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Understanding the Outcome of the 2022 US Midterms

Analyses - 7 December 2022

Final results are in for the midterms, as Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock wins the December Senate runoff in Georgia, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker. Following our Explainer about the election and its stakes, this follow-up article by Louise Chetcuti, Editorial Content Officer, examines what happened and what we might expect in the next two years leading to the 2024 election. 

Republicans were expecting sizable wins in the midterm elections. This fueled narratives around a red wave the GOP was expected to ride off of President Biden's low approval ratings (which dipped to 39% in November), concerns about inflation, and the fact the party that holds the White House tends to lose seats during midterm elections. However, this red wave failed to materialize. Republicans narrowly flipped the House and Democrats retained a slim majority in the Senate.

Overview of the wins and losses

35 of the 100 Senate seats were up for grabs in this election. In defiance of political gravity, Democrats kept control of the Senate by securing 51 seats. They just gained an extra seat with Senator Raphael Warnock's win in the December 6 Georgia runoff. Despite the odds, four Democratic incumbents (Arizona's Mark Kelly, Georgia's Raphel Warnock, Nevada's Catherine Cortez Masto, and New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan) all retained their seats. Democrat John Fetterman of Pennsylvania even managed to flip the state's open seat from red to blue. Only one seat is left unresolved in Alaska, where Lisa Murkowski is now neck-and-neck with Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka (Trump-backed). It is unclear when Alaska's Senate race will be called but Murkowski is the very likely projected winner.

The House is a different story. All 435 seats were on the ballot this cycle. Republicans flipped the chamber after just four years out of power, winning 221 seats to Democrats' 213. Democrats performed better than expected, though Republicans won after victories in several competitive races. 

Democrats performed better than expected, though Republicans won after victories in several competitive races. 

Finally, at the state level, Democrats posted gains in both legislatures and governorships (36 seats of state governors were up for election). Democrats essentially held their ground. They scored important victories, for instance, by picking up Maryland and Massachusetts, the only two governorships that changed color (going from red to blue). Two races attracted a lot of attention: Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania, and Kari Lake of Arizona, two Republican candidates who were in the spotlight due to their Trump allegiance and the fact that they denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

Both lost to their Democratic opponents. Mastriano lost to Democratic Josh Shapiro, preventing an outcome where Mastriano could have interfered with the results of the 2024 presidential election in Pennsylvania. Democrats also won all six secretary of state elections where Republican election deniers were seeking office in a 2024 swing state (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). In short, Democrats had a good election on the state level, though they did incur some important losses:

  • The only massive "red wave" that materialized was in the Sunshine State. In Florida, GOP governor Ron DeSantis won by a landslide of more than a million and a half votes, (the largest margin of any Florida governor in 40 years). Republicans also won by astounding margins in key races - incumbent Marco Rubio has been reelected to the Senate - and Republicans flipped four Democrat-held House seats, a result helped by the fact that DeSantis pushed through a new congressional map favoring the GOP. 

  • They lost ground in the solid-blue stronghold of New York, where Republicans performed stronger than some analysts expected and flipped four congressional seats. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney lost his race and ceded his seat to GOP challenger Mike Lawler. Democrats struggled to overcome fears about crime and suburban backlash against the election of Kathy Hochul (the state's first woman to be elected governor). Republicans also won back two of four Hudson Valley congressional seats.

  • Finally in Georgia, GOP Governor Brian Kemp overcame a challenge from Democrat Stacey Abrams, beating her for a second time. During the campaign, Kemp highlighted his stewardship of the state economy and his decision to relax public restrictions early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Since nearly half of Georgia voters considered the economy as the most pressing issue facing the country, this played in Kemp's favor. He is known to stick to conservative priorities and is respected by some moderates for standing up to former President Trump's pressure to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

How can we explain such results? 

Democrats lost fewer seats in the House of Representatives than any democratic president’s first midterm election in at least 40 years. How come?

Abortion

The Dobbs decision, arguably, will go down in history as a "midterm-altering event" comparable to the Clinton impeachment in 1998 or the performance of Bush in 2002 following the 9/11 attacks. While inflation was a preoccupation for Americans in this year's midterm elections, the Supreme Court's June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade significantly motivated key voting blocs. 

