|Dear Readers: Join us at noon eastern today for a Twitter Spaces featuring Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman of the Crystal Ball and our Center for Politics colleague Carah Ong Whaley. They will be discussing the continuing takeaways from the 2022 election, Donald Trump’s presidential announcement, the looming Georgia Senate runoff, and much more. If you cannot tune in live, we also will be releasing the Twitter Spaces as an episode of our “Politics is Everything” podcast.
On Wednesday, Nov. 30, the Center for Politics will hold the 24th annual American Democracy Conference from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Colonnade Club’s Garden Room on the Grounds of UVA. The Crystal Ball team and our Center for Politics scholars will break down what happened in 2022 and look ahead to 2024. The conference is free and open for in-person attendance with advanced registration through Eventbrite; it will also streamed here.
In today’s Crystal Ball, Senior Columnist Louis Jacobson recaps what happened in the various state races he has been tracking for us this cycle.
We wish all of you a Happy Thanksgiving. The Crystal Ball will be back the last week of November.
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Republicans underperformed up and down the ballot in this year’s midterms, with the possible exception of state supreme court races.
— Unexpectedly, and despite national headwinds, Democrats picked up at least 3 state legislative chambers and possibly more.
— Most, though not all, secretary of state and attorney general nominees aligned with former President Donald Trump lost.
— Liberals generally fared well in high-profile ballot measures, including the 5 on abortion. However, all of the Republican governors whose states instituted strict anti-abortion laws after the Supreme Court overruled Roe vs. Wade were returned to office easily.
State-level election recap
By now, everyone knows that the Democrats held the Senate, and may even be able to expand their holdings by a seat, depending on the outcome of the Georgia runoff. And while the precise breakdown in the House awaits continued ballot counting, the Republicans won only a narrow majority.
Both outcomes flew in the face of historical patterns, which hold that the party controlling the White House loses a sizable number of seats in both chambers. Before Election Day, that seemed especially likely for President Joe Biden, whose approval ratings were significantly under water.
But the surprises did not end with the Senate and House results. Republicans also fared poorly in key gubernatorial races, state legislative control, secretary of state and attorney general races, and ballot measures. The only bright spot for Republicans — and it was not an undiluted one — was in state supreme court races.
Let’s look at each of these contests to see what kinds of conclusions we can draw.
In general, this was mostly a status quo election for gubernatorial contests, although Democrats made up some ground, netting 2 governorships overall. The Democrats now hold 24 governorships, while the Republicans hold 26.
The Democrats flipped the open Massachusetts and Maryland governorships, a result that had been expected ever since GOP primary voters in each state nominated candidates who were too far to the right to have any chance of winning in such solidly blue states.
Other than that, only 2 other governorships are set to flip, each in opposite directions: Nevada, where Republican Joe Lombardo defeated incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak; and Arizona, where Democrat Katie Hobbs defeated Republican Kari Lake in a seat held by outgoing GOP Gov. Doug Ducey. (Officially, Alaska’s gubernatorial race isn’t called, but the incumbent Republican, Mike Dunleavy, is expected to win.)
In general, though, incumbent governors fared well, certainly when running in friendly territory, and even in more challenging states. Wisconsin’s Tony Evers and Kansas’s Laura Kelly won new terms even though they were running as Democrats in purple and red states, respectively. In Oregon, the Democrat, Tina Kotek, won a 3-candidate free-for-all, keeping Democratic control of the governorship in a vulnerable blue state.
The pro-incumbent tide may stem in part from a tendency we noted in June — that at a time when Americans are sour on the current president, the previous president, Congress, and the general direction of the nation, they seem pretty copacetic about their governors, regardless of whether they live in a blue or a red state. The relatively flush finances for most states right now, thanks in part to generous federal aid under President Biden, may be helping by staving off unpopular budget cuts.
Whatever the reason, when governors are right-side-up in approval ratings, voters have a harder time throwing them out of office. And the 2022 midterms seem to have demonstrated that.
On the state legislative level, the pro-Democratic surprise of 2022 followed the pro-Republican surprise of 2020.
