Off-year elections and legislation aren’t inherently linked
Josh Huder | November 3, 2021
Last night, Republicans swept the statewide races in Virginia and made a serious push in New Jersey. Among the various pundit hot-takes and autopsies interpreting what Republicans’ impressive performance means going forward, many pointed to the cooling effect it would have on Democrats’ infrastructure and reconciliation bills. As Republicans shrink the gap in blue states, the thinking goes, Capitol Hill moderates in swing districts or states may begin rethinking their support for the historically large spending deals working through the final stages of negotiations. As public signs of a potentially hostile political environment become more concrete, members may get cold feet.
But there’s very little evidence off-year results stymie legislative ambitions. In recent history, the opposite has been true: fragile majorities finalized major policies, searching for a legislative accomplishment that could change the political tides.
But changing the tide is difficult. Off-year elections, like midterms, are normally bad for the sitting-president’s party. This was the 11th time in the last 12 elections that the president’s party lost the Virginia gubernatorial race. If Democratic Governor Phil Murphy holds on to his seat, it would be the first time the president’s party won the New Jersey gubernatorial race since Gov. Thomas Kean pulled it off in 1985. In 2017, following President Trump’s election, Democrats racked up huge wins in both states while also winning a Senate race in Alabama. Off-year elections are important. Party actors will interpret and define the meaning of the election, shaping campaign strategies and policy priorities for upcoming contests. But the results themselves are not surprising.
Importantly, however, even after these past electoral drubbings Congress pressed ahead and passed major policies. After big Republican wins in 2009, the Democratic Congress went on to pass the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal, the Fair Sentencing Act, and more. After Democrats’ sweeping wins in 2017, Republicans went on to pass their signature tax cut. Congress responds to elections but those responses are not immediate. And while it is not impossible a bad election night derails a major initiative, more often than not parties press ahead with their priorities.
Lastly, bad election results can also spur negotiations. Midterm elections, like off-year elections, are heavily influenced by the president’s approval and the state of the economy. Democrats’ best hope of muting the quadrennial midterm penalty, to the extent they can, centers on improving these two election fundamentals. Democratic leaders are likely counseling reticent members that without the bipartisan infrastructure deal and the Build Back Better plan, the economy will not receive the jolt it needs in 2022 or the bipartisan political win President Biden campaigned on. Whether that is true will be determined (enacting major policies can also create a backlash effect) But to the extent Democrats control their fate, passing these bills may be their best shot.
The link between elections and legislation is not straightforward. In many ways, Democrats are betting their majority on a throwback style of politics, where distributive pork barrel programs and constituent benefits boost incumbent advantages and blunt long-standing electoral trends. In an era of strong partisan voting, that may be a hill too steep to climb. However, in the short-term Democrats are unlikely to cool their legislative ambitions in response to electoral warning signs.