Midterm elections usually leave the White House a gloomy place.
The president’s party typically loses an average of 28 House seats and 4 Senate seats in these off-year elections, according to historical trends.
But there’s reason to think the wreckage won’t be all that bad for Democrats this Election Day, experts say – thanks to a combination of falling gas prices and easing of inflation, a blistering pace of recent legislative victories for President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats, and the Supreme Court's ruling that eliminated the constitutional right to an abortion over the summer.
"I think the president's party is going to lose seats in the House," said David Barker, Director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "I would be extremely shocked if they didn't lose seats. But four months ago, it looked like they might lose 40 seats. Right now, it looks like they might lose 10 to 15."
"Things were looking really, really bad for the Democrats," he added. "And then since June, we've seen this this turnaround in terms of registration, in terms of polling, in terms of fundraising.”
How did we get here, and what might we expect in November? Let's take a look:
In November of last year, Republican Glenn Youngkin shocked the political world by winning the Virginia governor’s race, flipping a state Joe Biden won in the 2020 presidential election by more than 10 points. The same night, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, narrowly eked out a victory against Republican Jack Ciattarelli in a state Biden won by 16 points over Donald Trump.
Both of those off-year races — which showed Democrats receding and Republicans soaring — were widely seen as a bellwether for what was to come for Democrats in the next year’s midterm elections.
After all, the president’s party usually always loses seats in the following midterms; since 1946, the president’s party has improved its margin in the House of Representatives just once. Biden’s approval ratings were falling amid a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and a debate in Congress over two major pieces of his domestic agenda: A $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and a much larger social spending measure that was trimmed down from $3.5 trillion to $1.75 trillion.
In short, Republicans seemed bullish on their chances of taking back both chambers of Congress on Nov. 8, 2022.
“Today is a wakeup call for Washington Democrats,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the day after Youngkin’s win.
“This wakeup call was delivered by Americans in states and districts across the country that voted with a clear message: Americans are focused on the success and stability of their families,” McCarthy, who has his eye on the Speaker’s gavel should Republicans retake the house, added. “Democrats aren’t listening, and America is ready for a change in leadership.”
But elections aren’t won a year before they’re held, and things look vastly different than they did a year ago.
President Biden's approval rating is on the rise – and coupled with several major legislative victories in recent weeks and a shifting landscape in the aftermath of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, signs are showing that the landscape appears to have shifted.
President Biden and Congressional Democrats ended a busy summer with a string of key legislative wins.
This was followed by bipartisan legislation to boost semiconductor manufacturing and competitiveness with China, expand health benefits to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits, and the first major legislation to address gun violence in decades. Democrats also passed the Inflation Reduction Act, a bill aimed at lowering health care costs, reforming the tax code and combating climate change by making the largest-ever climate investment in U.S. history.
This is in addition to Biden's $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which passed shortly after the Virginia and New Jersey elections last year.
“Democrats went away on the summer recess on a high note,” Sara Sadhwani, an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College, told Spectrum News. “It has been a long time since we have seen bipartisan legislation, and Democrats have been able to deliver several pieces of important legislation."
On the world stage, Biden led a coalition of NATO allies and other international partners to sanction Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and oversaw the expansion of the alliance by adding Finland and Sweden.
And on June 24, the Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, setting off a nationwide firestorm over the right to an abortion — an issue, Sadhwani says, is “mobilizing the base.”
“I think we are seeing not only the Democratic base, but even amongst some moderate Republicans or independents being mobilized,” she said, referencing bright-red Kansas overwhelmingly rejecting a referendum that would have allowed lawmakers to restrict or ban abortion in the state.
“I think the Roe v Wade piece will most certainly have a mobilizing effect this fall, if Democrats can continue pushing that message and the urgency of it and what they're they'll actually be able and willing to do,” she continued.
Already, Democrats have overperformed over Biden's 2020 figures in every special race since the June ruling, including a surprise upset in a New York special election in August. All told, Democrats have overperformed by an average of nine points in the four special elections since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
As a result, the non-partisan Cook Political Report adjusted their ratings for the 2022 midterms Wednesday, writing that while Republicans are still broadly favorites for control of the House, thanks in large part to redistricting, the margin is expected to be much smaller: "We are revising our outlook for GOP gains downwards from 15-30 seats to 10-20 seats."