Two years ago, Democrats were playing aggressive offense on state legislative chambers, hoping to ride Biden’s coattails to chamber flips in Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Yet in the end, not a single GOP chamber flipped control — and the Democrats actually ended up losing a couple of chambers, both in New Hampshire.
In 2022, the roles were reversed. The overall playing field was smaller, and the vulnerable chambers were more evenly divided between the 2 parties. With the historical patterns hampering the president’s party in place, it did not seem like a promising election for the Democrats to flip GOP state legislative chambers.
But lo and behold, the Democrats ended up flipping both chambers of the Michigan legislature as well as the Minnesota Senate. With gubernatorial victories in both states, the Democrats were able to turn both Michigan and Minnesota into trifecta states, in which one party controls the governorship as well as both houses of the legislature.
In addition, the Democrats are tantalizingly close to seizing majorities in both the Pennsylvania House and the New Hampshire House, although neither have been called. New Hampshire is in the midst of recounts, including in one key race where the result is now a tie, while Democrats appear to have won a majority by a single seat in Pennsylvania, but there are a lot of moving pieces, as noted by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
And as was the case in 2020, the party that had been expected to do poorly in the election didn’t lose control of any of their vulnerable chambers.
Secretary of state races
Secretary of state races have been attracting an unusual degree of public attention this election cycle, owing to concerns that some Republican nominees, if elected, would work to overturn election results unfavorable to their party.
From the beginning of this cycle, we have been focusing on one straightforward question: Would Republican voters and Republican-leaning independents ratify some of the more conspiracy-minded nominees the GOP anointed in primaries earlier this year? Or would they pick and choose, voting for mainstream Republicans for most offices but crossing over to support Democrats instead of election deniers?
Until Election Day, we honestly had no idea which path those voters would take.
Now that the ballots have mostly been counted, we have a pretty good idea what happened: Enough Republicans and Republican-leaning independents rejected blind party loyalty and crossed over to vote for Democrats, apparently making a difference in most of these races. A few controversial secretary of state candidates did win uncompetitive contests in solidly red states, but none won in a battleground state.
For instance, in Arizona, GOP secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem ran more than 2 points behind GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, who herself is an election denier. In Nevada, Jim Marchant ran about 2 points behind Lombardo, a mainstream Republican. In New Mexico, Audrey Trujillo ran nearly 3 points behind GOP gubernatorial nominee Mark Ronchetti, another mainstream Republican. And in Michigan, Kristina Karamo ran about 2 points behind GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon, who also came from the Trump-aligned wing of the party.
By contrast, mainstream Republicans running for secretary of state had no problem winning, including Georgia’s Brad Raffensperger and Iowa’s Paul Pate.
One race that isn’t officially called yet is in Wisconsin, where long-serving Secretary of State Doug La Follette (D) leads Amy Loudenbeck (R) by just a few tenths of a point. (Wisconsin’s secretary of state, unlike many of those elsewhere, does not oversee elections.)
Attorney general races
This year’s attorney general races saw two upsets. Arguably the most surprising was the narrow victory by Kris Kobach, who has occupied the GOP’s rightward edge on immigration and voting policy for years. Four years ago, Kobach was so controversial that he managed to lose the governorship in the ordinarily red state of Kansas. But this year, Kobach won the AG race — on the same night that Kelly, the Democrat he lost the governorship to in 2018, secured a second term from voters. (Who’s in that tiny slice of the electorate who voted for both Kelly and Kobach? Beats us, although there were conservative third-party alternatives in the gubernatorial race while the AG contest just had major-party nominees.)
The other surprise, somewhat milder, came in Iowa, where long-serving Democratic AG Tom Miller lost to Republican Brenna Bird, 51%-49%. Miller’s loss tracks with Iowa’s rightward shift in recent election cycles, a drift that Miller had been able to handle up until now. We had seen Miller as a modest favorite in our final look at the AG races, based on his 49%-33% lead in the authoritative Des Moines Register poll in mid-October. However, the Register’s subsequent poll in early November found Miller leading by only 47%-45%; sadly, it was released several days after we published our final attorney general handicapping, so it didn’t factor into our rankings. (The only remaining Democratic statewide elected official in Iowa, state Auditor Rob Sand, was leading his uncalled race narrowly.)
