The results of this year’s midterm elections won’t be final for weeks, but there’s more than enough data to say this: They were different.
Historically, the president’s party gets trounced in midterm elections. But for the first time in the era of modern polling, dating to the 1930s, the party of a president with an approval rating below 50 percent (President Biden’s is in the low 40s) seems to have fared well. Democrats are favored to retain control of the Senate; they could even still hold on to the House.
Results by state only add to the unusual picture. In our era of increasingly nationalized elections, we’ve come to expect that trends in one part of the country will play out in others as well. Instead, this year we saw a split: Republicans fared exceptionally well in some states, including Florida and New York. In others, like Michigan and Pennsylvania, Democrats excelled.
How can we make sense of it all? The results seem to be about a pair of issues at the forefront of politics now: democracy and abortion.
Most national polls — including The Times’s — suggested that these issues had faded in salience for most voters. But the two matters were at stake in direct ways in some states, whether through referendums on abortion rights or candidates on the ballot who had taken antidemocratic stances. In many of those places, Democrats defied political gravity. In states where democracy and abortion were less directly at issue, the typical midterm dynamics often took hold and Republicans excelled.
A comparison between New York and Pennsylvania is an illustrative example. The states border each other: If you drive across the state line, things look about the same. Yet their election results look like different universes.
Democrats excelled in Pennsylvania. They ran as well as Biden had in 2020 or even better. They swept every contested House seat. John Fetterman won the race for U.S. Senate by a much wider margin than Biden had won the state. Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor, won in a landslide.
On the other side of the state line, in New York, Republicans won big. Their candidates for Congress fared seven to 13 points better than Donald Trump had in 2020 presidential votes in those same districts. Republicans won all but one of the state’s competitive congressional districts. The governor’s race was fairly close in the normally blue state, though the Democratic incumbent, Kathy Hochul, held off her Republican challenger, Lee Zeldin.
Before the election, it was hard to imagine that these two outcomes could occur on the same night. In recent years, voting trends have been nationwide. Not this time.
The most obvious difference was the implications for abortion and democracy. Pennsylvania Republicans nominated a candidate for governor, Doug Mastriano, who was central to efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 presidential election results. Democrats viewed a potential Mastriano victory as a threat to democracy. It might have put abortion rights at risk as well: Mastriano is a strident opponent, and Republicans controlled the state legislature, though Democrats are on track to flip it.
The two issues were less critical in New York. Its Democratic Legislature would not overturn abortion rights. No movement ever emerged to overturn Biden’s 2020 victory in New York, and there was little indication that anyone feared Zeldin might do so, though he did vote as a congressman to try to overturn the 2020 results. This year, Republicans focused their campaigns on crime — an issue that worked to their advantage. It paid off.
The bigger picture
New York and Pennsylvania are examples of the broader pattern that played out across the country, where voters who were weighing in directly on abortion or democracy helped propel Democrats to victory.
There are exceptions, of course — like Democratic strength in Colorado or Republican durability in Texas. But the pattern explains a lot of the results that upended recent election trends. It even helps explain outliers in particular states. Representative Marcy Kaptur trounced her Republican opponent, J.R. Majewski, who rallied at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by 13 points in an Ohio district that Trump won in 2020. All but one of the other Republicans in House races in Ohio performed better than Trump had.
One example that might help put the midterm trends into context is Virginia. It had no statewide races because it held its governor’s race last year and had no Senate seat up for election in 2022. As a result, the unusual state-by-state dynamics were absent, so Virginia acts something like a control.
Republicans there tended to fare well. They outperformed Trump in every House race, some by double-digit margins. If abortion and democracy hadn’t been major issues elsewhere, perhaps Virginia’s seemingly typical show of out-of-party strength would have been the result nationwide. But not this year.
More on the elections
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PLAY, WATCH, EAT
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P.S. After 34 years, The Times will no longer refer to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president-elect, as “Mr. da Silva” on second reference, but as “Mr. Lula.”
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Matthew Cullen, Lauren Hard, Lauren Jackson, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].
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