The Midterms Cometh

Laura Blessing | October 11, 2022

A bar graph haunts Washington.  You know the one.  Its jagged teeth notch losses for the President’s party in every post-WWII midterm House election, all except two.  Those electoral projections have been a moving target this year, and in many respects we are living in unusual times.  But the ultimate results will be more than the final tally of election night.  This goes beyond what policies are possible depending on who voters send to Congress.  Some midterm elections have been more consequential than others.  When considering the importance of this midterm, we should go beyond the factors of the predictions to consider previous influential midterms for Congress itself, as well as the long-reaching effects of the last transformative midterm election, that of 2010.  What potential transformations might be in store once this year’s ballots are cast, and how should we consider such changes?

Electoral Predictions: The Historical Trends:

The historical projections of a House loss, in every recent year but 1998 and 2002, are often accompanied by notions of “thermostatic” public opinion.  Originally observed as a moderating public response to changes in government spending (spend conservatively or liberally and the public wants policymakers to tack back in the other direction) by Wleizen, other scholars have broadened this concept to look at a response to liberal laws in general, with some more limited work applying it to elections.  The press applies it more liberally to election results, a loss following a win—often understandable given our original toothy graph.  The Senate shows us a more nuanced, picture, however.  To the extent that midterm Senate races tend to be bad for the President’s party, they are more likely to come during the second midterm, while Senate midterms in general trend negatively but with large variation, including many years of the President’s party winning seats.

There are, of course, other important midterm elections.  The President’s party often has deep losses, particularly in the first midterm cycle for state legislative races, a fact the Biden administration appears to be taking seriously.

Electoral Predictions: Factors in Play this Year:

November may not be the cruelest month for the President’s party.  At least, while Republicans are still predicted to win the House, those projected gains have shrunk, and the Senate is looking like a toss up or better for the Democrats.  Beyond the typical mediating (fine: “thermostatic”) effect of most midterms against the President’s party, a number of typical factors are included in such projections, as well as some unusual factors for this year.  The popularity of the President is a major factor, and while Biden’s approval has ticked up recently, it has never recovered from the dive it took around the administration’s bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Economic factors are another major consideration, with different metrics.  Seth Masket argues both that historically Real Disposable Income (RDI) is the best economic predictor historically, but also that it seems significantly off this yearInflation is at a 40 year high; and while this is a global phenomenon with many contributing factors, voters are still likely to voice their displeasure.  Similarly, the high cost of gas is predicted to be influential, though a recent downturn may blunt this.  The Biden administration has also notched a number of legislative wins recently, turning around an impression of a stuck presidency.  Meanwhile, even Leader McConnell bemoans problems with Senate candidate quality.

There are a number of unusual factors this year, as well.  Former President Trump has made many endorsements, and while there have been some high-profile losses the overwhelming majority have won their primaries.  The Brookings Primaries Project imbues some nuance in the larger Trumpification of the GOP, noting that roughly half of Republican primary candidates did not mention Trump or MAGA.  While the January 6 hearings and multiple lawsuits may have eroded some Trump support, the Mar-a-Lago search has also energized some Republicans.  Midterms are often seen as a referendum on the party in power, and Trump’s continued high-profile presence mitigates against that, showing voters a clearer choice.

The loss of federally guaranteed abortion rights, handed down by the Supreme Court in Dobbs, as well as the subsequent, often extreme, rollback of those rights in many states, has had an unquestioned effect.  From a Kansas referendum, higher rates of women registering to vote, and early primaries appearing to show an effect of Roe’s reversal (and notably: some Democratic candidates running ahead of Biden, unusual for our modern era), the destruction of this right is changing the electoral calculus.  Historically reproductive rights have been an organizing and more potent electoral issue for conservatives, but that has the potential to shift—though notably abortion rights proponents are not immune to stumbling, even at this time. Political organizing, including at the state level, has many asymmetries between the parties, and the fruits of that organizing are becoming clearer.  In addition to ongoing concerns for electoral integrity, it is a major ongoing phenomenon to watch.

Elections have Consequences, For Congress:

Prognosticators are fixated by the final tally for how many Democrats and Republicans are sworn in for the next Congress.  Control of both chambers, by what margins, will say much about what policies and congressional actions are possible.  A likely Republican House will be expected to block Democratic policy priorities, and as is typical for divided government, focus on oversight issues and create new avenues of investigation.  Some major opportunities for bipartisanship exist, of course, from reforming laws on legislator insider trading to continuing to support Ukraine to bolstering American technology to meet global threats.  If the Republicans take the Senate the ability to confirm nominees, particularly for the judiciary, is a major question.

Much of the above would be typical for any incoming congressional cohort.  But some congressional cohorts are more influential than others.  New cohorts, particularly those of a significant size but also those imbued with a different character, can prompt greater reform to Congress in a variety of different potential ways.  In more modern congressional history, the 1974 election and the “Watergate babies” cohort it brought to Washington stands out as particularly influential for reforms to the institution and its mores.  Stymied by conservative Democratic committee chairs, liberal Democratic reformers empowered party leadership and brought in a new, more combative style, while engaging in major oversight efforts.  The 1994 cohort also stands out as a large incoming cohort with a major effect on the institution, as Gingrich’s speakership ushered in major changes for Congress.  Loomis and Barnett note that by 2005-2006 the effects of this major cohort had faded, and emphasize the influence of size of an incoming congressional cohort on its institutional influence.  I would argue that the Tea Party midterm election of 2010, and its effects on policy (failure of a grand bargain leads to the sequestration regime of BCA 2011), procedure (the earmarks ban), norms (real brinksmanship with the debt ceiling, and more), and factions within Congress (the Tea Party becomes institutionalized in the House Freedom Caucus) has cast a long shadow.  When considering the potential effects of a cohort, these are useful categories of potential change to consider.  Over a decade later the influence of this cohort has not attenuated but become institutionalized.

As we look to considering the effects of the next Congress, the size of election gains will certainly have an effect and may mitigate the reform potential of an incoming class.  But so, too, will the character and goals of the class itself.  While no analyst has a true crystal ball, influential cohorts have stated their aims in their campaigns—a more activist backlash to Nixon in 1974, the Contract with America in 1994, and the strong Tea Party rhetoric in 2010.  Elections matter—and electoral promises do, too.


Laura Blessing is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

Categories: Congressional Update, Media Center, Revise & Extend, Updates