That Was Unexpected.

United States Voting

On Tuesday morning, much of professional Washington woke up expecting – either out of dread or elation – significant Republican gains in the House, a potential change of control in the Senate, and a strong repudiation of President Biden’s management of the economy.

As of Thursday morning, we’re still waiting for results in dozens of races, but what’s become clear is that our assumptions didn’t match up with reality – Republican gains in the House were limited, Democrats may still maintain control of the Senate, and voters’ strongest message may have been delivered to former President Trump, not President Biden.

Here’s five additional takeaways from a shocking midterm election.

Referendum on the President, Just Not the Current One

Midterms are almost always seen as a referendum on the party in power, specifically the incumbent president. Clear-eyed assumptions were that 2022 would be no different, portending a difficult night for Democrats across the country due to an unpopular president, soaring inflation, and concerns over crime. Those assumptions turned out to be incorrect.

Since Eisenhower, every first-term president lost seats during the midterms, with the exception of George W. Bush in 2002. This trend has been exacerbated by polarization in the last 30 years – Presidents Clinton, Obama, and Trump lost an average of 52 seats. Democrats lost seats in the House and very well might lose control of the chamber, but this election was more of a red trickle than a red wave. 

How and why did Democrats outperform fundamentals and history?

We’ll get a better answer to that question as more votes are counted, but the clearest answer we have so far is that this was the third-straight election cycle that was a referendum on Donald Trump. Despite deep frustration with the direction of the country, voters largely opted not to punish the party in power. Instead, many of the candidates most closely aligned with the former president underperformed expectations. Election-denying, Trump-backed candidates like Mehmet Oz, Tudor Dixon, and Don Bolduc – some of whom were boosted by Democratic campaign committeesdramatically missed pre-election polling averages

It’s too early to definitively say that voters punished candidates tied to Trump, but it’s a narrative picking up steam as a suspected 2024 primary clash with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis heats up

Gridlock Returns to Washington?

After a brief two-years of unified government that – at times – appeared functional, the legislative party seems to be nearing an abrupt end. Republicans appear poised to assume control of the House, though the size of their majority – if it comes to fruition – is very unclear. Democratic control of the Senate looks more likely than not, but again, their majority won’t exceed 51 votes and probably won’t be decided until the conclusion of the Georgia runoff on December 6th

Slim majorities in a divided Congress, paired with a Biden White House points to a 118th Congress that’s unlikely to pass major legislation. Complicating all of this will be the inherent difficulty of corralling a narrow Republican majority in the House for whoever ends up being elected speaker. While some items will have to get done – continuing resolutions to fund the government, debt ceiling hikes, etc. – both chambers will retreat to their corners, focus on messaging bills — or oversight investigations in the case of the House GOP — and start campaigning for 2024. 

Choice Messaging Motivated Voters

The Dobbs decision and subsequent rollback of abortion rights in swing states appears to be another factor giving Democrats an advantage in close contests. While choice messaging certainly played a role in boosting Democrats in partisan races, like Gretchen Whitmer’s win in Michigan, that’s an incomplete view of how abortion impacted the 2022 elections. 

The clearest example of the role abortion played in the 2022 midterms can be seen in the various initiatives and ballot measures sponsored by both abortion rights supporters and opponents. Of the six states featuring abortion-related initiatives in 2022, supporters of abortion rights are poised to win all six. While these results were expected in blue states like California and Vermont, which passed constitutional amendments enshrining access to abortion, voters in crimson red states like Kentucky and Kansas rejected efforts to make it more difficult to challenge abortion bans or anti-abortion legislation.

As we transition into the 2024 election cycle and the next presidential campaign, it’s clear that abortion politics will play an enormous role in how the parties define themselves and how voters choose their representatives.

More Trifectas Demonstrates Growing Strength of Polarization

Tuesday night’s election increased the number of “trifectas,” or states with solitary control of state government (i.e. one party controls both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s office). With several key races still undecided, Democrats gained trifectas in Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and Maryland.

The nationalization of state and local elections, and polarization’s impact on sorting in those races, is whittling away at the prospects for divided government and creating entire regions of states governed entirely by the same party. Going forward, the likelihood of moderating influences from governors like Laura Kelly – 2022 election aside – or Larry Hogan seem less and less likely. 

Midterms Were Safe, Secure, and Fair – What Happens in 2024?

Despite concerns following the events of January 6 and a dramatic increase in threats against election workers across the country, the 2022 midterms went smoothly. That reality is largely due to the tireless efforts of election officials and advocacy groups who fought to raise awareness of budding challenges and acts of intimidation.

The rejection of election-denying candidates across the country also appears to have caused a subtle vibe shift in how candidates have responded to disappointment. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that candidates concede gracefully following close losses, but it’s certainly a welcome return to traditional norms after the embarrassing spectacle in the aftermath of the 2020 election.

Whether or not this trend will continue as even closer races are decided is anyone’s guess, but it was refreshing to see the acceptance of shared reality return to our politics – even if only for a day. 

The final chapter of the midterms hasn’t yet been written, but anyone hoping for deep, structural change in Washington will be disappointed. The next two years won’t feature anything close to the legislative achievements of the last two, yet it won’t be boring either – the 2024 cycle starts today.


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