There were already a few signs over the summer that this would be the case: the win for Democrat Pat Ryan against anti-choice Republican Marcus Molinaro in a special election for New York’s 19th congressional district, and the fact that voters rejected a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in August in the heavily-Republican state of Kansas. Compounding this, Americans voiced their preference for abortion rights on special ballot measures during the midterms, casting votes in support of reproductive freedom everywhere where it appeared: California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, and Vermont. Pro-choice coalitions prevailed in red, blue, and purple states. Abortion was not necessarily a top-of-mind matter, but it did dent the GOP's popularity.

Compounding this, Americans voiced their preference for abortion rights on special ballot measures during the midterms, casting votes in support of reproductive freedom everywhere where it appeared.

The quality of Republican candidates

The weakness of several Republican nominees also explains the outcome. The most vocal presidential election deniers lost. These include Blake Masters and Kari Lake (Arizona), Herschel Walker (Georgia), Joe Lombardo (Nevada), Don Bolduc (New Hampshire), and Mehmet Oz (Pennsylvania) - all Trump-backed candidates. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell himself voiced concerns over some candidates back in August and he seemed to have told the hard truth. President Biden recognized that there was a "strong rejection of election deniers, political violence, and intimidation" and Republican Liz Cheney (who lost her Republican House primary in August to a Trump-backed rival) echoed a similar sentiment by describing these election results as "a clear victory for team normal" where the pull of partisanship did not outweigh flawed candidates.

Other factors: aggressive campaigning, mobilization of generation Z and "Trump fatigue" 

The Democrats' campaigning and "door-knocking strategies" proved to be winning strategies. Activists carried different messages (and messengers) to win their ballot initiative campaigns, deploying themes specific to the state’s values. In Montana for instance, where reproductive rights were on the ballot, organizers tried to capture the sense of pride Montana voters have in their right to privacy (emblematic of the state) and, consequently, managed to defeat Montana's anti-abortion ballot amendments. In Vermont, organizers talked about doing things "the Vermont way" in a nod to the state's nonpartisan ethos. This paved the way for reproductive rights to be enshrined in the Vermont Constitution. Democrats also pumped an unprecedented amount of money into advertising, investing more than $124 million this year in TV ads referencing abortion. Vriti Jain, a messaging strategist at the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), noted in an NPR article how abortion "really hits people personally. And that's part of why you are seeing it show up on the airwaves across the country". 

Results point to a repudiation of some of the most extreme candidates on the far right and a pivot back to the center.

Democrats also fought unconventionally and it should be mentioned. In the Republican primaries, they often supported (via money and ads) the more extreme GOP candidate, believing (rightly) that such a candidate would turn off centrists who would then vote Democratic in the election. They were criticized for it but it worked: results point to a repudiation of some of the most extreme candidates on the far right and a pivot back to the center.

Generation Z voters (born between 1997 and 2012) were also key. This election registered the second-highest youth voter turnout in almost three decades (less than the 2018 midterms but more than any other before that). The youngest voting generation is strongly pro-choice and supportive of reproductive healthcare. According to exit voting polls, 1 in 8 midterm voters was under 30, and 61% of those who were between 18 and 34 voted for blue. Gen Z power is only growing, and it will permanently change the dynamics of elections. The results pushed Fox News pundits Jesse Watters and Laura Ingraham to suggest raising the legal voting age to 21.

Finally, Democrats also managed to capitalize on the Capitol assault to blemish Republicans' national image. In the final days before the election, Biden put the democracy question front and center, asking voters to use their ballots to stand up against violence and "ultra MAGA" election disruptors. This "Save Democracy" strategy was embraced by Democrats and it seems to have paid off. 

What preliminary conclusions can we draw for the next two years? 

Trump's presidential bid & the GOP going forward

Donald Trump's presidential announcement speech on November 15 was described as "one of the most low-energy, uninspiring speeches ever delivered" by Trump's former White House spokesperson Sarah Matthews. The former president offered nothing new, apart from old promises and complaining about Biden and the Left. Following his announcement of a third presidential bid, many House and Senate Republicans recoiled, a sign of his waning support for Trump on Capitol Hill. 

