There aren’t many sure bets in American politics, but conventional wisdom tells us that midterm elections usually go very poorly for the president’s political party. However, even in a political climate where shock has become the rule, not the exception, the 2022 midterms somehow managed to flip the script, defying pundits and prognosticators. Here are eight takeaways from the 2022 midterm elections and what they tell us about American voters.
Donald Trump’s No Good, Very Bad Campaign Cycle
The fact that we’re starting with a candidate who wasn’t even on the ballot in 2022 says all you need to know about Donald Trump’s outsized influence in American politics. However, no amount of Trumpian bluster can hide the fact that the 2022 midterms went about as terribly as humanly possible for the former president, with his handpicked candidates roundly rejected by voters in winnable races.
With Congress releasing his highly protected tax returns, the appointment of a DOJ special prosecutor to investigate his not-so-highly protected classified documents, a criminal investigation gaining momentum in Atlanta, and enough drama to fill every ketchup bottle at Mar-A-Lago, Trump needed to flex his political muscles. Simply put, he didn’t.
Candidate Quality Matters. Like, a LOT.
Trump’s candidates in critical high-profile Senate races, including reality television personality Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania, former NFL star Herschel Walker in Georgia, and Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, all lost competitive races. In particular, the losses in Pennsylvania and Georgia highlighted the undeniable fact that Republicans could have won had the candidates been even slightly more competent.
Oz, who Trump propelled to victory in a razor-thin primary over candidate Dave McCormick, was lambasted by Democratic opponent John Fetterman. In a virtuoso social media campaign, Fetterman effectively defined Oz as an out-of-touch dilettante who didn’t even live in Pennsylvania, going as far as posting a video from Jersey Shore star Snooki commenting on Oz’s New Jersey connections. Fetterman suffered a serious stroke just before the primary, which dramatically limited his ability to campaign in person. A late debate performance in which Fetterman, clearly still recovering, slurred his speech and struggled to verbalize basic sentences could have, and probably should have, seriously damaged the Democrats’ chances. However, Oz failed to seize the golden opportunity and came away from the debate worse for the wear by claiming the right to an abortion should be between a woman, her doctor, and local politicians. Yikes.
Herschel Walker somehow managed to be even worse. If you ever wanted to know what would happen if someone lit a dumpster on fire and tried to get it elected to the United States Senate, now you have your answer.
Trump’s fingerprints are all over these embarrassing GOP losses, which hurts even more, considering the Democrats emerged from the midterms with a 51-49 majority in the upper chamber. Adding injury to insult is that Trump’s main GOP rival now has a compelling narrative for Republican voters heading into 2024.
The Rise of DeSantis Foreshadows GOP Civil War
Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, won reelection in a landslide. On a related note, we need to retire the narrative that Florida is anything but a red state; still, DeSantis’s 20-point victory was a textbook definition of a thrashing by any standard. By comparison, Trump won the state by over 3 points in 2020.
Although DeSantis has yet to declare a White House run for 2024, he is clearly in a much stronger position to do so after the midterms. His ability to take Trump-like positions on issues without the unprecedented political and legal baggage weighing Trump down translates into a compelling argument regarding electability. And given the GOP’s historically weak showing in the midterms, electability should be a strong motivator in 2024. Not to suggest facts could influence a Republican primary, but the numbers speak for themselves. An analysis by The Economist shows that Congressional candidates endorsed by Trump fell five points short of their predicted vote margin compared to other Republican candidates (See Bobert, Lauren).
A December 2022 poll by the Wall Street Journal shows DeSantis with a commanding lead of 52% to 38% in a head-to-head matchup. In a move that should shock no one, Trump immediately went on the attack against DeSantis for being the subject of the poll, the Wall Street Journal for conducting it, and Fox News for reporting on it. With large portions of the media machine that made Trump possible now turning on him, the probability of Trump igniting a civil war within the GOP is at an all-time high.
According to the U.S. Elections Project, the 2022 midterm turnout was 46.9% of the voting-eligible population. While lower than the record-smashing turnout of 66.6% in 2020 and 49.4% in the 2018 midterms, the numbers reflect a historic turnout. By comparison, previous midterm elections in 2006, 2010, and 2014 averaged about 37% turnout. This trend of high turnout is likely due to several factors, most notably high voter motivation over high-profile issues, including abortion and protecting democracy for Democrats and crime and inflation for Republicans.