Meanwhile, voters in Texas chose to keep Republican Ken Paxton as their attorney general, despite a series of ongoing legal troubles. He fared just a little bit more than a point worse than Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, and both won comfortably. In another solidly red state, Idaho, Republican Raúl Labrador easily defeated Democrat Tom Arkoosh, who had received the backing of some establishment Republicans in the state who felt that Labrador was too far to the right even for his red state.
In Minnesota, vulnerable Democratic Attorney General Keith Ellison narrowly fended off Republican Jim Schultz. Schultz, a mainstream Republican, ran 5 points ahead of GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Jensen, a vaccine skeptic. In Wisconsin, Josh Kaul ran just a little bit behind Evers at the top of the Democratic ticket; both earned narrow victories.
In Michigan, incumbent Democratic AG Dana Nessel defeated Republican election denier Matthew DePerno by a comfortable 9-point margin.
As for the close, late-counting states of Nevada and Arizona, Democrats won one race against a controversial GOP attorney general nominee, and they barely lead in the other. In Nevada, Democrat Aaron Ford defeated Republican Sigal Chattah by 8 points, a virtual landslide by the state’s standards this year (and many years). In Arizona, Democrat Kris Mayes had a very slim lead on Republican Abraham Hamadeh in a race that appears headed to a recount. If Mayes wins, this would be a Democratic flip of an open seat.
Ultimately, Arizona and Nevada could continue to see a mix of Republicans and Democrats holding various statewide offices, bucking a trend we’ve noted previously of unified partisan control of statewide elected offices. Wisconsin will have a mixed slate as well, given the election of Republican John Leiber as state treasurer.
It was a pretty good night for liberals on ballot measures. Voters approved a Medicaid expansion in South Dakota, a collective bargaining guarantee in Illinois, and minimum wage hikes in Nebraska, Nevada, and Washington D.C. Measures that would expand rights for immigrants passed in Massachusetts and Arizona.
Voters also legalized marijuana in Maryland and Missouri, and they approved legalization of some psychedelic drugs in Colorado. But in 3 red states — Arkansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota — voters rejected efforts to legalize recreational marijuana.
Perhaps the most important victories for liberals were those on 5 abortion-related measures. Voters in California, Michigan, and Vermont approved pro-abortion rights measures, while those in Kentucky and Montana rejected anti-abortion measures.
Combined with exit polls showing a surprisingly high salience for abortion among Democratic voters, these abortion rights victories on ballot measures are noteworthy. However, it’s worth playing devil’s advocate, as well.
In several red states, voters reelected a governor who oversaw a tightening of abortion laws following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
And these gubernatorial reelections were not narrow, either; each came by a wide margin. In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine improved upon Trump’s share of the 2020 vote by 10 points. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis improved by 8 points. Reelected governors in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee improved on Trump’s 2020 benchmark by between 3 and 5 points. One reelected red state governor who fared worse than Trump was Oklahoma’s Kevin Stitt, but his reelection challenges stemmed more from disagreements with Native American tribes and other factors than abortion politics.
It’s possible to reconcile these parallel trends. In purple states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, the electorate clearly favored abortion rights. In red states where the abortion question was asked explicitly on the ballot, voters did indicate a preference for abortion rights. But in red states, incumbent Republican governors had enough going for them with the voters that abortion restrictions seemed to give voters little pause, if any.
One notable trend on ballot measures involved voters seeking to block changes to the ballot measure process. As seen in the results above on Medicaid, marijuana, and the minimum wage, ballot measures are often the only way for liberals to enact policies in states dominated by Republicans. In response, some GOP-heavy states have sought to make it harder to qualify or approve ballot measures.
In one solidly red state, Arkansas, voters soundly rejected a measure that would have raised the threshold for passing ballot measures to three-fifths, rather than a simple majority.
