It’s just 560 days until the 2022 midterm elections. It’s both way too early and eminently reasonable to start thinking ahead. There’s no magic ball that will provide a clue about what will be top of mind for voters come November 8, 2022. Policies and news cycles in 2021 can half a short political half life. But elections 560 days away influence the day-to-day and strategic operations of politicians today. Just like investors look to future cash flows to predict an asset’s value today, politicians look to the future to understand the value of the policy environment today.
- Republicans hold a historical and structural advantage heading into the midterm elections, but Democrats have not thrown in the towel on other critical variables that will become important later on
- Retirements among establishment Republicans is as much a response to the long-term decline of regular order as it is to the continuing prevalence of Trumpism
- What matters more is who replaces these outgoing members in the Republican policy pecking order rather than who replaces their actual seats
- The big retirement stories this cycle have yet to occur and will be among House Democrats who see 2021 as a legacy marker
The 2022 Midterm Outlook
Democrats hope a very good 2021 will translate to 2022. But they are up against historical and structural disadvantages as well as zero room for loss to maintain their 222–213 majority in the House and 50–50 majority (with the VP tiebreaker) in the Senate.
History: Advantage GOP
“Past performance is no guarantee of future results” said every investor prospectus ever. Yet at this stage of the election cycle, history provides a good baseline. That baseline will be weighted less as other variables become more evident later on.
Since 1862, there have only been three midterms where the president’s party did not lose seats in the House and Senate — 1934, 1998, and 2002.
1934: The Great Depression and the popularity of the New Deal led to a permanent political realignment of working class voters in urban and industrialized areas. Democrats would go on to hold the House majority for 56 of the next 60 years and the Senate majority for 54 of the next 60 years.
Is 2020 like 1934? Biden sure wants it to be. FDR coming into the presidency during a crisis, cultivating a Democratic pragmatist’s big tent with erstwhile progressive outsiders, and creating a New Deal coalition that included working class voters in the industrial North all seem like a strategic roadmap for Biden today.
But 2022 does not seem ripe for a paradigm shift in electoral coalitions. Trump won the Electoral College in 2016 by 78,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Biden won the Electoral College in 2020 by 43,000 votes in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin. 2020 was nowhere close to the landslide win Roosevelt had over Hoover in 1932 that presaged an electoral realignment. If anything, the bitter political divide between the two parties continues to grow since the 2020 election.
There’s also little agreement between Democrats and Republicans about what are the most pressing issues of the day. Before the pandemic, Democrats and Republicans could not agree on the top priorities for the nation, as the two sides grew farther apart.
An update by Pew from this month showed a similar divergence. Democrats said gun violence, health care affordability, and the coronavirus were the three most pressing issues; Republicans said illegal immigration, the federal budget deficit, and violent crime were the three most pressing issues.
1998: Democrats gained seats in the 1998 midterms as a public backlash to the Republican overreach of President Clinton’s affair and impending impeachment. However, unlike today, there was no unified control of government by one party — Republicans already had control of the House and Senate pre-midterms. They were the ones controlling the agenda out of Congress, which was scandal and impeachment. It’s a harder message for Democrats this time around to say they should earn voters’ support as a check against Republicans since Republicans are in the minority.
While Democrats gained seats in the House in 1998, they actually lost the popular vote by 1.1 points. This was a big decline from two years earlier when Clinton won his reelection by 8.5 points. Due to a structural disadvantage (more on that in a bit), Democrats today cannot afford a major drop off from their popular vote margin in 2020 if they want to hold onto the House or Senate.
2002: George W. Bush lost the popular vote by half a point in 2000, but Republicans won the House popular vote by 4.8 points in 2002, allowing Republicans to gain seats in the House and win back control of the Senate (it began in 2001 as a 50/50 Republican-controlled split before Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords defected from the GOP to give Democrats the majority). President Bush also had a 63/29 approval/disapproval rating at the time of the midterms as there was still a rally-around-the-flag moment from the aftermath of 9/11 and the War on Terror was only ramping up.
The pandemic can be seen as something of a war-like effort, and it’s the issue Biden gets the highest marks on from voters. But Democrats hope Covid-19 will be largely dealt with and not top of mind for voters heading into the 2022 midterms. That could make it more similar to WWII rather than the War on Terror. Democrats were in control of government when America won WWII in 1945. Yet, they lost control of both the House and Senate the following year.