Roe, Roe, Roe Your Vote
The critical historical takeaway from the 2022 midterms will almost certainly be that voters aren’t cool with politicians interfering with reproductive rights. On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning the long-standing precedent of Roe v. Wade. Democrats promptly declared that abortion was on the ballot, with voters responding emphatically.
Protecting access to abortion services specifically and the broader issue of maintaining bodily autonomy against government intrusion translated into droves of angry voters making sure their voices were heard. High turnout among women of all ages and young voters made a substantial difference in races nationwide. In every instance where abortion access was on the ballot, even in traditionally conservative areas, voters showed up. They sent a clear and unmistakable message to policymakers that Dobbs represents an overreach far outside their mainstream beliefs.
The unquestionable electoral backlash on abortion will almost certainly impact policy at the federal and state levels, with Republicans likely to do everything in their power to avoid “poking the bear” any further. Both parties should heed the lesson that while campaigning on a controversial issue to drum up donations and enthusiasm may be compelling, they should be prepared for unintended consequences if the platform becomes law. While conservatives may have achieved a long-desired goal in overturning Roe v. Wade, no one can deny the victory came at an exponentially high political cost.
Historic Wins Highlight Diversity and Representation
The 2022 midterms saw a clear shift in diversity and representation nationwide, as people from underrepresented groups won races from state legislatures to governor seats to U.S. congress.
Some of the historic victories include:
- The first openly transgender state legislators in America (James Rosesener, NH; Leigh Finke, MN; Zooey Zephyr, MT);
- The first openly lesbian governors (Maura Healey, NH, and Tina Kotek, OR);
- Maryland’s first Black Governor and only the third black governor in American history (Wes Moore);
- The first female governors elected in specific states (Sarah Huckabee Sanders, AR and Kathy Hochul, NY);
- The first Gen-Z member of Congress (Maxwell Alejandro Frost, FL);
- The first openly gay immigrant elected to Congress (Robert Garcia, CA);
- The first Black woman representing Pennsylvania in Congress (Summer Lee, PA); and
- The first Hispanic woman (Delia Ramirez, IL) and the first LGBTQ member (Eric Sorensen, I’ll) elected to Congress from Illinois.
Democracy is Alive as Election-Deniers Lose Key Races
Many election deniers won elections, but voters drew the line when it came to putting hardline election deniers in positions to conduct and oversee elections. A group known as The America First Secretary of State Coalition ran a group of candidates on a platform rejecting the results of the 2020 election. Their message was clear -; if elected, they would use their considerable power to overturn the results of any election they disagreed with, facts be damned.
But the message sent by voters was equally clear, denying each of the half-dozen swing state candidates a victory on Election Day. Not only did they lose, but they performed poorly compared to other Republicans on the ballot, showing that, at least for some voters, protecting our democratic processes outweighs partisan rhetoric. The results are a clear positive indicator for those who saw the 2022 election as a stress test for American democracy.
Mixed Messages on Immigration Muddy Already Murky Waters
Say it five times fast! Mixed results provided more questions than answers on the perpetually challenging issue of immigration, with no straightforward narrative emerging from the midterm elections.
Governor Ron DeSantis made national headlines in Florida and drew widespread criticism for using taxpayer dollars to fly migrants to Massachusetts. But the stunt didn’t hurt DeSantis, as he cruised to a 20-point win in the Sunshine State, including 56% of the statewide Latino vote. Texas Governor Greg Abbot also easily won a third term, despite his aggressive hardline border policies in a state with a 40% statewide Latino population.
But in other races, notably the U.S. Senate races in Arizona and Pennsylvania, Democrats effectively engaged Latino voters to help secure victories. Mark Kelly highlighted the harsh anti-immigrant stance of opponent Blake Masters in Arizona, compounded by voter support for a ballot measure allowing undocumented students to qualify for in-state college tuition rates. In Pennsylvania, John Fetterman’s campaign took advantage of his wife, Gisele, a formerly undocumented immigrant from Brazil. Gisele’s genuine warmth and charisma provided a perfect counterbalance to the gruff, perpetually semi-annoyed persona of her husband. Given the tight race complicated by Fetterman’s stroke, it is easy to argue that Pennsylvania’s 9% Hispanic population was a factor in his victory.
These are just a handful of the multitude of takeaways from the 2022 Midterm Elections. While there are clear lessons to be learned for 2024, it remains to be seen if the parties can make the course corrections necessary to improve their chances in the future. The best advice for voters is to buckle up because the next two years will undoubtedly be a raucous ride.
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