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An Institut Montaigne Explainer: US Midterm Elections

An Institut Montaigne Explainer: US Midterm Elections
 Louise Chetcuti
Project Officer - United States and Transatlantic Affairs

The 2022 US midterm election is underway. With the primary season over in all 50 states, both parties are shifting their focus to the general election on Nov. 8. These midterms will determine the political makeup of Congress for the next two years, impacting what President Biden can achieve over the remainder of his time in office. With a month to go until the election, Louise Chetcuti, Editorial Content Officer, explains what the midterms are, why they matter, and this year’s stakes in Institut Montaigne’s latest Explainer.

What are midterms? 

In the United States, midterm elections are the congressional elections held halfway through a president's four-year term (hence the name "midterms"), always on even-numbered years and on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November. For reference, the most recent midterm election took place in 2018, following President Trump’s election in November 2016. By definition, no midterm elections are held during a presidential election year.

Midterm elections allow Americans to vote directly for their representatives at the state and local levels - typically members of Congress, governors and mayors. The midterm model, which delivers victory to the winner of the popular vote, stands in contrast to the presidential election and its indirect Electoral College system.

Why do midterms matter?

Although the international press grants them less coverage, and despite having voter turnout levels consistently lower when compared to presidential elections, midterms carry high stakes and impact the functioning of the US government. They determine the balance of power in Congress (made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate), and in doing so, affect both the content of future bills, as well as their ability to pass. Democrats currently control both the House and the Senate. If Republicans win in November, they will use newfound majorities in the House, and possibly the Senate, for intense oversight of the Biden administration. Biden (who already struggled to pass tax, climate, and energy bills) will find it even more difficult to generate bipartisan support for Democratic policy priorities. Broadly speaking, whoever controls Congress controls the political agenda. 

Midterm elections are almost always a referendum on the sitting president and reflect voters' perception of the ruling party's performance. Policymakers and pundits look to them as an indicator of which party will go on to take control of the White House two years later. 

It is an ironclad rule in American politics that the president’s party almost always loses ground in midterm elections.

It is an ironclad rule in American politics that the president's party almost always loses ground in midterm elections. The 2006 midterm election - and the Republican loss of 39 seats in the House and the Senate - left President George W. Bush's GOP repudiated. Democrats won back control of the House and the Senate, along with a majority of the nation's governorships for the first time since the 1994 Republican Revolution. Bush described it as a "thumping". 

Then after the 2010 midterms, a sobered President Obama acknowledged that his party's devastating loss of 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats was "a shellacking". His once high-flying relationship with the American voter hit its first major rough patch. And in 2018, the House's shift to the left under President Donald Trump was known as a "blue wave" in which the Republican Party gave up 41 House seats.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of US eligible voters voted that year, the highest midterm turnout rate in recent history. These midterms reinforced the Democratic party's momentum and exposed the GOP's vulnerabilities with Trump at its helm. It remains to be seen if a red wave might hit President Biden's Democrats in 2022. 

The 2022 midterm elections 

During this 2022 midterm election cycle, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate are contested (senators are elected to six-year terms, and every two years, approximately ⅓ of senators face election or re-election). Additionally, 36 out of 50 states will elect governors, including in nine of the ten biggest states (incumbents running for reelection include Democrats Gavin Newsom of California and Kathy Hochul of New York, and Republicans Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas). Thousands of state legislators - state senators and state representatives - are also on the ballot. This will be the first election following the redistricting triggered by the findings of the 2020 census, a process that happens every 10 years once new census data allows to track of changes in the country's population. Redistricting is the months-long process by which congressional and state legislative maps are redrawn by using new census data to ensure the equal representation of all Americans.

Democrats currently have an extremely narrow majority in Congress. The Senate is a 50-50 split (with Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote giving them the advantage), and Speaker Nancy Pelosi's control of the House rests on a slim margin - Democrats control it with a 221-212 advantage, only three more than the number needed for the majority. Republicans only need to gain five seats to win back the majority in the House. The Senate is a more competitive field, unfavorable to Republican prospects according to FiveThirtyEight’s 2022 midterm election forecast

Republicans' prospects of winning the House could be enhanced by the practice of gerrymandering, the redrawing of congressional district lines by state legislatures for partisan benefit. (The line between redistricting, explained above, and gerrymandering is blurry at best). Republicans, who control the majority of US statehouses, have final authority to draw congressional districts in 20 states vs. Democrats’ 8 states, and as such, can refashion districts to favor their own candidates. Several congressional maps in place for the 2022 midterm elections are being challenged in court as illegal gerrymanders, in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio.

Republicans' prospects of winning the House could be enhanced by the practice of gerrymandering.

David Wasserman, Cook Political Report’s senior editor for the US House of Representatives, said using rejected maps in these states, which make up nearly 10% of the seats in the House, was likely to hand Republicans five to seven House seats that they otherwise would not have won. However, none of these cases seem likely to be overturned before - the midterms (especially since the Supreme Court is now led by conservative Justices, of which three were appointed by Trump).

As mentioned earlier, midterms frequently serve as a referendum on the sitting president. Republicans were confident of a red wave heading into 2022, due in large part to Biden's low approval ratings, (at 42% for September, up slightly from the 38% that marked his personal low point in July, inflation levels that have not been seen in decades, the lingering effects of COVID-19, and fraying trust in civic institutions. But election prognosticators have recalibrated their views, arguing that GOP control of the House is "no longer a foregone conclusion" and raising concern that the referendum they anticipated on President Biden is being complicated by former President Donald Trump. The number of seats the GOP could likely pick up has been revised downward, and in pivotal Senate races, Democratic candidates have largely outpolled their opponents. It remains to be seen whether these improved prospects for the midterms will be enough for the Democrats to maintain control of Congress. 

