Just as Democrats did in 2020, Republicans came into the 2022 midterms expecting a landslide. Sky-high inflation, an unpopular President, and pessimism about the direction of the country all pointed to a 'typical' midterm romp for the party out of power.
But, as we have written extensively over the last two years, other fundamentals matter in our politics; fundamental structural realities make 'landslide' elections harder and harder to come by.
First, as I wrote earlier this fall (citing the amazing work of political scientists John Sides, Chris Tausanovitch, and Lynn Vavreck), events and the responses to them from politicians no longer have the ability to deeply and fundamentally reshape our politics or political coalitions. With fewer people willing to 'defect', even when they are unhappy with the status quo, you get more close elections and fewer 'wave' elections. Also, when every election is an existential election, the drop-off among 'in-party' voters, which was once common in midterm elections, is no longer the case. Mike Podhorzer, the former AFL-CIO political director and progressive strategist, has long argued that the 2018 and 2020 elections proved that there is an anti-MAGA voting majority in this country. As long as these voters turn out, he’s argued, Democrats will remain competitive in battleground states and districts. Moreover, Podhorzer told me on Wednesday morning, that the January 6th hearings were critical in “reminding people that Trump existed and that he was dangerous.” Combine that with the overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision and the ‘costs’ of a MAGA majority, he said, became even clearer to these voters.
Where independent voters go, so goes a midterm election. In the last four midterm elections, the party out of power carried these voters by double digits. This year, according to the national exit polls, Democrats actually carried independent voters by 2 points (49-47 percent).
All year I've been fascinated by a group of voters I dubbed "meh" voters. They weren't happy with the job that Biden was doing, and rated the economy as weak. Yet, they were also willing to support a Democratic candidate for Congress. President Trump and President Biden both came into their first midterm election with similar job approval ratings (44 percent approve to 55 percent disapprove). But, according to exit polls, among those who "somewhat" disapproved of Biden, 49 percent voted for the Democrat and 45 percent voted for the Republican. In 2018, those "somewhat" disapprovers of Trump voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate (63 percent to 34 percent).
Or, take a look at the economy. Exit polls found it to be the top issue for voters. That should help Republicans, right? Except that those who were "meh" (didn't think it was "good" or "poor" but instead rated it "not so good") voted overwhelmingly for Democrats — 62 percent to 35 percent.
The biggest challenge for Democrats coming into this election was defending a narrow 5-seat majority. The biggest challenge for Republicans was how few 'easy' seats there were to pick off. Even in great years for the 'out party' it's very hard to win seats in districts that went to the other party's presidential nominee by 6 points or more.
To win big in the House, Republicans needed to win a very high percentage of seats Biden had carried by 6 points or more, which didn't happen.
In early 2021, Gov. Brian Kemp was considered the most vulnerable GOP incumbent in the country. Today, he won re-election handily with 54 percent of the vote. In Florida, Ron DeSantis, who narrowly squeaked into office in 2018, crushed Democrat Charlie Crist with almost 60 percent of the vote. Kemp, of course, is one of the few Republicans to have survived Trump's wrath. DeSantis is Trump's most formidable potential rival. Both put a lot of coin in the 'credibility' bank this evening. Trump, meanwhile, watched many of his hand-picked candidates for governor and Senate go down to defeat. All eyes will be on Donald Trump for his November 15 "reveal" in Mar-A-Lago. But it's DeSantis who has the momentum for 2024.
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