The Three Big Questions of the 2022 Midterm Elections

As a fairly general rule, midterm elections go poorly for the President’s Party. 1994, 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018 all went badly. There’s still a strong possibility that 2022 will too. There’s at least some “counter-wisdom” now saying it won’t though. I’m asking three basic questions that should tell us the score in the end.

  • 1. Has the GOP simply disqualified themselves with a Majority of voters? Doug Mastriano, Herschel Walker, Kari Lake, J.D. Vance- these are just some of the names the GOP put up in major swing states for big statewide races. With the exception of Colorado, virtually every competitive swing state GOP primary electorate (and some non-swing) chose the most “ultra MAGA” Republican option, or his endorsed choice in the race. Even with inflation and crime being at or near the top of almost every internal poll I’ve seen this year, did the Republicans simply pick people time and again who are unacceptable to *most* of the electorate? Did they let Democrats off the hook against a real headwind by picking people who quite frankly just sound angry?
  • 2. Is Dobbs as big to 2022 as Impeachment was to 1998 or 9/11 was to 2002? Midterms are bad for the President’s party unless there is an event that simply shakes the ground we walk on. In 1998, Republican overreach lead to the Democrats picking up House seats in Bill Clinton’s second midterm. It turns out the public didn’t want him impeached for an affair, or whatever other reasoning the GOP gave. In 2002, the 9/11 attacks and subsequent drumbeat to war in Iraq broke down history for Democrats and gave Bush’s GOP big wins. So the question for 2022 is, does the Dobbs ruling overturning Roe v. Wade meet that threshold? Does Dobbs plus some combination of January 6th and lingering Trump investigations meet it? Internal polling I’ve read is not as conclusive as one might think. Simply being pro-choice does not move an electorate your way. The opponent being a certified extremist has to be a part of it. Can Democrats broad brush the whole GOP with this? They had some success this Summer. It’s not clear yet if it will work on a mass scale.
  • 3. Is the Democratic brand toxic? Joe Biden won the 2020 Election. His party lost seats in the House though. Going back as far as 2014 there have been questions as to whether the Democratic brand is simply too weak when not running an individually compelling candidate. Sure, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Biden can win, but the party as a whole has largely been a minority party at every level of governance since 1994. The 2020 election saw deterioration of Democratic numbers with Latinos, Asians, and Black men. Republicans have been chipping away at Jewish voters as well. Democrats built their house on a mountain of demographic hopes, and there are signs that destiny will be a dark one for them. If 2022 continues those 2020 trends, the GOP is going to make nice gains. Another midterm beating for a Democratic President may suggest that actually governing the first two years of each Presidency ends up making us quite unpopular.

Once we know the answers to these questions, we should know who will wake up happy on November 9th.

2022 Election Overview- the Senate

The 2022 midterm is supposed to be bad for Democrats. History tells us that. Inflation tells us that. The President’s approval tells us that. Of course, unlike the House, the entire Senate isn’t up together. Only a third of it is, and that third can have a clearly partisan tilt. In other words, things aren’t clear.

When the House defies historical trends, there is usually a reason, a cross-current even that cancels out the “fundamentals” of the race, like 9/11 or Bill Clinton’s impeachment. In the Senate there are other reasons for surprising results. Sometimes, like 2018, it’s just the map- Trump’s party defied what was happening in House and Governor races because Senate Democrats had to defend Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Montana. Other times, like 2010, the party out of power nominates crackpot candidates and blows it. And yes, there are also times when events change the direction of the race, like 2002.

Is this year a red wave, or a year of surprise? Let’s start by just looking at the 2022 playing field:

Democratic Difficult Defenses:

In order of difficulty: Georgia (Warnock), Arizona (Kelly), Nevada (Cortez-Masto), New Hampshire (Hassan), Colorado (Bennet), and Washington (Murray).

GOP Difficult Defenses:

Also in order of difficulty: Pennsylvania (Toomey, retirement), Wisconsin (Johnson), Ohio (Portman, retirement), North Carolina (Burr, retirement), Florida (Rubio), and Iowa (Grassley).

Weird Wild Cards:

Both GOP Seats- Utah (Lee) and Alaska (Murkowski).

Ok, so the most notable thing here to me is the playing field. NONE of the Democrats tough defenses are in states Donald Trump won in 2020. The GOP has two difficult defenses in Biden states at the top of this list. With that said, this isn’t quite a 2018 situation for the GOP. Trump won a few of the Democratic seats in 2016, and those two difficult defense seats at the top in 2016. Nearly every state above (except Washington and the wild card races) is historically a swing state. The map may lean Democratic, but not to an extreme.

So then let’s consider candidate quality, and if the GOP is repeating 2010. Dr. Oz? Herschel Walker? Is this a joke? Blake Masters? Ron Johnson? Crazier than a shit house rat. It’s something that I’m sitting here looking at these races and haven’t remarked on what a terrible candidate J.D. Vance is yet. The GOP may have four recruits in the races in play that qualify as something between “good enough” and almost normal. This is a terrible group, maybe the worst I’ve seen. The question is, are the Democrats candidates that much better? My though right now is that most of them rate out as decent, but really only a couple would rate out as great. The incumbents are particularly strong, and probably accentuate the candidate advantage. I mean honestly, who can wait to watch Warnock debate a man who says this? In the challenge races though, I’m not as sure. I think Tim Ryan rates out as a great candidate in Ohio, but it’s still uphill there. Dr. Oz will say stupid things, but Fetterman has some issues on both policy and his health. Demings and Beasley are very good candidates, but in tough states. Same could be said for Franken (no, not who you think). Mandela Barnes doesn’t look bad, but is he that much stronger than Feingold was? I feel like the Dems advantage is clear here, but not by the 2010 margin when accounting for the states in play.

