Policy Matters: Midterm Elections Review

This edition of Policy Matters provides an update on the November 8 midterm elections, involving state and local ballot measures, all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, 35 Senate seats, 36 governorships and many state officials — from state legislators to secretaries of state.

A Red Wave… or Not (or Sort of)?

Traditionally, midterm elections are a referendum on the party that holds the presidency, with the opposition party often picking up significant seats and control of both chambers of Congress as a check on the White House. Earlier in this cycle, that outcome looked likely in 2022, with Republicans motivated to turn out and poised to take decisive control of the House, after two years of Democrats holding very narrow majorities. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June dramatically changed the dynamic.

Republicans tout their “Commitment to America” and continue to beat the drum on the economy, blaming President Biden and the Democrats for runaway inflation, rising gas prices and a looming recession. Democrats seek to emphasize “People Over Politics,” touting their legislative accomplishments the last two years, as well as the threat of Republicans further legislating around abortion rights at the federal and state levels.

The potency of the abortion rights question this cycle came into focus in August, when Kansans voted to reject a constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion in a ballot referendum. This November, other states will consider ballot measures on abortion, as well as prison labor, marijuana legalization and decriminalization and other notable policy issues at the state and local levels.

The potential deciding factor up and down the ballot: will people — especially young people and people of color — turn out to vote in a non-presidential election year? And which issues will be motivating them: the economy or abortion rights?

Congressional Scenario Planning

Polling and race ratings change daily and questions remain — once again — as to how accurate the polls this election will be. The three mostly likely scenarios are:

Republicans take the House, with Democrats retaining control of the Senate:

This is the most likely scenario. Republicans would pass legislation only for it to stall in the Senate, while the Senate would continue to confirm President Biden’s nominees for government positions, judges, etc.

Republicans take both chambers:

This outcome is possible, particularly if Republican House momentum carries over to the toss-up Senate races. Divided government would result in a tension between executive branch regulators and Congress, with little progress on legislation and confirmations.

Democrats hold the House and the Senate:

This is an outside possibility. Some level of continued legislating and regulating would continue as in the past two years. But the Senate’s actions could remain limited unless a Democratic majority votes to eliminate the filibuster rule requiring a minimum of 60 votes on most legislation.

299 candidates in House, Senate and key statewide races have denied or questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Race Ratings and Races to Watch

The influence of former President Donald Trump can be seen and felt in many of this cycle’s races, particularly in the number of candidates — 299 in House, Senate and key statewide races — who have denied or questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election. How so-called “MAGA” Republicans will fair compared to traditional Republicans and Democrats will be among the learnings of this election.

U.S. House of Representatives

Of the House’s 435 seats, Democrats currently have a narrow majority, 221–214. Republicans will retake control if they add just five members to their numbers. As a result of reapportionment and redistricting following the 2020 Census, Republicans are poised to control and hold more districts for the next decade. The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter rates 32 House races as toss-ups, including 22 seats currently held by Democrats, 10 held by Republicans.

U.S. Senate

The battle for control of the Senate involves a number of high-profile, competitive races among the 35 seats up this cycle. Vice President Harris currently tips the 50–50 Senate to Democratic control; one race either way will prove decisive. At least four races are considered toss-ups by the Cook Political Report; six others are also in flux. The toss-ups include:

  • Georgia: Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) against former NFL star Herschel Walker (R)
  • Nevada: Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) versus former state attorney general Adam Laxalt (R)
  • Pennsylvania: State Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman (D) versus celebrity doctor Dr. Mehmet Oz, to fill retiring Sen. Pat Toomey’s (R) seat
  • Wisconsin: Sen. Ron Johnson (R) against state Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes (D)

Other tight races include:

  • Arizona: Sen. Mark Kelly (D) versus venture capitalist Blake Masters (R) [Lean D]
  • Colorado: Sen. Michael Bennet (D) versus construction company CEO Joe O’Dea (R) [Lean D]
  • Florida: Sen. Marco Rubio (R) versus Rep. Val Demmings (D) [Lean R]
  • New Hampshire: Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) versus retired Army brigadier general Don Bolduc (R) [Lean D]
  • North Carolina: Rep. Ted Budd (R) versus former state supreme court justice Cheri Beasley (D), to fill the seat of the retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R) [Lean R]
  • Ohio: Author J.D. Vance (R) versus Rep. Tim Ryan (D), to fill the seat of the retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R) [Lean R]

Down Ballot

Ballot measures

Voters will consider a range of prominent issues this election through state ballot measures:

Abortion: This fall, California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Vermont will have abortion-related measures on their ballots.

Voting and ballot initiatives: Seven states are considering initiatives related to voting procedures. Nevadans will vote on whether to follow Maine and Alaska with ranked-choice voting. Connecticut will vote on a constitutional amendment to allow early voting. In Michigan, a proposed constitutional amendment would advance voting policies from early voting to absentee ballot tracking. In addition, four states — Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado and South Dakota — will vote on measures related to ballot initiatives themselves.

Prison labor/involuntary servitude: Voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee and Vermont will decide whether to abolish slavery as a form of punishment for those convicted of a crime — which still exists in the form of prison labor and involuntary servitude in some states. Several states have already considered similar measures, and more are expected to follow.

Marijuana: States continue to ask voters to decide on decriminalization of marijuana and some other drugs, with Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota among the states voting on legalization for residents 21 and older.

Minimum wage/right to work: Voters in Nevada and Nebraska will consider whether to raise the minimum wage. Illinois voters will consider whether to establish a constitutional right to unionize and collectively bargain, while Tennessee voters will decide whether to amend the state’s constitution with a right-to-work amendment to prohibit workplaces from requiring union membership.

Health care: South Dakota will vote on whether to expand Medicaid — as 38 states have already done. Oregon voters will consider establishing health care as a fundamental right. In California, voters will consider a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco products.

Governors races

This year’s 36 gubernatorial elections will prove consequential, given the number of wide-open races, as well as some notable incumbents with clear aspirations for higher office.

The Cook Political Report considers the following races to be toss-ups:

  • Arizona: Former television anchor Kari Lake (R) vs. current state Secretary of State Katie Hobbs (D), to replace Gov. Doug Ducey (R)
  • Kansas: Gov. Laura Kelly (D) versus state Attorney General Derek Schmidt (R)
  • Nevada: Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) versus Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo (R)
  • Oregon: Former House Speaker Tina Kotek (D) versus former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R)
  • Wisconsin: Gov. Tony Evers (D) vs. businessman Tim Michels (R)

Gubernatorial races in the swing states that proved decisive in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections have been generating the most headlines. Alongside Arizona and Wisconsin:

  • Georgia: Rematch between Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams (D)
  • Michigan: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) versus conservative commentator Tudor Dixon (R)
  • Pennsylvania: State Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) versus state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R)

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