Midterms are typically a grim affair for the party in power, but Democrats went into last week’s election with more than the usual share of handicaps: a president whose approval rating had dipped to 40 percent, an inflation rate that had jumped to near 8 percent, and an electorate that overwhelmingly (72 percent) thinks the country is on the wrong track. Yet Democrats have not only managed to dodge a red wave; they have maintained and may even expand their majority in the Senate and are somehow still in contention for control of the House, though that seems much less likely. The problem is that, given the number of wild cards at play in this unconventional election, they can’t be sure exactly how they did it.
Was it Dobbs? The decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and send the issue of abortion back to the states certainly galvanized Democratic voters, especially in states with abortion legislation on the ballot. For example, Michigan voters established a constitutional right to reproductive freedom while giving Gretchen Whitmer a double-digit victory in the governor’s race and flipping the state’s House and Senate blue. Meanwhile, in New York, where abortion rights seem secure, Republicans flipped four House seats. Still, while fears that anti-Dobbs sentiment may have peaked too early over the summer proved unfounded, the issue may not remain as galvanizing in 2024.
Did Democrats do well because voters have simply had enough of Trump and Republican extremism? High-profile Trump-backed candidates underperformed, with Mehmet Oz falling to John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker trailing Raphael Warnock in Georgia (though making it to a December 8 run-off), and a number of stop-the-steal candidates going down in House elections. There was also evidence of increased ticket-splitting, running counter to a recent trend toward uniform ballots in a highly polarized political environment. In New Hampshire, voters reelected Gov. Chris Sununu, a centrist Republican who has criticized Trump, while handing Democrat Maggie Hassan a decisive victory over Don Bolduc, who echoed Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen. Independent voters also bucked a long-standing trend, opting for the Democrats by a two-point margin when previous midterms have seen them swing to the party out of power by twelve points or more. The Democrats’ messaging on Republican threats to democracy, including two prominent speeches by President Biden, may have been effective.