If there’s one firm rule of national American politics, it’s that midterms are bad for the party that controls the presidency. Since the Second World War, the sitting president’s party has lost an average of three Senate seats and 23 House seats in midterm elections. The Democrats currently have razor-thin majorities in both chambers. If 2022 goes the way of most midterms before it, Biden is poised to lose Congress, and watch Majority Leader McConnell and Speaker McCarthy grind his legislative agenda into an oily powder.
Following a solid win in a New Mexico special election this week, though, Democrats do have some reason for optimism. The backlash against the president’s party usually begins almost as soon as the election is over. We should, in normal times, already be seeing signs that Biden’s party is facing electoral disaster. But so far, the Democrats seem to be doing fairly well.
Four years ago, in June 2016, it was already clear Republicans were in serious trouble. According to an analysis by 538 at the time, Democrats gained ground from the previous two presidential elections in 12 out of 15 special elections for state and national office. The average swing was a stunning 14.4 points. That accurately foreshadowed the huge blue wave in 2018 in which Democrats won the House with the largest vote margin since the Watergate scandal.
This year, though, things look substantially different. Looking at four federal special elections so far, 538’s analysis found no particular trend line. Republicans gained ground in special elections in Louisiana and Texas, while Democrats beat their margins in New Mexico and another Louisiana seat.
538 doesn’t consider the two most important special elections this cycle though: the Senate run-offs in Georgia. There, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock became the first Democratic Senators in the state in over 20 years. Republicans had never lost a modern run-off election in Georgia; suddenly, they dropped two at once. Those wins were as stunning in their way as the Democratic Senate victory in Alabama in 2017, or the Massachusetts Republican Senate upset in 2010. Both of the latter two were in line with midterm dynamics which favor the out party. The Georgia election defied those.
So why aren’t Democrats experiencing as much of a midterm slump as you’d expect? One possibility is that Trump’s ongoing refusal to concede that he lost the election has changed voter behavior significantly. Usually voters of the party that won the presidency feel like they’ve accomplished what they needed to, and so they stop paying attention. But with Trump continuing to loom over the Republican Party and the nation, it’s hard to feel complacent. It feels like we’re constantly on the verge of tipping over into the fetid MAGA pit we just barely crawled out of.
It’s also possible that Democratic policies over the last few months are unusually popular. Many analysts think that the large stimulus packages Congress passed in 2020 helped reduce Republican losses in the election. It stands to reason that the massive Covid aid plan Biden passed should help his party’s fortunes as well. Biden’s very successful vaccination program has also caused coronavirus cases and deaths to plummet nationwide. Even in an era of extreme partisan polarization, overcoming the worst domestic crisis in a century seems likely to provide an electoral cushion.
Whatever the reason for Democratic strength, one thing is clear — good election showings now help increase the chance of good election showings later. If politicians were already anticipating a Republican landslide in 2022, Democrats would be seeing strategic retirements and might be having trouble recruiting.
But instead, as Trump lurches around the party demanding fealty, insulting other party leaders, and threatening to run again in 2024 , it’s Republican incumbents who are headed for the exits. Five Republican Senators, including two from the swing states of North Carolina and Pennsylvania, have already announced retirement. No Democrats have. House retirements are about evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
As far as recruiting goes, Katie Hobbs, the Arizona Secretary of State and a strong candidate, entered the 2022 governor’s rate in the state this year. A number of solid potential Democratic contenders have declared already in Pennyslvania’s Senate race. Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who was a nationally recognized organizing force in 2020, is expected to try again to defeat incumbent Republican governor Brian Kemp.
This doesn’t mean Republicans are doomed. GOP House recruiting is going fairly well, too; Republicans believe they have a good chance to reclaim the chamber. They also have a built-in advantage in the Senate especially, and Republican legislatures in swing states have been passing laws to disenfranchise Democratic voters and undermine election integrity. Democrats hoped to counter this by passing voting rights reform, but their narrow majorities have hobbled those efforts.
Still, Democrats aren’t getting crushed the way the GOP was in 2017. That’s not an assurance that Biden will keep his majorities — but it’s cause, at least, for hope.