Two Things to Watch for in the Midterm Results
The midterm elections are at last upon us—and with them, mounting anxiety and anticipation over the possible outcomes. Many commentators, in addition to partaking of the usual horserace excitement of calling winners in individual contests, will keep their eyes on specific aspects of our democratic system such as voter turnout and party-line versus split-ticket voting. Others will critique the accuracy of pre-election polling or look for evidence of demographic shifts. The one thing we’ll all be watching are the losers—will they refuse to accept the results and spur a new cycle of conspiracy theories around election fraud? Or will they concede civilly?
There are two key indicators I’ll be watching to get a sense of what’s in store for our nation and our democracy.
The first of these is how many congressional seats Republicans pick up. Common wisdom holds that the party of a first-term president loses congressional seats in the midterm. The exception to this general rule is the 2002 midterm, when a lingering “rally round the flag” effect after 9/11 helped George W. Bush’s Republican party to gain 10 seats. Before that, you’d have to go all the way back to the 1934 elections during FDR’s first term for a similar result. Over the last 40 years, the party of a first-term president has lost on average about 32 congressional seats in the first midterm, six seats more than the average midterm loss for all administrations during the same period. Among those, the largest losses are those of Obama’s Democrats in 2010, the year they lost a total of 69 seats, followed by Clinton’s Democrats losing 60 seats in 1994 and Trump’s Republicans netting a 38-seat loss in 2018.
While Republicans are likely to regain control of the House, the size of their majority can help us anticipate the legislative direction they will take. If they have a surprisingly good year—a year like 1994 or 2010, a true red wave—they may emerge an even bolder party and embrace a transformative and revanchist politics akin to 1994’s Contract with America or the Tea Party movement of the 2010s. But if current polling holds true and Republicans pick up 15 seats or fewer, it will be important to pay attention to the party’s response. Though GOP leaders will surely position regaining control of the House as a national referendum on Biden and the Democrats, winning a slim majority in one or both congressional houses would suggest something very different. In the years between today’s midterms and the presidential election in 2024, will the party’s remaining pragmatists in a Republican-led Congress prevail over their more extreme colleagues and embrace the work of legislating through compromise—partly in the hope of recapturing the White House—or will the MAGA wing run roughshod and turn the sharp edge of illiberal democracy on the nation? The effectiveness of reasonable House Republicans will heavily influence whether our federal government ambles along over the next two years or will instead be subjected to multiple impeachment proceedings and government shutdowns.
One last point on this: While the number of seats a party loses does not correlate strongly with the incumbent president’s chances of re-election, there is another curious pattern in presidential outcomes that merits close attention. Since the 1990s, every time a movement has captured the Republican party, the party’s presidential nominee has lost in the next election. This is what happened in 1996, 2012, and 2020. And in the election after that, flaws in our democratic system have been exposed and exploited to the movement party’s advantage. (See the 2000 and 2016 elections, where the popular vote selected one candidate while the Electoral College chose another, and the 2020 election, which saw Trump refuse to concede, conspire to overturn the results, encourage a mob to march on the Capitol, and skulk out of town without participating in the peaceful transfer of power.) The boldness of a Republican House or Republican Congress in 2023 may tell us a lot about what America will look like in 2025.
The second key indicator to watch is the number of election deniers who win local, state, and congressional races. A new review from CBS News found that more than half of GOP candidates in state and federal races (308 out of 597 total) have “raised doubts about the validity or integrity of the 2020 election.” This comports with an analysis from FiveThirtyEight. As mentioned above, there will certainly be a few Republican candidates who refuse to accept they lost, but more concerning are the ones who win office and will be in power when the next presidential election occurs. Many of the pieces that were not in place in 2020 to make Trump’s coup successful—namely, officeholders willing to invalidate election outcomes—are now in position to wreak havoc. If they come to dominate the party’s leadership and platform and are rewarded with re-election in 2024, Inauguration Day 2025 may be a grim watershed for American democracy.
On this point, the “who” matters. If populist MAGA candidates like J.D. Vance in Ohio and Herschel Walker in Georgia win their Senate races—along with comparably extreme Republican gubernatorial candidates in places like Arizona, Maryland, and Pennsylvania—it will signal to the party and the nation that the path to power flows through Trump endorsements, election denialism, and the demonization of everyone to the left of the far right. Such candidates, either cynics themselves or cynically supported, are likely to become more common, their views and rhetoric perceived as politically necessary to win Republican primaries and general elections. Further, if MAGA figures within Congress successfully challenge for House leadership or chair the most powerful committees, remaining pragmatic and center-right Republicans will be either further ostracized or polarized. To use Mitch McConnell’s own words as an ominous maxim for the country, “candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.” McConnell had a pragmatic goal in mind—retaking the Senate, a prospect he saw being threatened by the poor candidates his party had fielded—but his words have a larger import, as well: Candidates who succeed but lack certain desirable qualities, competency for the office and a belief in democratic principles among them, are bad portents when it comes to the outcome for the nation.
No matter how they play out, the midterm elections will be clarifying. The Democratic party is likely to remain the home of pragmatic moderates, progressives, and a strain of democratic socialism. The Republican party will either double down on Trumpism or, perhaps, begin to understand that it’s time for a slow course-correction away from it. To date, there is little reason to think the latter is more likely.