The 2022 Midterm Elections
Mark Brewer, Professor of Political Science & Acting Department Chair
We head into the 2022 US midterm elections with all eyes on Congress. The current partisan division in the 117th Congress features Democrats narrowly in control of both chambers: a slight eleven seat advantage in the House and the slimmest margin possible in the Senate, where Democratic control hinges on the tie-breaking ability of Vice President Kamala Harris.
At present Democrats’ chances of maintaining their majorities appear bleak, especially in the House. The reasons for the doom and gloom surrounding the Democrats are almost too numerous to list. As of this writing forty-nine members of the House have announced that they will not seek reelection to their seats (a combination of retirements and seeking other office)—thirty-one are Democrats and eighteen are Republicans. Members choosing not to seek reelection is generally a sign that they believe their party is going to fare poorly in the next election, and right now almost twice as many Democrats as Republicans are choosing to leave office.
Perhaps equally, if not more important is the so-called generic ballot question: if the election were held today, would you vote for the Republican candidate or Democratic candidate for Congress in your district? The Real Clear Politics average of polls from 2/19-3/8 indicated a 2.8 percentage point Republican advantage, a figure that is brought down by a couple of polls showing a Democratic advantage that are probably outliers. Indeed, a Rasmussen Reports poll from just before the report period summarized above gave the GOP a thirteen point edge (Rasmussen does tend to lean Republican).
The bad news for Democrats does not stop there. The sitting president’s party usually loses seats in midterm elections. This could be even more likely in this cycle given that President Biden’s approval rating currently sits in the high thirties/low forties range. The US consumer inflation rate hit 7.9% over the past twelve months in February, the highest level in forty years. This does not even include the spike in gasoline prices caused in part by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, with the price per gallon hitting an all-time high (not adjusted for inflation) in the US, and almost certainly headed higher. When these facts are combined with the structural advantages Republicans have built up through gerrymandering over the past three-plus decades and recent legislation in many states that makes voting more difficult, it is easy to see why many analysts on both sides of the partisan aisle are predicting a Democratic bloodbath.
But in politics few things are certain, and sweeping losses for the Democrats in the 2022 midterms are no exception. While their current situation looks grim, there are some reasons to believe that Democrats could avoid the worst, if not even (admittedly, in a best case scenario for Dems) maintain control of at least one chamber of Congress. The underlying economy remains strong, and if economic growth continues and perhaps even accelerates this will likely work to the Democrats’ advantage.
While President Biden’s overall approval rating is low, his approval rating on his handling of the crisis in Ukraine is quite high. If Americans continue to view the president favorably here, this will almost certainly boost Democratic congressional candidates as well. A summer relatively free of COVID restrictions would also likely boost Dems, and this increasingly looks like a real possibility. Democrats have also figured out to gerrymander themselves, which has resulted in a number of states with improved electoral maps for the party. Also, it is possible that Republicans will nominate at least some highly polarizing candidates who might struggle in November. And speaking of candidates, former President Donald Trump is not on the ballot this November, but he is still very much at the front and center of the Republican Party and of American politics. Democrats have had success running against Trump in the past, and they could do so again.
So which way will it turn out? It is too early to say. But we can say with almost absolute certainty that it will be an exciting election season.