That said, millions of Americans are still struggling on the economic front, despite record-low unemployment. Gas prices have fallen significantly since topping $5 per gallon in June. While the inflation rate slowed to its lowest level since February last month — and with it a slight uptick in the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index — consumer prices on everything from energy to food are still high.
Republicans are hoping that the economy — along with hammering Democrats on border security, crime and energy independence — will bring a “red wave” in 2022.
“We would not be putting in place policies that will be hurting the American people,” Republican Party spokesman Paris Dennard told Spectrum News.
All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and a third of the U.S. Senate is up for grabs in November, with control of Congress hanging in the balance.
With Democrats holding a razor-thin majority in the House and control of the 50-50 Senate, all eyes are on a few key swing states:
- Georgia: Fresh off of his stunning special election victory in Jan. 2021, Sen. Raphael Warnock is facing off against former football star Herschel Walker on the Republican ticket for a full term
- Pennsylvania: Celebrity physician Dr. Oz faces off against Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman to replace retiring Sen. Pat Toomey
- Ohio: Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan is squaring off against “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance to replace Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who is retiring
- North Carolina: Trump-backed Rep. Ted Budd will face Democrat Cheri Beasley, former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, to replace retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr
- Wisconsin: Incumbent GOP Sen. Ron Johnson will face Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes
- Nevada: Incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto will square off against Republican challenger Adam Laxalt, who previously served as the state’s attorney general
- Arizona: Incumbent Democrat Sen. Mark Kelly faces Trump-endorsed venture capitalist Blake Masters
- New Hampshire: Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, face Retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, a Republican
With the exception of Ohio and North Carolina, all of those states were won by President Biden in 2020 — including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona, which Trump won in 2016 but lost four years later.
In Kentucky last month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sought to downplay Republicans’ chances of retaking the Senate — and, somewhat startlingly, asserted that “candidate quality” is a major factor.
“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” McConnell said. “Senate races are just different — they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”
“Right now, we have a 50-50 Senate and a 50-50 country, but I think when all is said and done this fall, we’re likely to have an extremely close Senate, either our side up slightly or their side up slightly,” he continued.
A pair of Fox News polls released at the time seemed to underscore McConnell’s point: In Wisconsin, the survey had Sen. Johnson trailing Barnes by four points, while in Arizona, Kelly led Masters 50-42.
FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages show Ryan with a slight lead over Vance in Ohio, Warnock leading Walker in Georgia, Cortez Masto ahead of Laxalt in Nevada and a dead heat in North Carolina.
Wisconsin's polling average from FiveThirtyEight shows Barnes ahead of the incumbent Johnson, and in Pennsylvania, Cook Political Report shifted its rating from “toss up” to “lean Democrat.”
But that’s not stopping McConnell from pouring money into these races; the Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-linked super PAC, announced this week a major multi-million-dollar ad buy in several key races, including more than $37 million for Georgia, $34 million for Pennsylvania and $28 million for Ohio, a stunning amount for a state Trump comfortably won in 2020.
Ammar Moussa, the Democratic National Committee’s Rapid Response Director, said that the Republican base has put up “extreme, out-of-step candidates who are wildly out-of-touch.”
“What we're seeing is these pro-Trump candidates are winning these primaries,” she told Spectrum News. Whether it's [gubernatorial candidate] Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, whether it’s [gubernatorial candidate] Kari Lake in Arizona … this is where the Republican Party is right now.”
Still, some are shying away from campaigning with their party’s own leader, though one Democratic analyst says in some places, it’s time to reconsider that.
"Democrats are in power and Democrats have gotten things done for the American people, and we shouldn't shy away from telling that story," Xochitl Hinojosa, a Democratic consultant, told Spectrum News.
While the former president left office in January of 2021, Donald Trump has remained an omnipresent figure in Washington, from the ongoing Jan. 6 investigation and hearings, to the search of Mar-a-Lago. Despite his questionable and some would argue potentially criminal activity, his endorsement has been key to winning statewide and national nominations.
