AAs the ballots continue to be counted, two things seem pretty certain about the midterm elections: Republicans have had a disappointing performance relative to expectations. However, in January they will find themselves in control of the House of Representatives after four years in the minority. Although the exact size of the GOP majority in the House will not be known until a few exclusive competitions are decided, in the 118th Congress the party will likely control somewhere around 220 seats in the 435-seat chamber. This working majority will at best be slightly less than what the Democrats had before. So what does this new GOP majority have to work for?
The temptation for rising House Republican leaders will be to shrug off all the criticism coming their way, emphasize that they won the seat for a second consecutive term and insist that the American people have given them a clear mandate to implement an agenda. diametrically opposed to the one Democrats have been pursuing for the past two years. That impulse is understandable given that Democrats passed major expenses bills without a single minority vote and insisted on The most expensive unilateral executive action in the nation’s history.
But for a party that doesn’t hold the White House and may not hold the Senate, mandate thinking can be quite dangerous — especially with such little sway over the chamber.
Historically, midterm elections are more invitations to course corrections than mandates to unseat the incumbent administration. If it is soon Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his conference act as if they are tasked with stopping a tepid Biden administration or even ousting the White House entirely, they could easily alienate the voters who carried them to victory in 2022.
If they want to build on their success in 2024 and beyond, Republicans must bring the concerns of their constituents to the forefront as they act as governing partners. Half a loaf is usually the most any group can hope for, and trying to hang on until the other side completely capitulates is a recipe for self-destruction.
Since all its members are up for election every two years, the House is able to register truly dramatic changes to match the changing national mood. To give the most dramatic example, the Democrats began the 1890s with a commanding majority of 238 seats (out of 332), only to face an almost complete wipeout in the midterm elections of 1894, in which voters expressed their disillusionment with the Panic in 1893. Republicans won a remarkable 117 seats in that election, and more than half of the members of the 54th House were freshmen. United behind a powerful leader and an industrial agenda in stark contrast to their increasingly populist-tinged Democratic opponents, this incarnation of the Republican Party rightly embraced a governing mandate from the American people. She continued to consolidate her advantages and control Washington for the next decade and a half.
But examples from more recent history show the dangers of over-interpreting midterm election results. With a net gain of 54 seats in the 1994 midterm elections, the Republicans ended four decades in the minority. Their leaders, especially the bigoted Newt Gingrich, (dubiously) believed that Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992 was a fluke caused by the enormous influence of H. Ross Perot. Their midterm victory was not just a rejection of the president’s unpopular health care plan, but an invitation to usher in an entirely different vision of governance, including an ambitious rollback to the welfare and regulatory state.
At the behest of his members, and especially the zealous group of 73 Republican freshmen, Gingrich sparked a dramatic confrontation in the winter of 1995-1996 that included prolonged government shutdowns and threats not to raise the debt ceiling. But the support he believed would carry him to victory evaporated, especially as it became clear that Republicans themselves were far from united in their ambitions to shrink government. If voters had punished Democratic overreach in 1994, they soon punished Republican overcorrection, giving Clinton an easy reelection victory in 1996. In 1998, a Republican-led impeachment that most Americans saw as unnecessary led to an unusual mid-term gain for the president’s party (and the end of Gingrich’s term).
Some commentators have talked about 2022 as if it might provide a chance for a fundamental reorientation of the US government, but in fact a fairly standard course correction has always been more likely. This year saw fourteen House incumbents fail to regain the party nomination—the most since 1992. The roughly 50 retirements were higher than normal, rather than showing some sort of 1894-style purge. 118 -th House should have something like 80 freshmen, noticeably fewer than the 94 in the 112th Congress, elected in 2010 at midterm.
Going into the election, it was clear that most Americans found something lacking in the Biden administration. But this is normal only for a sitting president. Instead of providing results that would have encouraged supercharged opposition to Biden (as only Florida voters did), Americans instead gave a mixed result, suggesting they favor moderation. Voters in a usually solidly Republican West Michigan district rejected Trump administration veteran John Gibbs, who unseated their incumbent Congressman Peter Meyer in the primary. On the other hand, early data also do not show that the electorate is turning left. In Oregon, progressives scored a victory when they stripped centrist Democrat Kurt Schrader of his party’s nomination. But their candidate, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, looks set to lose to Republican Lori Chavez-DeRimer.
In this muddled electoral environment, we have little reason to believe that the average voter will be happy if the GOP-controlled House threatens to default on the nation’s debt in the name of reversing recent Democratic spending decisions or pushing through third presidential impeachment in the last four years. For Republicans to set the stage for a third straight cycle of gains in the House, they will need to show they can deliver policies that directly help ordinary Americans—a feat that will necessarily require compromise in this closely divided chamber. and with a Democrat in the White House. This will require patience and a willingness to disappoint some elements in their party. But gradual policy-making capable of building their coalition has much more to offer the party than using a slim majority to pounce.
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