Structural Baseline: Advantage GOP
Today, Republicans have a more efficient distribution of support in America than Democrats who tend to be more clustered in metropolitan areas. Despite President Trump losing the popular vote by 4.5 points in 2020, House Republicans ended up netting 12 seats. Democrats won the 218th, or the median, seat by 2.3 points, a 2.2 point Republican advantage compared to the presidential popular vote.
The Republican structural advantage in the Senate was even greater in 2020. In the general election, Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) represented the median Senate seat, winning his race by 1.8 points. That led to a 6.3 point Republican advantage in the Senate compared to the presidential race. But because of Georgia Senate election rules, Jon Ossoff was able to turn a 1.8 point loss in the general into a 1.2 point victory in the special election, representing the other median seat.
As the Cook Political Report’s latest release of its partisan voting index (PVI) shows, 230 of the 435 congressional districts are more Republican than the national average, requiring Democrats to win in Republican territory. The number of relatively safe Republican districts (R+5 or greater) outnumbers the number of relatively safe Democratic districts (D+5 or greater) 192 to 165, as the number of swing districts (R+5 to D+5) remains at historic lows.
The Cook Political Report ascribes 81 percent of the increased polarization and Republican tilt of House districts to self-sorting of voters and just 19 percent to redistricting/gerrymandering changes. But when Republicans need to gain just five seats (or 1.1 percent) in the House to win the majority, redistricting matters. The US Census Bureaus released the 2020 Census apportionment results yesterday that sets how many House seats and Electoral College votes each state receives for the next decade.
A state like Texas gaining two seats is in no small part due to an influx of Americans from Northern cities, making the state more purple. But Republicans hold a trifecta in the state government and thus hold the levers of redistricting. The US Census Bureau is expected to release more data in the late summer/early fall for the actual redistricting process. From there, states, whether the legislature or an independent commission, will begin redrawing the congressional districts (if the state has more than one congressional district). Republicans will have the sole power to draw congressional maps for 187 seats, compared to 75 seats for Democrats (the rest of the seats will be drawn in states that have delegated the power to independent commissions or where there’s divided government).
A Brennan Center analysis showed that states where Republicans controlled redistricting had the GOP winning 53 percent of the vote in the state but 72 percent of the seats. For Democrats in control of redistricting, they won 56 percent of the vote and 71 percent of the seats. This means the 2020 reapportionment and redistricting may be enough for Republicans to gain the requisite five seats in the House to win the majority without needing to improve upon their national vote total from 2020.
Pick Up Opportunities: Mixed but Slight Advantage GOP
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has an initial list of 47 Democratic targets. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has an initial list of 21 Republican targets. These target lists should be taken with a grain of salt and will have to be rejiggered after redistricting. But it does speak to two things.
First, there are fewer clear pick up opportunities than in years past as American elections down ballot have become more parliamentarian in nature, voting for the party more so than the individual candidate. The 2020 election saw just 16 split ticket House seats, a record low, where the person elected in the district was from a different party from who the voters chose for president. There were nine Biden-Republican seats and seven Trump-Democratic seats. As a comparison, heading into the 2010 midterm elections, there were 83 split-ticket House seats, 49 of which were held by Democrats. This provided fertile ground for Republicans in 2010, especially in the South, to pick up a number of seats.
Secondly, even with this narrowed field of pick up opportunities, Republicans do have something of an edge. Of the 78 swing districts with a PVI between D+5 and R+5, Democrats hold 56 seats and Republicans hold 22 seats. Among the districts with a PVI between D+1.9 and R+1.9, Democrats hold 27 seats and Republicans hold seven seats. Again, this will change after redistricting, but that’s likely to be only more favorable for the GOP. There are more seats in play for Republicans to go on the offense with a neutral environment compared to 2020. If the midterm elections are a better environment for Republicans than 2020, that advantage will likely only grow in conjunction with redistricting.
The Senate may seem like more fertile ground for Democrats. Of the 34 seats up in 2022, Democrats are defending 14 and Republicans are defending 20. Biden won the states of all the Democratic seats up, while Republicans are defending seats in states Trump lost, like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But the states where the most competitive races will likely be held were still all to the right of Biden’s 4.5 point margin of victory in 2020. They include Arizona (Biden +0.3 percent), Georgia (Biden +0.2 percent), Nevada (Biden +2.4 percent), North Carolina (Trump +1.3 percent), Pennsylvania (Biden +1.2 percent), and Wisconsin (Biden +0.6 percent). New Hampshire, which Biden won by 7.4 points, is seen as competitive if Republican Governor Chris Sununu gets in the race. In a neutral environment compared to 2020, all these races at the onset are competitive. But if the environment becomes more Republican by just a few points, it could tilt many of these states to the red.
