A brief history of wave elections

Welcome to the Thursday, July 28, Brew. 

By: David Luchs

Here’s what’s in store for you as you start your day:

  1. A brief history of wave elections
  2. Looking ahead to Michigan’s primaries
  3. Primary watch: number of contested state legislative primaries is up 25% compared to 2020

A brief history of wave elections

U.S. House waves occur disproportionately in first presidential midterm elections.

First presidential midterm elections made up 30% of all U.S. House elections from 1918-2016. But they also accounted for 54.5% of all House wave elections during that same time. That’s six of the 11 wave elections that happened in this period.

Second midterm elections, meanwhile, accounted for 18% of elections in that period and comprised 18.2% of U.S. House wave elections. Presidential elections accounted for 50% of elections and comprised 18.2% of U.S. House wave elections. Additionally, Franklin Roosevelt had a third midterm election in 1942, where a House wave occurred.

Before 1944, waves happened more often than during the post-war era. Six of the 11 wave elections happened from 1920 to 1942, with three favoring each party. Often precipitated by national emergencies, these elections led to swings of more than 10%.

The first wave in this period occurred in 1920 when House Republicans bolstered the majority they first won in 1916. The GOP gains were significant enough that the GOP House majority narrowly survived a Democratic wave in 1922. It was another eight years before the onset of the Great Depression led to two back-to-back waves for Democrats in 1930 and 1932 and a Democratic takeover of the House. In the years following 1932, Democrats built their majority up enough that they survived Republican waves in 1938 and 1942.

Republicans captured the House in the 1946 wave, the first time they controlled the chamber since the 1930 Democratic wave. However, they only briefly held a majority, as Democrats took the chamber back in 1948. After that, Republicans more or less entered a receding tide for the next 46 years. Republicans briefly took the House back in 1952 (before losing it again in 1954) and had a wave in their favor in 1966 (which did not lead to them recapturing the chamber). It was not until 1994 that Republicans caught a wave that was large enough to allow them to retake the House. 

Following the 2004 elections, Democrats had 201 seats, 17 below the 218 seats required for a majority. Over the next two elections, Democrats brought themselves to 233 seats and then to 256 seats. Neither election constituted a wave on its own, but, together, the gains were large enough to create a “combined wave,” or one that built over multiple cycles. 

In 2010, the Republicans won back the lower chamber with a wave of their own, winning 63 seats. The 2010 election was the last U.S. House wave election that took place in the period between 1918 and 2016. 

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Looking ahead to Michigan’s primaries

Earlier this week, we previewed next Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona and Kansas. Now, let’s take a look at the primaries taking place that day in Michigan.

Congressional elections

All 13 of Michigan’s seats in the U.S. House are up for election this year. Michigan was one of seven states to lose a seat in the round of apportionment following the 2020 census. There are two districts—the 10th and 13th—that are open because no incumbent filed. The other 11 districts each have an incumbent running, including the 11th district, where U.S. Reps. Haley Stevens (D) and Andy Levin (D) are running against one another in the Democratic primary.

The other two primaries we’re watching are the Republican primary in the 3rd district and the Democratic primary in the 12th district. In the 3rd district, incumbent Peter Meijer is running against challenger John Gibbs. Meijer was one of 10 House Republicans to vote in favor of impeaching President Trump following the Capitol breach on Jan. 6, 2021. In the 12th district, incumbent Rashida Tlaib is running against challengers Kelly Garrett, Shanelle Jackson, and Janice Winfrey.

State-level elections

Michigan primary voters will also select nominees for governor and all 148 seats in the state legislature. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is unopposed in the Democratic primary. Six candidates are running in the Republican primary. Tudor Dixon, Ryan Kelley, Kevin Rinke, and Garrett Soldano lead in fundraising and polling.

A May report by the state board of elections found that 36 petition circulators had forged more than 68,000 signatures across multiple campaigns’ nominating petitions, including five candidates for governor, all of whom were disqualified as a result. One of the five, James Craig, is running as a write-in. As of July 20, Craig had the third-highest fundraising total of the Republican candidates.

Although Michigan voters will elect candidates to another 11 statewide executive offices this year, political parties select nominees to those offices at nominating conventions.

All 148 seats in the state legislature—110 in the state House and 38 in the state Senate—are also up for election this year. Republicans control both chambers, with a 22-16 majority in the state Senate and a 56-53 majority in the state House with one vacancy. Forty-five state legislators are prevented from running for re-election due to term limits; seven state senators and 38 state representatives. The term-limited legislators include 29 Republicans and 16 Democrats. The 38 term-limited state representatives account for 35% of the chamber, the most out of any state lower chamber up this year.

Michigan is one of 40 states without primary runoffs, meaning whichever candidate receives the most votes will win the nomination.

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Primary watch: number of contested state legislative primaries is up 25% compared to 2020

We’re back with this week’s update regarding contested primaries. Based on the most recent data, there are 25% more contested state legislative primaries this year than in 2020, including 55% more Republican primaries and 8% more top-two/four primaries. Democratic primaries are down 8%.

These figures include elections in 36 states that account for 4,538 of the 6,166 state legislative seats up for election this year (74%).

A primary is contested when there are more candidates running than available nominations, meaning at least one candidate must lose.

Since our last update on July 18, we have added post-filing deadline data from Connecticut and Delaware. Overall, 11 states in this analysis have Democratic trifectas, 19 have Republican trifectas, and six have divided governments.

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