Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump all lost their majority in the House of Representatives during their first midterm elections. It is brutal and chances are that the same will happen in less than two months to Joe Biden and the razor-thin Democratic majority in Congress. If that happens, attention and power shifts from the White House to Congress and in particular to the Speaker of the House.
But what if Democrats were to defy history? The political consequences would be huge. It would make a second run for Joe Biden more likely, and a candidacy for Trump more unlikely. And on the policy front, it would increase the chances for Roe vs. Wade becoming a law.
In the past, there were two such cases where the party in the White House won the midterm elections, and they were politically very consequential.
In 2002, George W. Bush was in the White House and Republicans won seats. Bush had entered the White House after a bitterly fought legal battle. It was only the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and his reaction to it, that made his approval ratings soar (which led to the win in the midterms). That was the time I was studying at the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University in Washington D.C., and I remember the midterm elections very well. Bush criss-crossed the country during the last 70 hours before the election as part of an important get-out-the-vote drive (in which several of my roommates who interned on the Hill participated). When the results came in, a commentator said, and I agree, that Bush effectively got elected president that night.
Another example is the election 1998. It was during Bill Clinton’s second term and Democrats won seats. At the time, Republicans in the House had impeached Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The move was seen as overly partisan by voters and Clinton’s approval rating reached new highs. A roaring economy was additional wind in Clinton’s back (and in fact his political life insurance). The election put an end to impeachment talks for more than two decades.