The 2022 midterms are the first elections to take place after the pandemic and the attempt by former president Donald Trump to overturn his loss in the 2020 presidential election.
Historically, midterm elections have almost always brought bad results for the president’s party in Congress. Since World War II, midterms have seen the president’s party lose an average of three Senate seats and 22 House seats. As we currently have a 50-50 Senate, and Republicans need only five seats to retake the House majority, under normal circumstances we would be all but certain to see the 2022 midterms result in Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. And since midterms are referendums on sitting presidents, Republicans should be poised for huge gains. Biden’s approval ratings are low: according to the latest Gallup polling, 56 percent of voters disagree with his performance as president, versus only 42 percent who approve. Around 80 percent of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, and 82 percent say the state of the economy is “fair” or “poor.”
Biden’s approval rating suffered a precipitous decline with the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and continued to sink as Democrats failed to pass their top-priority legislation, inflation soared, and gas prices rose to record levels. In the spring of 2022, Republicans enjoyed a sizable advantage on the generic ballot and some commentators were predicting that the 2022 midterms would be a red wave on the scale of 2010, when Republicans gained 63 seats in the House and six in the Senate.
But despite Biden’s low ratings and the negative economic numbers, Democrats regained a narrow lead on the generic ballot during the summer and into the fall. And although polls earlier this year suggested that Republicans were much more motivated to vote in the midterms, now it appears that neither party has a particular advantage.
In these final weeks before the election, forecasters are divided on whether the political winds have turned back in the Republicans’ favor. Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report believes that “This October… there’s evidence to suggest that Democrats continue to defy political gravity.”2 But the 17 October New York Times/Siena College poll of likely voters found a 49-45 Republican advantage, reversing what had been a one-point Democratic advantage in September.3 The Times concluded that “Republicans enter the final weeks of the contest for control of Congress with a narrow but distinctive advantage as the economy and inflation have surged as the dominant concerns, giving the party momentum to take back power from Democrats in next month’s midterm elections.”
I believe that Republicans will retake the House majority fairly easily; they need only five seats to do so and are likely to gain 30 or more, but control of the Senate could still go either way.
So what happened to make 2022 an election that is unlikely to result in big Democratic losses on the scale that might be expected given Biden’s unpopularity and the state of the economy? A major factor, obviously, was the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Other factors benefitting Democrats are falling gas prices and the legislative success of passing the Inflation Reduction Act in September. But Democrats also benefited from Trump’s ubiquity in the news, particularly after the FBI’s execution of a search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida in pursuit of classified documents, and from the shortcomings of many of Trump’s chosen Republican candidates.
Trump involved himself in this year’s GOP primary contests, in a way and on a scale that has no precedent in modern American politics. He endorsed more than 200 candidates in Republican primaries, including candidates running for the Senate, House, and top state executive positions. Many of Trump’s picks would have won their primaries without his endorsement, but for some his support was decisive in their victories. And the basic requirement for a Republican candidate who sought Trump’s endorsement was to repeat his Big Lie that Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election. According to a recent New York Times investigation, of the 550 Republican candidates running for the Senate, House, and the state offices of governor, secretary of state, and attorney general, over 370 have expressed doubt about the legitimacy of the 2020 election.
In many cases, Trump’s interference led to many significantly weaker and/or problematic candidates being chosen over candidates who would have won through a normal political process. The likely result is Republicans will lose races they otherwise would have won, turning what could have been a Republican wave election on a scale with 1994 or 2010 into a more-or- less normal result according to post-World War II standards.
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