With just over four months until the 2022 midterm elections, Washington is consumed by the aftermath of recent Supreme Court rulings and the potential impact at the grassroots level. Time is running out for President Joe Biden’s last shot at moving significant legislation as the Democratic agenda remains stalled on Capitol Hill.
Decisions have yet to be to made on the major legislative initiatives we’ve mentioned in prior missives: the China competition bill, Build Back Better 2.0, cannabis banking, and big-tech measures. Action to move the legislation has to take place before both Republicans and Democrats turn to full-time campaign mode in September.
We’re not saying it’s impossible for legislative action beyond must-do items, such as funding the government, to take place in September and early October. But, historically, neither party has been able to move their priorities past the opposition party’s resistance in the final weeks before votes are cast in November.
Once the summer months come to a close, the environment influencing voter tendencies will be harder to change as voter sentiment takes root, solidifying support for favored Senate and House candidates. Before we look at the landscape for House and Senate races, we first look at three factors shaping the midterms.
1. Redistricting and the Collapse of Competitiveness
With the 2020 census and election cycle well behind us, 43 states have completed the process of redistricting and redrawing their maps for the US House of Representatives. Democrats were poised to net gains given their early drawing of maps in several states, but the momentum has shifted and Republicans are now poised to gain three or four seats. Significant gains resulting from new lines in states such as Florida, as well as the courts dismissing Democratic maps in their strongholds of New York and Maryland, leave Republicans in a better position than they were a decade ago.
When state legislatures had the opportunity to draw their maps, both parties took a sledgehammer to competitive districts, especially in Texas. Both sides took every opportunity to shore up their foundations, creating even safer red and blue districts and winnowing the field of truly competitive seats down to approximately 50. With the nation more in need of centrist compromise than confrontation, gerrymandering is driving us in the opposite direction. For the remainder of the decade, with 435 House seats at stake, we could be looking at a scenario in which there are fewer than 35 competitive races every two years.
2. Money Matters
We can’t talk about elections without at least mentioning the almighty dollar. Republican candidates for House and Senate have closed the money gap over the past 18 months while the Democrats haven’t seen the expected retrenchment in donations given the economic and political environment—especially from smaller donors.
But a significant shift is taking place within the party Committees and affiliated outside groups. Republicans and their allies have gained significant ground to date and are on pace to up the ante—one Republican-affiliated group has already purchased $125 million in ad space with more to come. While it’s still somewhat early in the cycle, Democrats have time to reverse the trend, and recent Supreme Court decisions could be the jumpstart they need to replenish their war chest.
3. Demography Is Not Destiny
Late last year, our colleague Neil Howe referenced polls showing rising support for Republicans among Hispanics, particularly among Hispanic men. In 2012, 27% of Hispanics voted for Mitt Romney; in 2016, 29% for Donald Trump; and in 2020, 32% for Trump. However, the overall Hispanic vote remained solidly Democratic. In 2020, the 68% remainder (not counting third parties) voted for Joe Biden. Now the trend looks even more troubling for Democrats within this traditionally dependable voting bloc.
According to Howe, a new poll shows that, for the first time, Hispanic voters are almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. “When asked which party they would support if the midterm elections were held today, 37% of Hispanic voters said they would support the Republican congressional candidate, while 37% said they would support the Democrat. 22% were undecided.” The results are playing out in real time: in Texas, Republicans won a US House special election in June in a traditionally Democratic district (Biden won by 4 points in 2020) with a considerable Latino demographic.
House—Ripple or Wave?
Panic is starting to take hold in Democratic circles given not only historical trends working against the party in power, but also Biden’s low approval ratings coupled with stubborn inflation.
To make matters worse, House Democrats have reached a 30-year high mark for retirements. This is creating open seats (without the advantages of incumbency) in the 45-55 truly competitive districts (toss-ups, lean D, or lean R) we mentioned earlier (FIGURE 1). These 45-55 races are where Republicans will relentlessly push the Biden economy message with the anticipation that Independents and some Democrats will move in their direction.
Should 2022 become a wave election, don’t expect these competitive races to break down the middle. The wave will likely wipe out many of the challengers and Democratic incumbents in the toss up and light blue seats, giving the Republicans a clear advantage. This is what they are banking on to take over the gavel in the House. The current breakdown in the House is 220 Democrats, 210 Republicans, and five vacancies. Republicans need a net gain of just five seats.