Forward Looking Variables: Too Early to Tell
At this early stage, historical precedent and the structural map plays an outsized role in looking at the 2022 midterm prospects. But as the midterms approach, other variables will come into play. Presidential approval/disapproval has been a reliable indicator of House party vote share in the last three midterm elections under Presidents Obama and Trump. Right now Biden has a 54/41 approval/disapproval rating, which would theoretically bode well for Democrats if it can be maintained through 2022. But it’s just too early to tell. Notably, it’s almost the exact inverse of where Trump was (42/52) at this point in his presidency. Trump’s pre-midterm approval/disapproval was 42/53, with Republicans winning 45 percent of the vote and Democrats winning 53 percent of the vote in the 2018 midterms. Tribal politics is continuing to create hardened views of politicians and the range of Biden’s approval rating may very well be limited like Trump’s moving forward.
At the same time, Biden does not hold the same attention and focus that Trump or Obama did. There could be less of a drive to vote in the midterms to show solidarity or opposition to the president who is not keen on hogging the spotlight. This could mean there are voters who support Biden but do not feel the need to express that support in voting Democratic down ballot. Right now, the generic ballot of supporting Democrats or Republicans shows a smaller Democratic advantage compared to Biden’s net approval rating. Of the few generic polls conducted since March, Democrats hold an average 2.9 point advantage over Republicans. According to an analysis by CNN’s Harry Enten, the president’s party has done worse in the midterms than the generic polling at this point in the election cycle in 12 of the last 14 midterms. In addition to Republican voters coming out at a higher rate than Democrats in midterms where the president is a Democrat, Enten estimates that Republicans could win the popular vote by four to five points.
Outside of the president’s approval rating and the generic ballot, other items to watch this year will include special elections and the general elections for states like New Jersey and Virginia. This could give an early indication of voter sentiment and enthusiasm. The state of the economy will play a role even if it seems to play a smaller role in voter preferences than in years past.
Finally, while polling had a bad year in 2020, that doesn’t mean the polls should be completely disregarded. Importantly, the polls were quite accurate for the 2018 midterms and the Georgia Senate runoffs in January. Trump’s absence from the ballots may lessen the polling problems that came from trying to account for hard-to-reach Trump supporters.
The Congressional Dynamics
Beyond having a baseline for the outcomes of the 2022 midterms, there’s then the dynamics of the 118th Congress. Plenty of headlines are focused on the tensions between Trump loyalists vs. Trump skeptics in the GOP and how that will play out in the midterms. But what really matters is who holds the positions of power for policymaking within Congress on both the Republican and Democratic sides.
In a Politico podcast last week, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was joined by Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) in waxing poetic on how to legislate well and how that’s not the case today. She said, “Is it any coincidence that a group of baboons is called a Congress?”
To be clear, a group of baboons is not called a “Congress” but rather a “Troop.” Despite the lack of veracity, it provides a nifty anecdote for legislators who have grown exasperated by how Congress is run. Manchin in 2018 plainly said, “This place sucks.” He ran for reelection (and won) anyways.
Murkowski has not announced her intentions for reelection in 2022. If she does decide to run, she will face a Republican challenger backed by Trump and his allies who are keen on seeing Murkowski brought down.
Regardless of Murkowski’s decision to run again, the pre-Trump Republican establishment is seeing a thinning of its ranks. In the House, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH), a former bank lobbyist, joined House Ways and Means Ranking Member Kevin Brady (R-TX) in announcing his retirement. Five Senate Republicans — Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO), Richard Burr (R-NC), Rob Portman (R-OH), Richard Shelby (R-AL), and Pat Toomey (R-PA) — with long-standing ties to the Republican establishment have already announced their retirements.
The retirements aren’t just about the Republican Party’s continuing embrace of Trump and Trumpism, although that certainly plays a role. In reality, the continued deterioration of “regular order” going on for well over a decade has made it harder to be an effective legislator. From the 93rd Congress when Joe Biden first entered the Senate in 1973 to the 115th Congress (2017–2019), the number of committee hearings declined by 60 percent, the number of bills enacted from Congress declined by 32 percent, and the number of pages per bills enacted increased by 236 percent.
