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Commentary: What a "win" looks like in the midterm elections

When it comes to Tuesday's midterms, what does a "win" look like?

If Democrats wake up on Wednesday and they're up 25 seats in the House but down two in the U.S. Senate—is that a win?  Will Republicans count narrowly losing the House but adding to their Senate majority a "loss?"

Nonsense, says pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson, co-founder of Echelon Insights. "A 'good night' as a measure of seats beyond those needed for a majority is purely about results compared to expectations, which I think is silly. If you pick up a chamber, even by a seat, you pick up the powers to investigate, block bills you dislike, set the agenda, and such. That's a good night," Anderson says.

Longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum is expecting "something north of 30 seats, maybe 40."

But is that what the grassroots activists and Democratic base are expecting? Or do they believe the #BlueWave is on its way, and anything less will be a letdown?

On the substance, Anderson is right.  It cannot be overstated how significant is it, from a governance standpoint, if the Democrats win the House by even a single vote. Just ask Senate Republicans who were serving in 2001 when Vermont Republican Jim Jeffords switched parties and handed control of the upper chamber to the Democrats.

Winning the majority, however slim, means controlling committees who can hold hearings and issue subpoenas. For example, Massachusetts liberal Richie Neal would take over the House Ways and Means Committee, which has oversight of the IRS; while Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland would lead the House Oversight Committee, which can investigate pretty much anyone.  The current over/under on how long it'll take Democrats in Congress to access Donald Trump's tax returns and dump them on the desk of the New York Times is 45 minutes. 

Assuming they hit traffic.

So in that sense, expectations are irrelevant. Nancy Pelosi doesn't need enthusiasm to become speaker, just votes.

But what about the millions of progressive activists who've poured their passion—and some $1 billion --into the #BlueWave? They've been reading Peter Hamby in Vanity Fair ("The Blue Wave is Real—And It's a Monster!").  They've been hearing talk about 40, 50….99 congressional seats in play! And Beto's about to win in Texas, yeehaw!

So what happens if, as CBS News' poll predicts, Democrats pick up just 25 seats? Or fewer—a real possibility?  And worse—thanks to likely pick-ups in the Senate, nominating the next Brett Kavanaugh just got easier? Does that sound like a big win?

Jim Geraghty, who's tracking the elections at the conservative National Review, says "a scenario of Democrats winning, say, 33 seats giving them a ten-seat majority would be on paper a good night (and I think that scenario's pretty plausible). But I suspect a lot of Democrats would feel disappointed with that, given the pro-Democratic hype in the media."

Poll analyst Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics takes a similar view: "I think a good night for Democrats will be if they pick up 30 seats and hold Republicans to their current majority, or maybe even a Republican pick up of just one," Trende says.

When asked if simply taking the majority by a single seat shouldn't count as a win, Trende said "It's a bit of an under-performance.  Plus, trying to get Reps.Ocasio-Cortez (progressive of Massachusetts) and Colin Peterson (Minnesota moderate) on board for anything."

And then there are the Democrats still suffering political PTSD from Trump's 2016 victory and who cannot allow themselves to imagine a Democratic victory for fear of another disappointment. Politico quotes a September AP/MTV poll that found 61 percent of Democrats under 35 report "feeling anxious" over the midterms, while others are literally traumatized. 

"We're kind of just in the bed-wetting phase now," Democratic pollster John Anzalone told Politico.

Meanwhile, Republican activists are starting to tell themselves another story: That a narrow win for the Democrats is really a loss. Look at Obama's first midterm—he lost 63 seats. Or Clinton's: Down 52.  If Trump only loses half that, and picks up Senate seats, that's far better than Democratic presidents have done.

And Republicans have added another talking point: Speaker Pelosi is Trump's ticket to re-election. She's one of the few politicians (other than Hillary Clinton) who polls as badly as he does. She's the perfect foil for Trump to use to eke out another win.

Of course, Democrats really could catch a wave, and Republicans could wake up devastated. They could lose Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee in the U.S. Senate and, theoretically, control of the entire Congress.

But if Democrats take the House, and all of your liberal friends are in a lousier mood about it than your Republican ones—don't be surprised.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.