A Short History of Midterm Elections

If the past is indeed prologue, then Republicans shouldn’t get too cocky.

A popular and charismatic president in a time of great economic distress has large majorities in both the House and Senate. He tries to push through Congress a highly unpopular measure that, in the opinion of many, would have fundamentally altered the nature of the country. Meanwhile the economy was failing to recover. At the midterm elections, despite strenuous efforts on his part, he gets clobbered.

Barack Obama in 2010? No, Franklin Roosevelt in 1938. Roosevelt had carried 46 states in 1936. But his attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court had run into ferocious opposition and was defeated. Meanwhile the economy, which had been slowly recovering from the depths of the Great Depression, turned south again. Unemployment, which had fallen to 14.3% from its Depression high, shot back up to 19%.

In that midterm, Republicans picked up 80 seats in the House and seven in the Senate. But because they were coming off the worst legislative numbers in their history (16 seats in the Senate and 89 in the House), the Democrats easily retained control of Congress. Nevertheless, a chastened Roosevelt pushed no more major domestic legislation.

The reason presidents tend to do badly in midterms is that they have maximum political capital immediately after election and try to do the tough stuff in their first two years. They then pay the price for it in the next election, as marginal seats are lost. In a successful presidency, they often regain those seats two years later when they run, once again, at the top of the ticket.

Sometimes it is not just the president and his controversial programs that cause the losses, but the congressional majority as well. In 1994, two years into Bill Clinton’s first term, the Democrats had been in charge of the House for 40 years and had more than gotten used to it. Then came the Congressional Post Office scandal. Some members had used the House post office to embezzle funds (chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski, would go to jail for it). Many members had run chronic overdrafts at the House bank, where sloppy and sometimes criminal procedures were the norm.

The Republicans led by Newt Gingrich capitalized on this to win a majority, picking up 54 seats. Among the losers were Tom Foley, the first sitting speaker of the House to lose his congressional seat since 1862.

Franklin Roosevelt

But the banking and post office scandals of the 1990s were penny-ante compared with the congressional shenanigans before the 1874 election. The management of the Union Pacific Railroad, which had been given huge federal subsidies to build part of the first transcontinental railroad, formed a construction company and then hired it to construct the railroad. The company—to which they had given a fancy French name, Crédit Mobilier—wildly overcharged the railroad and was, therefore, wildly profitable. The shield company allowed Union Pacific management to line its pockets with taxpayer money while maintaining that Crédit Mobilier was an independent contractor.

To ensure there would be no congressional investigation, the management of Crédit Mobilier (including Massachusetts Congressman Oakes Ames) handed out stock to 20 members of Congress and the vice president. The scandal broke in 1873, when disgruntled insiders spilled the beans to the New York Sun. The story helped bring on the great financial panic in September of that year. The result was a bloodbath for the Republicans. They held over 68% of the seats in the House in 1874; after the election, they held just 35%, and the Democrats had a majority for the first time since before the Civil War.

Perhaps the most fateful midterm election as far as history is concerned was 1918. Only six days before World War I ended, the Republicans gained 25 seats in the House and seven in the Senate to take control of both houses for the first time since Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1912. The new majority leader of the Senate was Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. His views on foreign policy were very different from those of the president, who sailed for Paris a month later to negotiate the peace treaty. Despite Lodge’s request, Wilson refused to allow any Republican of note to accompany him to Paris, although a treaty would require consent from the Republican-controlled Senate. He was determined to get a League of Nations and paid a heavy price in Paris to get it, acceding to the vengeful peace that the British and French were determined to get in return.

Lodge was adamant that the treaty must not commit the United States to any action ordered by the League. Refusing to compromise, Wilson undertook a speaking tour hoping to drum up enough support for the treaty to force its acceptance by the Senate. The effort brought on a stroke, permanently reducing Wilson to an invalid. The treaty failed in the Senate and the U.S. never joined the League. Without the world’s most powerful country, the League failed dismally and Wilson’s dream of world peace enforced by collective action turned into a 20-year truce ending in World War II.

But while midterm elections can be brutal for presidents and congressional majorities alike, they are not necessarily fatal. In 1946, the Republicans took 12 seats in the Senate and 55 in the House, to take control of both chambers for the first time since 1930. Two years later, the Democrats gained nine in the Senate and 75 in the House and took control right back.

Both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were widely regarded, at least in the liberal media, as one-term presidents in the making after midterm losses in 1970 and 1982, respectively. Two years later they each won 49 states. Bill Clinton was re-elected in 1996 after his party’s 1994 midterm thumping and the subsequent overreach by the GOP-controlled House.

So, as a student of history, I would subscribe to the blogger Glenn Reynolds’s advice to Republicans both before and after their electoral triumph on Tuesday: “Don’t get cocky.”

Mr. Gordon is the author of “An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power” (HarperCollins, 2004).

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