The legislating process in a polarized era is increasingly a leadership driven affair, where power is accumulated among a few, creating “too big to fail” omnibus bills where rank-and-file members have little choice but to go along.
This dynamic partially stems from Democrats and Republicans not seeing eye to eye. This trend was showing up well before Trump entered office. The median Democratic voter was becoming more consistently liberal and the median Republican voter was becoming more consistently conservative, with little overlap.
This trend for voters was also the case for politicians. Using DW-NOMINATE to measure ideology, the median Democratic and Republican lawmaker are further apart on ideology than at any point in the history of two-party system between Democrats and the GOP.
While DW-NOMINATE has its shortcomings, there’s no doubt a Republican like Susan Collins from New England and a Democrat like Joe Manchin from rural West Virginia are exceptions to the governing norm. It’s something of a quixotic adventure to expect party leadership returning power to the committees where rank-and-file members would work across the aisle.
Another idiosyncratic challenge for Republicans is term limits for committee chairs. While Democrats do not have term limits on committee leadership posts, House Republicans can only serve six cumulative years as chair or ranking member of a committee. In the Senate, Republicans have a term limit of six years as chair but also the possibility of six years as ranking member as long as they haven’t already served six years as chair. Brady was term-limited out of serving as the top Ways and Means Republican, a factor in his decision to retire. Murkowski was term-limited out of the top Republican position on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The GOP Replacements That Really Matter
As Republicans deal with these retirements, there is a tug of war between the Trump wing and the establishment wing of the GOP in who should replace the outgoing members. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has faced this dynamic before when MAGA was previously the Tea Party. Whether a Trumpy or more establishment-like Republican wins the Senate primaries in the Alabama, Alaska, Missouri, and Ohio races may not matter too much in these red states. It’s the races in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania that a controversial Trump candidate vs. a more acceptable establishment figure could make a meaningful difference.
However, it’s not who is replacing the seats of these outgoing Republicans that’s necessarily important for policymaking but who is replacing their positions of influence in the party. Senator Susan Collins is next in line to replace Senator Richard Shelby as the lead Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) is next in line to replace Senator Pat Toomey as the lead Republican on the Senate Banking Committee. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) is next in line to replace Brady as the lead Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee. These are all Republicans who have adapted in their own ways to the era of Trumpism but who have long-standing ties to the Republican Party. They will undoubtedly be receptive to and receive major backing from traditional business groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, despite the seeming rift between Republicans and corporate America.
A Democratic Retirement Realignment
Unless the electoral coalitions meaningfully change, this could be the last Congress this decade Democrats have unified control of government. They only had unified control for one year (2010) last decade. This makes the policies today the immediate priority before campaign season begins in earnest next year. For Democrats, it’s about defeating the pandemic and passing as many long-held progressive priorities as possible through budget reconciliation within the framework of the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan.
Notching major policy accomplishments and the specter of being in the minority for the foreseeable future will likely pave the way for retirements among a Democratic leadership cohort that is in their 70s and 80s. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is not expected to stick around after the 2022 midterms. If/when she announces her retirement, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) may follow suit in order to pave a way for a new generation of leadership. There could be other long-serving Democratic members in high-ranking committee positions who also retire after getting what they could get done this year. The Senate dynamics are a bit different after Democrats reclaimed the majority for the first time since 2014. There are only 14 Senate Democrats up for reelection this cycle and the only name that has seriously come up for retirement is the longest-serving Democrat, Senator Appropriations Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT).
Moderate Democrats could face increasingly difficult races in newly drawn or eliminated districts. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) this week announced he would run for the open Senate seat in Ohio next year. Moderates like Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI), Rep. Conor Lamb (D-PA), Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL), and Rep. Cindy Axne (D-IA) are all taking serious looks at runs for higher office next year rather than sticking around in House races that could be more challenging after redistricting.
Such retirements would create a further leftward shift of the Democratic Party in the House as there would be fewer moderates to balance the progressives and a new cadre of leadership that could have a harder time balancing the demands from the left like Pelosi did in her tenure. Democrats who could potentially be chosen for the top leadership positions include Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark (D-MA), Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Pete Aguilar (D-CA), and House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA). A bid for leadership in a more progressive party means potentially making more concessions to the left wing of the party (e.g. term limits on committee chairs) for their support in a leadership race.