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Midterm 2022: Not a Referendum, But a Choice


— Republicans enjoyed a wave-style environment in a few states — but Democrats showed impressive strength in much of the rest of the country.

— The GOP’s lack of discipline in candidate selection cost them a number of races.

— It remains too early to truly categorize the wild election we saw Tuesday night, with several key House and Senate races uncalled.

Sorting through the midterm so far

American election nights — they don’t lack for drama these days, do they?

For the third time in the last four national elections, the night unfolded in a topsy-turvy and ultimately surprising way. In 2016, it was Donald Trump’s presidential victory, which went from very unlikely to very real around 9 p.m. in the east that year. In 2020, it was Trump’s narrower-than-expected loss, paired with dramatic moments like the massive underperformance for Democrats in key places like South Florida and surprise Republican showings in the House and the Senate. And last night it was an early Florida landslide for Republicans that simply was not replicated in much of the rest of the country.

Over the course of the spring, summer, and fall, we wondered if this would be a usual midterm, akin to the last 4 and many others in American history, in which an unpopular president and his ruling party took a big hit. Or, would it be something much more unusual, the signs of which emerged in the late summer, when Democrats performed well in a series of special House elections in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision. With the majorities in both the House and the Senate still in doubt despite Democrats defending tiny edges in both chambers, it’s clear that this election represented the latter. Simply put, it will have to rank as one of the more surprising midterm results in recent American history. In many places, Democrats were able to avoid making the election a referendum, instead making it a choice in which voters eschewed the GOP in favor of the ruling party.

What was so unusual was the unevenness of the results. As noted above, Florida was a total disaster for Democrats, with Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) winning reelection by huge margins (DeSantis won by almost 20 points, an incredible spread). The rout was so total that Democrats even had to sweat out a couple of House races that should have been easy victories. New York, too, went well for Republicans, as Rep. Lee Zeldin (R, NY-1) held Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) to a modest victory and the GOP appears to have done well in House races there, including toppling Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney (D, NY-17), who conceded Wednesday morning. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) may well remain the Majority Leader, but he saw much of his usual crossover support collapse last night — he took over 70% of the vote when he was last up, in 2016, but is sitting at just 56%.

But in other places, Democrats did great. They won or are leading in almost every competitive House race of consequence in the Great Lakes region and scored major statewide victories in the key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. There was some sign of this in the leadup to the election, in which Democrats were fretting about some key races in blue states but were holding up well in battleground states; this wasn’t a mirage, it was reality. A lot of nonpartisan pollsters can hold their heads up high in this cycle — some of the GOP firms who released a flood of rosy Republican surveys, not so much. Tuesday also provided another reminder that Election Day chatter can be very deceiving — the turnout anecdotes and data we noticed on Twitter ended up being worthless in most instances. In our own projections, we set the parameters for what we thought would be a good but not great Republican night. It’s clear that the GOP vastly underperformed what we thought was likely to happen in the House, and probably, in aggregate, in Senate and governor races too, although let’s wait until all the votes are in before making a universal assessment of what happened. We hesitate to say much about Arizona and Nevada, where the vote count is ongoing and the picture muddled. The same is true of California, where several key House races remain in doubt and likely will remain so for some time.

For Republicans, the disappointing results should prompt self-reflection. The party’s primary electorate, and its leaders, have shown a total lack of restraint in candidate selection. They put up an assortment of oddballs and newbies in several key House, Senate, and gubernatorial races. Many of them lost when more capable candidates might have won. Perhaps the most glaring example was the television doctor Mehmet Oz (R), who former President Trump helped push over the finish line in a narrow primary victory. Oz’s favorables were always horrible — it was a problem that he just could not overcome against Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), a candidate with flaws of his own but who was on the right side of a political dichotomy a good Democratic source often stresses to us as being important: real vs. fake. These candidates needed the environment to carry them over the line — the environment did not emerge, and those waiting for a wave ended up marooned. Helping Fetterman was Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro (D), who defeated an even worse Republican candidate, state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R).

It’s fair to say, too, that it may not just be Republicans asking “what if?” about their candidates in key races. Democrats may have made a questionable choice of their own in that state’s Senate race: Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) ended up almost beating Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). Would a different candidate whose public comments on criminal justice matters didn’t play so easily into Republican attacks have finished the job? It’s impossible to know, but given the success of Barnes’s Democratic ticket-mate, Gov. Tony Evers (D-WI) in his reelection bid and the tight margin in the Senate race, it seems possible. Republicans did fine in a couple of other high-profile Senate races, holding open seats in North Carolina and Ohio by competitive but not particularly close margins.

The abortion issue must have been crucial to the results. Perhaps Democrats’ best state outcome was in Michigan, where Democrats not only reelected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) but also flipped both chambers of the state legislature and won a trio of high-profile congressional races. This was also the only true swing state that had an abortion rights-related issue in the ballot, which the liberal side won. However, abortion was not necessarily an anchor for Republicans everywhere. Despite enacting anti-abortion legislation, Republican governors such as Mike DeWine (R-OH) and Greg Abbott (R-TX) were reelected comfortably.

Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) ended up winning without a runoff, while there will be a do-over in the Senate race, where Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) narrowly led former NFL star Herschel Walker (R) but finished shy of 50%. The actual circumstances of that race — will the Senate majority be decided before that race is held in early December? — will help set that stage for how it is run. Needless to say, we reserved the right to pull that race back to a Toss-up after leaning it to Walker in our Monday update, and we plan to do that.

If Florida showed a state-level red wave, we saw the opposite in some states that have moved more toward Democrats in recent years. A sleeper Republican Senate target, Colorado, fell into a deep slumber as both Sen. Michael Bennet (D) and Gov. Jared Polis (D) were easily reelected in a state where the GOP seems to be on life support. The same can be said of the Senate race in Washington state, where Sen. Patty Murray (D) won. Republicans went bust in New Hampshire, as Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) won by an impressive margin and Democrats held both House seats. Despite a lot of buzz about Republicans trying to break out of their shutout in New England’s U.S. House delegation, Democrats either won or are leading in every district in the region. One thing that ties New England together with these western states are generally higher rates of four-year college attainment, lower rates of church attendance, and cultural liberalism. The Trumpified modern GOP is just a poor fit for these places.

The United States remains a highly competitive country locked in a highly competitive era of politics. Both parties have considerable strengths and considerable weaknesses. The leadup to the election seemed more about the Democrats’ problems; the results revealed big liabilities for Republicans, too.

We’re going to give the results some time to settle before we say more. We’ll be back next week with the first of what we suspect will be many attempts to explain and illustrate the results from another unusual and unpredictable American election.