After winning narrow victories to take full control of the federal government in the 2020 elections, Democrats have a fleeting opportunity to pass major legislation, with a window for action that may close in less than two years. Republicans will dominate the upcoming round of congressional redistricting, and the long-running tendency of the president's party to lose seats in midterms is well-known. But congressional Democrats can flip the script by banning partisan gerrymandering—a move that will both make elections fairer and give the party a better chance to prevail in 2022.
Republican victories in key legislative elections last year mean that the GOP is now positioned to draw new maps in states home to 38% to 46% of districts nationwide. Democrats, by contrast, will hold the cartographer’s pen in just 16% to 17% of all districts, giving the GOP an advantage of two or three to one. This disparity, combined with the threat that the increasingly right-wing Supreme Court may exacerbate the GOP's power to gerrymander within the states they control, means that, without further reforms, the congressional landscape is all but certain to remain skewed toward the GOP in 2022, following after two decades in which it already gave Republicans a large advantage.
The House isn’t the only chamber where the playing field institutionally favors Republicans. The Senate does as well. Thanks to malapportionment and the legacy of a 19th-century GOP effort to carve out new states for partisan gain, Republicans have a major advantage in excess of their popular support. As a result, rural white voters possess disproportionate power at the expense of urban voters of color.
As our recently compiled spreadsheet illustrates, Senate Republicans have not won more votes or represented more Americans than Democrats since the late 1990s. Nevertheless, they’ve run the body just over half the time since, and this pattern of minority rule that existed continually from 2014-2020 may repeat itself next year. With more Americans increasingly voting straight tickets, it’s become almost impossible for Democrats to win the Senate unless the stars align as they did in 2018 and 2020.
The other major challenge Democrats face next year is that the president's party almost always loses a sizable number of seats in Congress in midterm elections, when opposition voters are energized to vote and the president's supporters are usually demobilized.
This dynamic has played out in every midterm since 2006, and the vast majority of them since World War II. The few exceptions include elections such as 2002, when the GOP benefited from George W. Bush’s post-9/11 surge in popularity combined with a pro-Republican shift in redistricting, or 1998, when Bill Clinton's approval rating peaked at over 60% amid the best economic growth cycle in decades and a backlash to the GOP’s impeachment efforts. Joe Biden is unlikely to benefit from such one-off factors, particularly since partisan polarization has only grown stronger in the ensuing years.
However, one mitigating factor for Democrats in 2022 is that, unlike in past midterms such as 2010 or 1994 when Democrats suffered massive downballot losses, Democrats have far fewer seats to protect that are hostile to their party at the presidential level.
In 2010, Democrats were defending 48 House seats that had voted for John McCain in 2008 and another 19 where Barack Obama won by less than his national margin. Democrats that November would go on to lose 50 of these 67 districts. The Senate story is similar: When Republicans flipped the Senate in 2014, Democrats were trying to hold seven seats in states that Obama had lost during his re-election campaign, and the GOP flipped all of them on its way to gaining nine seats that year.
Following the 2020 elections, however, Democrats hold just seven House districts that voted for Donald Trump and another 15 that Biden won by less than his national margin of 4 points. In the Senate, none of the states that are up in 2022 went for Trump, though four backed Biden by less than his national margin.
While House Democrats are unlikely to suffer a setback anywhere near as monumental as the 63 net seats that they lost in 2010, the post-2020 Democratic majority of just 222 seats out of 435 is also much smaller than the 256 seats the party held going into the 2010 elections. A net loss of only five seats would be enough to flip the House back to Republicans, which is entirely plausible—if not likely—if 2022 proves to be a typical midterm. In the Senate, likewise, Republicans only need to capture a single seat to take back the chamber next year, compared to the six that they needed to flip in 2014.
A booming economy and an end to the pandemic may boost Democrats’ fortunes in 2022 by propping up Biden's approval rating, but the combined threats of GOP gerrymandering, Senate malapportionment, and the typical midterm penalty make Democrats the underdogs next year. Consequently, congressional Democrats must make the most of what limited time they have to pass reforms that are critical for preserving democracy from an increasingly authoritarian Republican Party.
Chief among those reforms is using Congress' constitutional powers to ban congressional gerrymandering by requiring states to adopt independent redistricting commissions and adhere to nonpartisan criteria when drawing new maps in order to promote fairness. House Democrats have passed just such a bill, the "For the People Act"—best known as H.R. 1—which also includes a historic expansion of voting access protections. But enacting it into law will require Democrats to overcome a filibuster, which means getting every Democratic senator on board with changing Senate rules.
Another critical piece of legislation that would reduce the Senate’s pro-Republican bias would be to grant statehood to Washington, D.C., which would end the disenfranchisement of 700,000 American citizens and add a heavily urban and Black state to a body that underrepresents both groups. However, D.C. statehood on its own would only give Democrats two more Senate seats at most and still leave the Senate with a large tilt toward the GOP. To level the playing field further, Democrats should also offer statehood to Puerto Rico, an idea the island voted in favor of in a referendum last year, and consider further ways to expand the chamber.
Most congressional Republicans supported Trump’s attempted coup d’etat following his defeat, underscoring that the party that controls Congress will also hold the fate of free and fair elections in its hands. It’s readily conceivable that a Republican-controlled Congress could simply reject an Electoral College results it doesn’t like in 2024, just as two-thirds of House Republicans voted to do mere hours after Trump incited an insurrectionist mob that stormed the Capitol.
To avoid this future of escalating autocracy, Democrats must pass serious structural reforms to our democracy while they still can. Time is short, and growing shorter.