Over the course of Election Day 2022, the predicted red tsunami was downgraded to a red surge, then a red wave, then a red ripple. Although it will take some days (or weeks) to know all the results, by Wednesday afternoon The New York Times was predicting a US House of 224 Republicans and 211 Democrats. If this is borne out, the Republican Party will have added a mere 12 seats, turning in the poorest showing of the non-presidential party in a midterm election in 20 years. Washington Post election expert Henry Olsen forecasted 54 US Senate seats for the GOP. But Republicans will be lucky to hang on to 50. And among this year’s 36 gubernatorial races, Democrats have already gained two governor’s houses. If the unlikely outcome is that Republicans win all four of the currently outstanding races (Alaska, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon), the party will have picked up a net zero governors. While Republicans in Florida swept every Democrat from statewide office for the first time since Reconstruction, Democrats gained a much-coveted trifecta (the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature) in Michigan for the first time since 1983. Republicans had surprising victories in a few upstate New York congressional races but may lose seats in California.
For the incumbent party, not losing is as good as winning. It is fair then to declare Democrats the winners of the 2022 midterms. That being said, such a claim doesn’t amount to much. Pundits across the media are keen to learn—or more often, to teach—“national” lessons from the 2022 midterm results. Ron DeSantis is the Republican future! Americans want abortion on demand! Blue America consents to tyranny! But the only clear lesson is that there is no national lesson, because there is no national subject to teach us anything.
The use of water analogies like “surge,” “wave,” and “tsunami” makes it difficult to recognize this fact. Both Republicans hoping for and Democrats fearing such an election presumed the American electorate to be a great ocean moving collectively in reaction to a common force such as a hurricane (inflation) or an earthquake (crime). Instead, the election results suggest no such common force. Liberals voted on abortion while conservatives voted on the economy and crime. Some races were strongly nationalized (Pennsylvania’s US Senate race won by a Democrat) while others remained quaintly local (Vermont’s gubernatorial race won by a Republican). Heavily Hispanic Miami-Dade County, Fla., swung behind Republican Ron DeSantis, while the heavily Hispanic counties of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas swung back toward Democratic candidates. Republicans lamenting their meager gains are rallying behind a diagnosis of “candidate quality” in the face of the stroke-impaired John Fetterman not only winning his Senate race, but doing so with a comfortable margin. Even the highly compromised Herschel Walker is at the very least moving on to a runoff.
Trying to discern national lessons from midterm elections is doubly fraught by their unusual voter base. Without a presidential race, higher status Americans turn out at even higher rates than usual compared to middle- or low-status voters. Although snap exit polls should always be read with a healthy dose of skepticism, the network exit poll and the AP VoteCast poll show that 42 percent of the 2022 electorate were college graduates, while only 36 percent of registered voters and 33 percent of eligible voters are so. Such overrepresentation of the highly educated benefits Democrats, and the party motivated its voters well. Anyone consuming media over the last week was bombarded by Democratic ads urging voter turnout for abortion access. Exit polls suggest this ad campaign worked. Some 33 percent to 39 percent of voters (the exit polls disagree) reported feeling positively “angry” about the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, and this was the plurality view among the four choices offered. Unsurprisingly, such voters rallied overwhelmingly behind Democratic candidates.