The fact that neither Donald Trump Jr. nor Ivanka were present at Mar-a-Lago, or the fact that none of the networks carried the speech (Fox News even cut away at it multiple times) is telling of the former president’s waning influence in the GOP. Rupert Murdoch who owns most conservative cable channels (Fox News, Forbes, The Times of London and The Wall Street Journal), also made clear he would cast aside Donald Trump in favor of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the leader of the Republican party.​

The fact that neither Donald Trump Jr. nor Ivanka was present at Mar-a-Lago is telling of the former president’s waning influence in the GOP.

He is nevertheless back on the hunt for the Republican nomination, despite his severe strategic and polling problems, not to mention his legal difficulties (relating to the Jan. 6 Hearing Committee or the fact that a Manhattan jury found two Trump Organization companies guilty in tax fraud scheme). They all add up to a very rough trajectory over the next several months. While it is too early to make any 2024 projections, it will be interesting to monitor the evolution of the GOP and the presidential primaries. 

Biden & the Democratic Party 

As Robert Shapiro and Dominique Moïsi pointed out in a piece they co-authored for Institut Montaigne, Democrats maintaining the Senate provides an important safeguard allowing Biden’s political and judicial nominees to be confirmed, while also providing leverage when it comes to carrying out the president's legislative agenda and policy decisions. On top of this, the extra seat they secured (bringing the majority to 51 seats) with Senator Warnock’s re-election gives them more power. One big reason concerns judges: having an extra senator on the Democratic side allows Democrats to move judges through the Senate confirmation process faster. Confirming judges Biden nominates is a priority, especially since the Supreme Court is now led by conservative Justices (of which three were appointed by Trump). Also in the Senate, Committees with Democratic majorities have more leverage to conduct oversight investigations that Republicans object to. Finally, there's also a possibility Democrats lose a senator to resignation (or death) in the coming two years. Having a 51st senator is, therefore, valuable insurance. 

Many continue to be dissatisfied with Biden's performance but given the stakes, still voted Democrat.

But despite this Election being good news for President Biden, it's hard to argue that Democrats' performance was because of Biden. It would be more accurate to describe these victories in spite of him. Many continue to be dissatisfied with Biden's performance but given the stakes, still voted Democrat. His approval rating - hovering around 37% - has been low since the beginning of the year.

A majority of Democrats polled said they'd prefer someone else to be the party's nominee. So the burden on Biden is to show that he can not just win in 2024 but also lead for another four years.

Biden also faces the sobering reality of a Republican-controlled House. The next speaker will be from this Republican majority, as the caucus nominated Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to serve as speaker, who will likely take the gavel from Nancy Pelosi when the new Congress convenes on January 3. With Pelosi stepping down from the House leadership, Democrats elected Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York to serve as Minority leader (making him the first Black party leader in Congress). But Kevin McCarthy is blocked by 5 extreme Republicans who want another candidate. The decision will be known in early January.

In terms of the President’s legislative agenda, while fiscal issues will be front and center in the current lame-duck session of Congress, several other items also remain ripe for action, including raising the debt ceiling or codifying the federal recognition of sex-same marriages into law. Democrats must capitalize on this momentum before January 2023. A recent example is seen with the Senate passing the Respect for Marriage Act to codify same-sex and interracial marriages through federal protections. The House will now need to approve it before sending it to President Biden’s desk to be signed into law (legislation is expected to pass before the end of the year).

An affirmation of US democracy?

The 2022 midterm elections were a testimony to the solidity of American democratic institutions. The unfolding of the electoral process itself went well. There was important voter mobilization (not the most historic, but unusually high), revealing that the system still attracts. Moreover, election deniers performed surprisingly poorly, another positive sign for democracy. Voting rights advocates consider the rebuke of "election deniers" as a refreshing course correction by Americans, whose choice of less extreme candidates reflects a desire for election security. Election deniers candidates recognized defeat. Doug Mastriano (the far-right Republican from Pennsylvania) conceded defeat to Democrat Josh Shapiro's victory for instance. And, most importantly for 2024, Democrats rebuilt their backsides in pivotal states that Trump won in 2016: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania - this "blue wall") - winning against candidates who wanted to restrict voting access and the democratic nature of the presidential election. But concerns about American democracy continue, along with the need to strengthen democratic norms. This is a key point to keep in mind at the national level as the country soon prepares for its next presidential election in 2024.

 

Copyright: Stefani Reynolds / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

 

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