Midterms: The Red Wave Hits A Blue Wall
by Reinout Debergh
For all the talk about a red wave – i.e. a major win for Republicans – in the run up to the midterm elections, already on election day/week it became obvious that it was not materialising (to the disappointment of Wall Street that was betting on it) [1, 2]. In the end, it took five days before it was clear that the Democrats were able to thwart Republican aspirations and retain their majority in the Senate . For the House, it took even longer (± eight days) and while Republicans did gain a majority, it is much closer than was expected . Newly elected officials will enter into office in January 2023 [5, 6]. So what happened on election day? And what does it mean for the Republican party and/or Biden’s presidency? Continue reading to find out.
Voter turnout and motivation
This year’s midterms saw a record number of early votes cast, continuing the trend of increasing numbers in early voting since the early 2000s [7, 8]. In terms of demographics, early voting is higher for Democrats and people over 40 . The total voter turnout is estimated to be 46.3% of the eligible population (votes were still being counted at the time of writing). While this is not as high as in 2018, it is still the second highest number for a midterm election in this century  (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Voter turnout for presidential and midterm elections since 2000. Midterm elections in general see a lower turnout than presidential elections .
But in some states, especially battleground states such as Pennsylvania, voter turnout was actually higher than in 2018 (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Voter turnout per state .
It should also be noted that this year’s midterm election saw the second highest voter turnout of young people (under 30) for a midterm in the last 30 years (only in 2018 it was higher). Young people preferred Democrats over Republicans by 28%, thus contributing to the better than expected performance of the Democratic Party . Biden thanked young people the day after the election saying:
And I especially want to thank the young people of this nation, who – I’m told, I haven’t seen the numbers – voted in historic numbers again and just as they did two years ago. They voted to continue addressing the climate crisis, gun violence, their personal rights and freedoms, and the student debt relief.President Joe Biden 
So, what were the most important issues for voters?
Inflation was the number one issue on people’s minds (see Figure 3). However, it was closely followed by abortion rights (the most important issue for 27% of voters), a topic Democrats have been capitalising on since the contentious decision of the Supreme Court in June. Thus, while Democrats were criticized for making abortion their top priority rather than focusing more on the economy, it paid off. Indeed, for Democratic voters, abortion was the top issue by far (76%). It helped create a blue wall that stopped a red wave from happening . Climate change was not explicitly listed, but other exit polls show that 83% of Democratic voters think it is a very serious issue; for Republican voters it is only 14% .
Figure 3: Exit polls showing the most important issues for voters .
Looking at the actual results let us start with the House of Representatives, which the Republicans actually won in many narrow races. Figure 4, below, shows the small margin by which the Republicans won. At the time of writing, four seats still had to be called .
Figure 4: Election results for the House of Representatives as of November 19th .
The impacts of this result for both Republicans and Democrats will be discussed further down in the article. One result that should be mentioned is Maxwell Alejandro Frost (a Democrat) becoming the first ever member of Gen Z (people born after 1996) in Congress at the age of 25. He will represent a district in Orlando, Florida .
It took five days to know who got control over the Senate as key races were very close . Finally, by winning Nevada the Democrats reached 50 seats – enough to break a tie as the current Vice President is a Democrat. One seat remains unknown: Georgia which will go to a run-off election on December 6th. Winning it would increase the Democrats’ hold on the currently evenly split Senate .
In the only state to switch party, Pennsylvania, abortion unsurprisingly played a key role in securing the win for the Democrat Fetterman [19, 20].
Figure 5: Results of the Senate midterms as of November 19th .
Keeping their majority, Democrats can confirm potential judicial nominees, especially those in favour of climate action, reject bills passed by a Republican House and set their own agenda [21, 22].
As outlined in the first article of this mini-series, apart from the Congressional elections voting for governors took place in several states. Governors can influence the presidential election process, thus having election deniers as governors would be problematic. Democrats defeated election deniers in several battleground states . With all seats but one called, Democrats have flipped three states (Maryland, Massachusetts and Arizona) while Republicans only flipped one state (Nevada) . Biden said “We had the best midterms for governors since 1986” .
