dynamics. The difference is probably most sharp between the national Senate and House races. Since Senate races don’t all happen at the same time, there is no clear national snap-shot; the relative outcomes are hugely impacted by where the races are taking place.

As any one who is paying attention knows, this year’s Senate map is particularly difficult for Democrats. There are 35 seats up, 26 of them held by Democrats. Five of the Democratic seats are in solidly red states; another 7 are in states that, while not solidly red, are so divided that there is no a priori lean. (For those following at home: Florida, Ohio, Maine, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.) To avoid losing ground, Democrats would have to hold on to all 12 of those or pick up seats elsewhere. There are a few possible places for pick up, but only a few. And while it is true that the historic momentum of mid-term elections favor the party that doesn’t hold the presidency, in the Senate, the possibility of a net increase in seats is against the severe head-wind of a brutal map.

It seems to me that a blue wave in Senate seats would be anything less than a two-seat loss. Flipping the Senate, especially with the return of Republican enthusiasm following the Kavanaugh hearings, while still possible, would suggest more of a blue tsunami than a wave.

The House

Democratic chances are much better in the House, where they need 25 seats to have a majority.  All the House seats are up and House districts represent more discrete groups of voters. It is possible for some of the voters to be persuaded without needing the entire state to go along.

Representation in the House is more influenced by the trend against the sitting party than in the Senate.  Since 1914 (when the House reached its current size) the average swing to the non-presidential party has been 32 seats, although the volatility seems to have receded somewhat since, say, 1960.  Out of the 14 elections since 1960, only 4 have led to a swing of more than 40 votes in the House. That might be a good watermark for a “wave” election as opposed to a “normal” swing from a president’s party. A pick-up of 40 seats would give Democrats roughly the same majority Republicans now hold.

House Swings

Source:  My calculations from Wikipedia


By no means is all the action about Congressional races. As has been made abundantly clear in the last decade, it makes a huge difference who controls statehouses. Not only are many of the programs that really matter in people’s lives controlled at the state level, but states have substantial discretion in deciding who gets to vote and the conditions of their voting, including districts, polling places, and election rules.The right to vote will get no protection from the courts, so the only way that voting rights will be preserved is by seizing control of the state machinery. This means state legislatures and governorships.

In almost all states, the redistricting is materially influenced by what the governor will or will not ratify. Currently, Republicans hold 34 seats and Democrats only 15. Alaska’s governor is official Independent and will be running again as an Independent. Of the remaining 49 states, 36 will have gubernatorial elections. For the most part, these are the governors who will preside over the redistricting after the 2020 census.

Depending on what pundit you want to believe, somewhere between 6 and 13 of those elections are competitive, including at least 3 with currently Democratic governors. It would be a good day in the governors’ contests if Democrats could close the 34-15 gap to 29-20, a net pick-up of 5. Any more Democratic victories would constitute a monster Blue Wave.

State Legislatures

Regarding legislatures, there are 99 separate legislative chambers. (Nebraska has a unicameral legislature.) Of those, 87 will have elections and there will be more than 6,000 sets in play. Roughly 1 in 8 of the legislators elected this November will be legislators who deal with redistricting. There are also many other issues to be addressed at the state level (Medicaid, education, reproductive rights, gun laws—just to name a few.) The example of North Carolina, where the Republican legislature has worked day and night to hamstring the Democratic governor, makes it clear governors must have some legislative backing to protect the status quo, let alone make major changes.

Currently, Republicans hold 67 of these chambers and Democrats 32. Again, determination of which races are competitive is not an exact science—and it changes as the election gets closer. But it appears that between 13 and 21 of them are undecided races, including several where Democrats have a slight majority now.

Based on history alone, it is enormously likely that the party not holding the presidency will pick up seats. Losses for Democrats were particularly steep during the Obama years, but 1918 should be an opportunity for Democrats to win back some of these legislatures. Bringing the number of chambers controlled by Democrats to parity is probably too much of a reach—there are entire swaths of the country where Democrats are simply not competitive. But a good outcome would be to reduce the gap by 10 from the current gap of 35. A 15 or more pick up would be a very Blue Wave.


I have set down my idea of what would constitute a “blue wave”. Whether it happens will be up to the people who vote. If all those unhappy with Trumpian politics show up, I believe there will be a blue wave. But even if we get what I have defined as a “blue wave,” there will still be a lot of Republican control at various levels of government. So there will still be work to be done.

On the other hand, if a large chunk of those unhappy with Trump watch from the sidelines, Republicans will continue to largely own the machinery of government.

ADDENDUM        A week of hate

 I can’t tell what, if any, impact the events of last week will have on the midterms. But it was a horrible week:

  • The week started with a man groping a woman on an airplane fight and, when arrested, asked why couldn’t he do that since the president could.
  • On Wednesday, a white man shot two black people in a grocery store and then tried to get into a black church with his guns.
  • Pipe bombs were mailed to a dozen people who are either Democratic leaders, liberal supporters, or the media that Trump has attacked.
  • On Saturday, a man shouting anti-Semitic slogans opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing at least at eleven people.

One can argue that a handful of deranged people can’t be used to discredit an entire political party—or an individual politician. And it is also true that all ideological groups have some deranged folks. But it is very hard to look at this string of events–and the clear line they draw back to Donald Trump—without concluding that however it turns out, this election is a referendum on what kind of country we are willing to tolerate.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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