Campaign issues:

Inflation and the economy 

Americans consistently say the economy is their biggest concern - and this year is no different, especially with the latest Labor Department report pegging inflation at 8.3% in August. Right now, it's looking like the Inflation Election. The high cost of food, gas and household goods will weigh heavily at the polls.

Another legislative win worth highlighting is Biden's hallmark Inflation Reduction Act - the spending package signed into law mid-August.

According to a Pew Research Center poll, about three-quarters of registered voters (77%) said the economy is very important to their vote. Inflation overshadows what is otherwise an economic success story for the Biden administration: with 20 consecutive months of job growth, the low unemployment rate (at 3.5% for September according to the Labor Department's jobs report), the steady decrease in gas prices after record-high levels in mid-June, and the recent forgiveness of $10,000 - $20,000 in federal student debt for most borrowers - a financial relief to millions.

Another legislative win worth highlighting is Biden's hallmark Inflation Reduction Act - the spending package signed into law mid-August - which aims to combat climate change, address health care costs, and reduce the national deficit by imposing a 15% minimum tax on corporations, among other provisions.

Gun policy and crime

Gun policy remains among Americans' top concerns, albeit distantly trailing inflation. According to the previously cited poll, 62% considered gun policy and violent crime (60%) as very important to their vote. That said, not everyone is prioritizing these issues in the same way. Democrats are more likely to cite gun violence as a problem than either independents or Republicans, whereas Republicans are more concerned about how best to address crime. Across the US, Republicans are attacking Democrats as being too soft on crime to rally voters. In this final phase of the campaign, Republicans are intensifying their focus on public safety, hoping to shift the debate onto political terrain that many of the party’s strategists and candidates view as favorable. 

The importance of gun policy has taken on new meaning after egregious incidents of gun violence that transpired in recent months - more particularly, the mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas (that left 31 people dead, including 19 children), and during the July 4th parade in Highland Park, Illinois. The Pew poll was conducted after Congress passed the first bipartisan gun legislation in 25 years, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act signed into law on June 25, 2022, and also after the Supreme Court ruled in support of the right to carry handguns in public.


Abortion was catapulted to the forefront with the Supreme Court's decision to strike down Roe v. Wade, stripping abortion of its constitutional protection. In the aforementioned poll, 56% of registered voters cited abortion as a top concern. 

Key constituencies for Democrats especially consider abortion rights to be their prime motivator and the toppling of Roe could well boost them by massively mobilizing abortion rights supporters. The win for Pat Ryan, a Democrat against anti-choice Republican Marcus Molinaro, in a special election for New York’s 19th congressional district, offers one of the clearest signs yet that abortion can be a powerful motivator in midterm races.

Key constituencies for Democrats especially consider abortion rights to be their prime motivator.

In addition, voters in Kansas - a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, and that elected Donald Trump by 15 points in 2020 - rejected a constitutional amendment that would ban abortion in that state on August 2nd.

Immigration and the border

Another issue among American voters is a forever divisive one: immigration. Particularly important on the Right, some Republican campaign TV spots - like those, for Gov. Brian Kemp in Georgia, Sen. Rick Scott in Florida, and Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake - have used heated rhetoric describing an "invasion" at the Southern border. Over half of American adults (Republicans and Democrats combined) believe it is either completely or somewhat true that the US is experiencing an invasion at the southern border, according to an August 2022 NPR/Ipsos poll, and 48% of voters polled named the topic as very important to their vote. Certain congressional candidates have come out fiercely in opposition to immigration. By tapping into the concerns of voters, particularly about the border crisis, they could garner massive support. Blake Masters' surprising GOP primary win in Arizona can partly be attributed as a result of his hardline immigration stance. His Senate race against current Democrat Senator Mark Kelly is one of the most closely watched ones (along with races for the Senate in Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin)

Other issues: energy policy, foreign policy, climate, and issues around race and ethnicity

Other critical electoral issues for voters include energy policy (53%), foreign policy (45%), the size and scope of the federal government (42%), climate change (40%), and issues around race and ethnicity (35%). Roughly a quarter of voters mentioned the COVID-19 pandemic as important to their vote, the lowest of all issues listed in the survey.

Finally, it is important to note that taken separately, Democrats' and Republicans' priorities differ. If we look at key concerns among the GOP, the economy ranks first by far. Nine out of ten Republican voters view the economy as very important, roughly 20 percentage points higher than any other issue (vs. about 7 out of 10 Democratic voters). Among Democrats, 77% cite health care as a very important voting issue, while about two-thirds or more say the same about abortion and gun policy (71% each), Supreme Court appointments (69%), and climate change (66%). Republicans hold a firm lead on the economy, inflation and crime, but Democrats have the advantage on abortion and climate change. 

With Election Day a month away and a stack of divisive issues on the table, it remains to be seen how the balance of power in the House and Senate may ultimately shift. The electoral climate in October looks less grim for the Democrats than just a few months ago. But much can change before voters head to the polls… We're headed for a much more unpredictable November than we previously thought.



Copyright: Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images via AFP

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