Figure 6: election results for governorships. Before, it was 22D vs 28R [25, 26].
It is also worth mentioning that Kathy Hochul has become the first female governor of New York and that there have never been more women elected for governor (a total of 12) [5, 27].
What it means for the Republicans and Trump
Former president Donald Trump was not happy with the results; one of his advisors even reported that he was “livid” and “screaming at everyone” . His candidates did not do well, despite Trump claiming it was a “great evening” .
Voters rejected election deniers in several key states, making it a good night for democracy. But the threat remains with 210 Republicans who have questioned the 2020 election winning congressional or state races .
Several Republicans blame Trump for the poor results. Former senator Santorum, who endorsed Trump in 2016, said it was time to move on. Within the Republican party the name of DeSantis is currently going around as a potential presidential candidate for 2024 . DeSantis crushed his Democratic opponent in the governor’s race for Florida by 20% . This did not go unnoticed. Trump went on to mock him, calling him ‘DeSanctimonious’ and claiming he was much more popular than DeSantis . The results also did not deter Trump from announcing that he would run for president in 2024 – however, to do so, he will have to gain the Republican nomination .
In the House, the narrow majority has put John McCarthy’s bid for Speaker at risk. Given the close majority in the House, McCarthy can not afford to have a group of Republicans voting against any potential legislative proposals . This gives Trump hardliners, who are not on the same wavelength politically, more leverage, potentially forcing McCarthy to make concessions.
Reactions by Democrats
In the Democratic camp, the mood was noticeably better. Not a surprise given they had one of the four best midterms in the last century for the party holding the presidency . On average, the party controlling the White House has lost 28 seats in the House and three in the Senate. Defying the historical trend, Democrats could gain a seat in the senate and only narrowly lost the House [14, 18, 37]. It is also the first time since 1934 that the party holding the presidency had a net gain of governor seats in a president’s first midterm . Biden declared it “a good day for democracy and, I think, a good day for America”. He also said he intended to run for a second term, though he would only make his final decision early next year. He even had time for a little dig towards Republicans and the tensions between Trump and DeSantis, saying “It’ll be fun watching them take on each other.” .
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer hailed the ‘terrific’ Democratic candidates after holding on to the Senate while criticising the ‘flawed’ Republican candidates who “did not trust in democracy and truth”. He said “this election is a victory, a victory and a vindication for Democrats, our agenda and for the American people” .
What it means for two key Democratic issues: abortion and climate change
Five states voted on amendments regarding abortion in their state. Michigan, California and Vermont (largely Democratic states) included the right to abortion in their state constitution as a reaction to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. But that abortion is not just a concern for Democratic voters was shown by results in Kentucky and Montana. There, voters rejected a further tightening of the already very strict abortion laws .
So what about climate change? While it did not impact the elections as much as abortion and inflation, the president of the American environmental NGO Sierra Club said that “the planet was on the ballot” .
The NGO calls the changes in politics on climate change the biggest takeaway from the midterms: Republicans barely criticised the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the run up to the election and those few that criticised climate action lost their races. M And why were Republicans so quiet? Simple: clean energy equals good-paying jobs making it much harder to criticise climate action. any Democrats campaigned specifically on climate action and the IRA and won; especially in elections for governors who are critical to implementing the IRA. The Sierra Club calls this “a seismic shift in national and state election”. And this is amplified by the increasing number of young people becoming eligible to vote who consider climate change one of their top priorities .
Still, many acknowledge that a Republican controlled House will make any major climate legislation very difficult over the next two years. Republicans could abolish the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, end hearings gathering information on the long history of disinformation by the fossil fuel industry and put a conservative Republican in charge of the Natural Resources Committee. But that does not mean no climate action will be taken. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), adopted in August will still be implemented. Additionally, President Biden can use executive orders and states can take action themselves .
Current Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi acknowledged that Democrats would have to partner with Republicans for climate action. But she also made it clear it would be difficult if not impossible“ .
So overall, it was a good night for the Democrats and a disappointing one for Republicans. Democrats will feel emboldened by the results while Republicans will have to reassess their strategy. Next up is the presidential election in November 2024.
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