Earlier this cycle I compared midterm elections to Mark Twain’s famous quip about history not repeating, but often rhyming. Each midterm election is unique, but there are also patterns and norms that are constants from one midterm to the next.
With the dust now (almost) settled, Twain’s quote was a pretty accurate summation of the 2022 midterm elections.
There was much about this midterm that rhymed with established patterns, but also ways in which it broke new ground.
Two of the hardest things to do in politics are: 1) holding a governing trifecta (White House, House, Senate majorities) for more than two years and: 2) not losing House seats in a midterm. This year, Democrats failed to break this well-established precedent.
• For the 5th midterm in a row (and for the 18th time in 20 midterm elections), the party holding the White House lost seats in the House. While the 9-seat loss is not the smallest in the modern political era, it is the smallest loss for the party holding the White House and the House since 1978 when Democrats lost 15 House seats.
• Speaking of 1978, that election also marks the last time that a president’s party held onto their House and Senate majorities in a mid-term election. Since then, every president - including President Biden - whose party controls the House and the Senate, has seen his party lose control of the House, Senate, or both in a midterm election.
The closest races once again all broke the same way at the end.
• Since 2006, the final House and Senate races we’ve rated as Toss-Ups have broken decisively in one direction. What was different about this cycle, however, is that both the House (69 percent) and Senate (currently 75 percent), broke for the White House party.
Partisan consolidation continued at both the federal and state level
• Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s (D) win in the Pennsylvania Senate race continued the long-term trend of senate race outcomes aligning with presidential preference. It also means there are fewer split delegations in the Senate than at any time in over 100 years, according to data compiled by Pew Research. In the current Congress, all 23 states with two Democratic senators went for Biden, and all 22 states with two Republican senators went for Trump. Three of the states with split Senate delegations – Montana, Ohio and West Virginia – chose Trump, while the other two (Maine and Wisconsin) opted for Biden. Democrats will have to defend all three of those senate seats in Trump states in 2024.
• The same pattern of partisan consolidation happened at the state level as well. According to data from NCSL, there are only ten states that have divided state government control - the fewest since 1952. All of the 17-Democratic ‘trifecta’ states (states where one party controls the legislature and the governorship) voted for Biden in 2020, and all but two of the 23-Republican ‘trifecta’ states (Georgia and New Hampshire) voted for Trump. Of the 10 states with split control, six (Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Vermont) voted for Biden in 2020, the other four (Kansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, and North Carolina), voted for Trump.
Opinions About the President Matter A Lot - Except When They Don’t
As my colleague Jessica Taylor and I noted throughout this cycle, the biggest unknown factor for Senate control was whether voters’ low opinions of the president were more/less important than their low opinions of the GOP senate candidates. Recent history suggested that presidential approval would be the bigger factor. According to data compiled by CNN and Atlantic political analyst Ron Brownstein, in 2018, “Republican Senate candidates lost all 10 races in states where the exit polls recorded Trump’s approval at 48% or less. In the GOP’s 2010 sweep, Democrats lost 13 of the 15 Senate races in states where exit polls put then-President Barack Obama’s approval rating at 47% or less. During the Democratic “thumping” in 2006, Republicans lost 19 of the 20 Senate races in the states where exit polls showed George W. Bush with an approval rating of 45% or below.”
This year, however, Democratic senate incumbents Catherine Cortez Masto, Mark Kelly and Maggie Hassan all won re-election in states where Biden’s job approval ratings ranged from a ‘high’ of 45 percent (Nevada), to a low of 42 percent (New Hampshire). In Georgia, Sen. Warnock garnered the most votes in the race despite Biden’s dismal 41 percent job approval rating in the state.
In every one of those races, however, exit polls showed that voters found the GOP candidate to be ‘too extreme’. For example, in Arizona, 54 percent of voters said GOP nominee Blake Masters was “too extreme”, compared to just 43 percent who said the same about Democrat Mark Kelly.
• Democrats at the state legislative level were also able to overcome the drag of the president’s low approval ratings. According to NCSL CEO Tim Storey, this is the first midterm where the out-party did not gain a legislative chamber since the two party system began. Moreover, while Republicans netted about 40 seats nationally at the state legislative level, that was far below the average of 400 gained by the out-party.
• If Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) wins the December 6th run-off, it will mark the first time since at least 1994 that the party holding the White House has not lost a senate race in a state carried by the president in the previous election. For example, while Republicans ultimately netted two seats in the 2018 midterms, they also lost one (Arizona), in a state carried by Trump the year before.
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