Can Democrats claw their way back to power in the House? They're counting on Trump to help

Looking at the numbers, Democrats seem to have a better chance seizing control of the Senate in 2018 than winning a majority and clawing their way back to power in the House.

Republicans hold a mere 52-48 Senate majority while outnumbering Democrats in the House by 44 seats, with five vacancies.

But elections are not about mathematics, or determined by probability.

Though Democrats need to win just three seats to take over the Senate, the lay of the political landscape appears to strongly favor Republicans, who are defending nine seats in the 2018 midterm elections, compared to more than twice that — 25 — for Democrats.

In the House, Democrats need a gain in the neighborhood of 24 seats to take control.There are about 50 seats, give or take, that appear reasonably competitive. That suggests at least a decent chance that power could shift.

The most important factor will be President Trump and his standing with voters by the time November 2018 rolls around. Although he won’t be up for reelection until 2020, his policies and performance will be very much on the ballot in the midterm election. (For some, his super-sized personality will also be factor.)

Remind me again, when is election day in 2018?

On Nov. 6.

How many House seats will be up?

Unlike in the Senate, where roughly a third of members face reelection every six years, all 435 House seats will be on the ballot.

But only about 50 or so are competitive?

Well, that could change, especially if Trump’s subpar approval numbers fall even further. But for all the talk of voter anger and the widespread contempt for Congress registered in opinion polls, the overwhelmingly majority of incumbents will be sent back to Washington — most without having to break a sweat.

Nice work if you can get it!

Indeed. In many states, politicians did a masterful job drawing congressional boundaries that effectively eliminate serious competition, by loading up districts with voters who can be counted on to vote for one party or the other. Also, the growing inclination of people to live among like-minded peers means that most Republicans and Democrats represent districts that tilt strongly toward one or the other major party.

That said, there are 23 Republicans representing districts that Democrat Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, and 12 Democrats sitting in districts that Trump won.

Here's why the 2018 Senate election will be crucial for President Trump and his Democratic foes »

Isn’t it right about now you bring up historical trends?

Yup, and here we go: The president’s party has lost seats in 18 of the last 20 midterm elections, with an average loss of 33 seats in that time.

When’s the last time we had a midterm election with a Republican president?

Wow, really down in the weeds, aren’t you? That would be 2006 — which happens to be the year Democrats won control of the House after being in the minority for 12 years.

So that’s promising for Democrats, isn’t it?

Yes, but. In this age of Trump, all the usual assumptions and historical patterns have to be taken with that proverbial shaker of salt. Democrats were convinced he would not only lose the White House but prove a major drag on down-ballot candidates. They even entertained visions of a 30-seat House pickup giving them the majority after November. But Democrats won only six seats and, of course, were wrong about who’d be sitting in the White House right now.

But the dynamics of midterm election are different, no?

One would think so. Typically, the midpoint of a president’s term is a chance for voters to weigh in with a progress report of sorts. And, human nature being what it is, the frustrated and discontented are more likely to muster themselves to vote than those who are happy and contented. That’s why the president’s party almost always loses seats.

Holy-moly, I’m on the edge of my seat! Do we really have to wait until November 2018 to see what happens?

Yes, but. There are a handful of special elections in the next few months to fill vacant House seats and while there’s a serious danger of over-interpreting the results, the outcome could offer a few clues.

In Los Angeles, nearly two dozen candidates are vying to replace state Atty. Gen Xavier Becerra in a district that is virtually certain to elect a Democrat on June 6. (The primary election is April 4.) Similarly, in Montana, Kansas and South Carolina, Republicans seem very likely to hang onto the seats that Ryan Zinke, Mike Pompeo and Mick Mulvaney, respectively, gave up to join the Trump administration.

The most intriguing of the contests is taking place in Georgia, in a suburban Atlanta district that Trump barely won. The incumbent, Tom Price, stepped down to become secretary of Health and Human Services. If Democrats could snatch the seat away, or even keep the contest relatively close, that could offer a huge psychological boost.

Yeah, but psychology doesn’t win elections any more than probability.

True enough. But a strong Democratic showing would suggest the oppositional energy that has manifested itself at town halls and street protests could translate into a strong turnout in the midterm election. And that, in turn, could encourage prospective Democrats to take the plunge and run in 2018; right now is prime recruiting time.

I'm marking my calendar! When is that Georgia election?

The first round takes place on April 18. If no candidate receives a majority, the top two finishers, regardless of party, will advance to a runoff on June 20.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

Twitter: @markzbarabak

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