According to Ballotpedia, the former president has made 235 endorsements in midterm elections this year. With 183 candidates securing victory, the president has a 92% success rate, making him a kingmaker once more within the GOP.
“The Republican Party is still defending Trump. And it just shows that despite it all, Trump still has a very important and powerful position within the Republican Party,” explained Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“Republican House members who voted for impeachment of Donald Trump the second time after the events of Jan. 6, 2021," Kondik told Spectrum News. "They're becoming a very much an endangered species in the House.”
Just two Republicans who voted to impeach the former president succeed in winning their primary elections: Rep. Dan Newhouse (Wash.) and Rep. David Valadao (Calif.). Of the remaining 8 GOP lawmakers who voted in favor of impeachment following Jan. 6, four of them retired, and four lost their reelection bids, most notably among them Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyoming).
“We've thought at times ‘is the Republican Party moving beyond Trump?’ It hasn't so far. I think that's pretty clear,” Kondik told Spectrum News.
Cheney, the daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney, has been one of Trump’s loudest and most public critics. Serving as the Vice Chair of the January 6th committee, Cheney was kicked out of party leadership in May 2021 after her unyielding criticism of the former president’s false stolen election claims. Trump backed her opponent, Harriet Hageman, for Cheney’s at-large seat. Hageman, ultimately defeating Cheney by over 63,000 votes.
“I think she's been trying to force Republicans to kind of reckon with the Trump era, reckon with Trump's misdeeds. And a lot of Republicans just don't want to do that,” said Kondik.
“Either the rank and file voters don't want to hear it, or they don't want to do it, because they feel like criticizing Trump is somehow helpful to Democrats,” he added. “I think that in some ways Cheney is seen as someone who, for lack of a better way of putting it, basically took sides against the family, and a lot of Republicans just don't like that.”
As for what’s next for the Wyoming native, she told NBC News following her loss that she was considering running for president, but that she hadn’t made any decisions yet. But for someone who was once within the upper echelons of power in her party, Cheney’s crusade against Trump may have effectively ended her political career.
“I don't think she would have much of a chance getting nominated in either party [for president], said Kondik. “If she were to try to become a Democrat, she's way out of step with the Democratic Party.”
“I suspect she's going to remain a prominent person in American political life, [but] I don't necessarily know what her future elective path might be,” he added.
Others who have paid the price for standing up to Trump include state officials, including Arizona Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers.
Bowers, a key witness in the January 6th hearings earlier this summer, told the committee that Trump and his allies tried to convince him to overturn the 2020 election results in Arizona. Not only did the Arizona GOP censure him after his appearance, and Trump subsequently endorsed his opponent for state senate, former state Sen. David Farnsworth.
Bowers lost his race in early August.
"This fall, Roe is on the ballot," President Joe Biden said in June after the Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade.
A couple of months later, Kansas became the first state to put abortion directly on the ballot. And by an overwhelming majority, voters beat back an amendment to the state's constitution, supported by the GOP-led legislature, which would have allowed lawmakers to restrict abortion or ban the procedure outright.
Their early August victory, in which “no” votes won by an 18 point margin – a 165,000-vote difference – shocked the nation. Abortion-rights advocates and activists nationwide were stunned that a state perceived as red to the roots had flipped on abortion. Kansas went for former President Donald Trump over Joe Biden in 2020 by a margin of nearly 15 points.
Since the fall of Roe v. Wade, Democrats have overperformed in other closely watched races ahead of the midterms: In Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, which Trump won by roughly 10 points in 2020, Republican Brad Finstad defeated his Democratic opponent by just four points.
Similarly, in Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District election in June — four days after Roe was overturned — Republicans won by six points, despite Trump winning it by 15 in 2020.
On Tuesday, Aug. 23, Democrat Pat Ryan won a special election in New York's 19th Congressional District over former GOP gubernatorial candidate Marc Molinaro, a swing district that went for Barack Obama in 2012, Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. Ryan campaigned as a vociferous defender of abortion rights, while Molinaro stumped on the economy and crime. Polls never showed Ryan leading, including one released the day of the election which showed Molinaro up by 8 points.