So I guess that leaves us with did anything happen to change the races? Yeah, that Dobbs thing. Is it 9/11? I’m not sure we have evidence of that. However it feels big. Also with a good number of Democratic candidates in these races being women, it feels like it has a chance to really stick. But more than inflation? We’ll find out.

All in all, I think the Senate Democrats have a slightly better playing field than the GOP, which is saying a lot in this cycle. My feeling right now is the most likely outcome is a 50-50 Democratic Senate, with their range being 49-52 seats at the end of the cycle. We may be sweating out the results for a while though.

Forecasting the Doom in 2022

It should be pretty simple. Inflation is up on everything from gas to milk, everyone is feeling. Interest rates are creeping up. The President isn’t very popular. The Democrats won control of the whole Congress and the White House two years ago. trend lines on Democratic performance among non-white voters aren’t great. Republicans should take back both narrowly divided houses of Congress in the 2022 midterm, as well as win back governors mansions and everything else. This should not be very close.

For all the bad things one could write here about the Democratic Party, it’s worth noting the obvious- the GOP is an incompetent, dangerous political party right now. They nominated Mehmet Oz and Herschel Walker for Senate seats, celebrities with very little clue what they are talking about or where they are at. They nominated Doug Mastriano and Kari Lake for Governor of their states, people pledging to overturn elections if they don’t like the results. House members like Liz Cheney have been excommunicated from the party for saying attempting a coup is bad. Ron DeSantis is either fighting Disney World or removing elected office holders, depending on the week. Their former President was removing nuclear secrets from his office on the way out the door, as he tried to overturn his own defeat. Ron Johnson and Rick Scott want to get rid of Social Security and Medicare. And yes, their five judges are overturning freedoms women have had for 50 years. It would be no wonder that people are having second thoughts about giving the weak and feckless Kevin McCarthy the Speakership.

To be clear, I still believe the Republican Party is more likely to have a good midterm than the Democrats. I just don’t think it will go as well as it could have if they had shut up. Just how much have they hurt themselves? They need just 4 House seats and 1 Senate seats. Should they succeed?

The House

The answer here is yes, but probably not as well as they would have. Without deaths and resignations, the House was 221-214, with one seat potentially switching hands tomorrow night. According to the Cook Political Report, Democrats have 58 seats currently in danger or that could be and Republicans have 27. Digging deeper, they have ten Democratic seats as “likely” or “lean” Republican. There are just three seats from the GOP “leaning” Democratic. 26 Democratic seats are considered toss-ups, while just 8 GOP seats are in the same category. In other words the Republicans are +25 if all the endangered members lose. They need 4 seats.

Democrats have had a relatively decent recent run in the press and are still in a tough spot here. If the goal here is just to mitigate the losses and keep the House competitive, Democrats need to keep within 20 seats of the majority for next term. In other words they need to keep the GOP to gains of 24 or less. Considering that midterms usually turn against the President’s party in the Fall, they’re probably in trouble there. With that said, they have a shot. If we assume both sides lose the seats leaning and likely going the other way right now, and lose half of their toss-up seats in play, Democrats would lose 23 and pick up 7, for a -16 seats. Right now, I’ll buy a 230-205 GOP House. However I still think it more likely gets worse than that, not better.

The Senate

The Senate is evenly divided right now, but Democrats win the tiebreaker. Right now they have tough defenses in Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada, with people watching New Hampshire, Colorado, and Washington. Right now, Democrats lead the average of the polls in every one of these races that has polling. If anything, Nevada and New Hampshire are polling the scariest. On the other side, the GOP has a different story. The hold a slim lead in the averages of North Carolina, while they’re trailing in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio (depending who you ask). There are even signs Florida *could* be competitive and grumbling about Iowa. In short, the fundamentals still lean Republican, but the map doesn’t. If we just stick to the RealClearPolitics numbers I linked to above, the Democrats pick up two seats and go up 52-48. That leaves Ohio in limbo a bit and doesn’t address the weird race in Utah.

Of course I’m going to cite again that things change in the Fall. Republicans will spend serious money, especially in their tough defenses. Even so, I don’t see Democrats losing the doomsday four seats they could have earlier this year. I’d put their current floor at losing two, their ceiling at winning three. in other words, right now they win two and go up 52-48, but I’m thinking it stays 50-50.

Governors

In general I don’t like forecasting governor races nationally. People don’t vote that way. With that said, you can generally see how the playing field is shaping up. Republicans have a very weak chance of holding open seats in Maryland and Massachusetts. Holding the open seat in Arizona is going to be tough now too. On the other hand, races in Iowa, Florida, Texas, Georgia, Ohio, New Hampshire, and Vermont that looked like they could be tough all lean their way to some degree. Democratic defenses in Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and Kansas look to be very competitive races. On the other hand, great opportunities in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois appear injured by crazy nominees. California and New York now look safe.

The real question here is what matters- inflation and Democrat fatigue or Republican insanity and Dobbs? Reality tells us it may not neatly be either. Local matters can be important in these races. If I had to gamble right now I’d say there’s no change in the partisan composition of the nation’s governors- and that’s good for Democrats.

In other words, I’m calling a very competitive Fall.