In another increasingly red state, Florida, a measure to abolish the Florida Constitution Revision Commission failed to meet the required 60% needed for enactment. This panel, which is next set to meet in 2037, proposes new state constitutional amendments that voters consider for possible passage as ballot measures.
In Arizona, the results were more mixed. Voters easily rejected a measure that would have allowed the legislature to amend or repeal ballot measures after approval if they contained provisions ruled invalid by state or federal courts. However, voters backed a separate measure that would require measures to stick to a single topic. Voters also narrowly approved a measure that would raise the threshold for passing ballot measures that raise taxes from a simple majority to three-fifths.
State supreme courts
Supreme court races were a relative bright spot for Republicans on Election Night.
In North Carolina, Republicans swept both contested seats on the court, flipping it to 5-2 GOP control, a near reversal of the 6-1 edge the Democrats held just before the 2020 election. This is a crucial shift, not only for resolving myriad policy questions in a state with a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature, but also because of redistricting.
The midterm election produced a 7-7 Democratic split in the U.S. House for North Carolina, not far from the 50%-49% Trump-Biden breakdown in the state in 2020. But with help from a Republican-friendly court, the GOP might be able to squeeze Democrats out of several congressional seats they just won — which would be a big deal in what promises to be a closely divided House chamber.
The other big Republican supreme court victories came in Ohio, where Republicans prevailed in all 3 seats that were being contested this year. The GOP came into the election with a 4-3 edge on the court, but their fourth vote, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, often sided with Democrats on redistricting. The makeup of the court remains 4-3 Republican, but O’Connor will not be on the court anymore.
As a practical matter, O’Connor’s views didn’t carry the day, because the state’s GOP-dominated officials essentially ignored the court’s rulings. Now that she is gone, the expectation is that Ohio Republicans will have a freer hand on redistricting. In the midterms, the Democrats were able to win 5 of the state’s 15 seats, but 2 of those victories were within 5 points and the third was assisted by a controversial GOP candidate. A GOP-leaning court could sign off on an eventual remap that allows the Republicans to get a bigger edge in the state’s U.S. House delegation.
That said, Democrats fared better in supreme court races outside of North Carolina and Ohio.
In Illinois, the Democrats swept the 2 seats that were up for grabs, following the first redistricting of the state’s supreme court districts in more than 50 years. With a stronger top-of-the-ticket lineup, the Republicans would have had a shot at flipping the court. But the GOP’s up-ballot nominees were weak, which dragged down the otherwise credible supreme court candidates. With their twin victories, the Democrats now have a 5-2 majority that could last a decade.
In Montana, where the justices are officially nonpartisan, one conservative incumbent won reelection as expected, but the Democrats prevailed in a wide-open race in which the challenger had strong backing from the state GOP. Incumbent Ingrid Gustafson, who was appointed by then-Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, defeated James Brown, a Republican public service commissioner, by 8 points. While observers say that abortion policy did not drive the supreme court contest, Gustafson has indicated support for a 1999 decision upholding abortion access.
In Michigan, where justices are nominated by the parties but are put on the general election ballot without any listed party affiliation, the election was a status quo affair. One Republican incumbent and one Democratic incumbent were reelected, preserving the Democrats’ 4-3 majority.
Kentucky held 4 supreme court races, the most notable of which was the defeat of state Rep. Joe Fischer, an opponent of abortion who ran as a staunch conservative in what was officially a nonpartisan contest. Fischer failed to unseat incumbent Justice Michelle Keller.
And in Arkansas, another state where the justices are nonpartisan, incumbent Robin Wynne won a comfortable victory over Chris Carnahan, a former executive director of the state GOP. Carnahan lost despite receiving the backing of the state’s dominant GOP. Wynne had served in the state House as a Democrat in the mid-to-late 1980s, at a time when Democrats dominated the state.
|Louis Jacobson is a Senior Columnist for Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He is also the senior correspondent at the fact-checking website PolitiFact and is senior author of the forthcoming Almanac of American Politics 2024. He was senior author of the Almanac’s 2016, 2018, 2020, and 2022 editions and a contributing writer for the 2000 and 2004 editions.