And then at the end of August, when all of the ballots were counted in a special election to replace the late GOP Rep. Don Young, it was Democrat Mary Peltola – the first Alaska Native elected to Congress and the first woman to hold the seat – who emerged victorious. Though one caveat is that the contest saw a divided Republican party in Alaska first statewide ranked choice voting election.
All told, Democrats overperformed Biden's 2020 performance in all of the special elections held since the Dobbs ruling.
Whether or not there’s any correlation remains to be seen, but that’s not stopping abortion rights advocates from jumping into the fray. Planned Parenthood this week announced it will spend a record $50 million on November’s midterms, specifically focusing on Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
“Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,” Jenny Lawson, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, told The Washington Post. “The stakes have truly, truly never been higher.”
The DNC’s Moussa said that as part of Republicans’ “roadmap” if they retake control of Congress, a national ban on abortion is on the table.
“What we're looking at this fall is a very unique opportunity to tell the American people not only what Democrats are doing, but what Republican control looks like,” Moussa said. “And this isn't a hypothetical anymore. I think what we saw with Roe v. Wade being overturned is Republicans are already telling the American people where they want to go. And so as voters are tuning in right now, they're seeing a Republican party that's extreme, wildly out-of-touch with where the American people are.”
In the last 19 midterm elections — dating all the way back to 1946 — the president’s party has gained seats in the House just twice: The 1998 midterm elections, which came amid the impeachment inquiry into Bill Clinton, and the 2002 midterm elections. (Although Democrats were able to pick up seats in 1998, Republicans still maintained control of the chamber. The 2002 election was the only time in history the party in power was able to maintain the status quo.)
The 2002 midterms had a number of extraordinary conditions. Notably, Election Day took place a little over a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The War on Terror was in full swing and President George W. Bush’s approval rating was sky-high.
“This was basically Bush riding high still, he had a very big popularity and approval rating jump after 9/11,” Jen Victor, an associate professor of political science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, told Spectrum News.
Could 2022 be another norm-shattering year? It’s not quite clear, though one could argue that between the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the ongoing investigations into the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the recent FBI search of former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home and more, this election is taking place amid several remarkable, unprecedented circumstances.
Simon Rosenberg, a veteran Democratic strategist and president of the New Democrat Network, made waves recently with his analysis of the 2022 midterms, in which he made the case that November’s will be “a new, bluer election.” Rosenberg cited the recent Democratic overperformance / Republican underperformance in special elections, generic Congressional ballots shifting towards Democrats, improving economic conditions and other factors could make for a history-defying midterm.
“In the age of Trump, nothing is normal,” Rosenberg told The New Yorker. “Nothing is following traditional physics and rules, so why would this midterm?”
At the same time, Victor warns that factors like Democratic retirements from Congress and historical precedent might be tough for the party to overcome.
“I think the best way to think about it is that the party that is out of power tends to be more mobilized,” Victor told Spectrum News. “When you're the out party, when you're the beleaguered ones, it's a little bit easier to get motivated to want to make a change. And so the out party tends to have an easier time motivating voters to turn out to the polls or convincing voters to come their way.”
Republicans still sound optimistic of at least taking over the House, perhaps with the same narrow margin Democrats hold. They’re banking that pocketbook issues motivate voters more than anything else, and abortion can motivate people on both sides of the debate.
Some are also pointing to a recent speech by President Biden, where he drew a line from those seeking to overturn the election to those seeking to end abortion rights. Many Republicans slammed his rhetoric as divisive and inflammatory.
"I think that there are people who fit that swing voter profile that I feel like Democrats are being a little bit desperate when they constantly bring up Jan. 6," said Liz Mair, a Republican consultant. "It's not unimportant, but it's a little bit old news. And I think there are a lot of people who feel that when they try to tie the insurrection to what has happened with regard to abortion rights, that's just completely nuts."
One thing is for certain: For both parties, the stakes have never been higher.
Or, as North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper put it in a recent interview with WUNC public radio: “This election on Nov. 8 is a life-changing election.”