This edition of Policy Matters provides an overview of the results of the November 8 midterm elections as we know them today.
Updated November 17 AM
Many stayed up late on Election night absorbing the latest election returns, checking the percentage of ballots counted district-by-district and state-by-state and waiting for the big calls from the various decision desks. A week later, most of the results are in and races have been called, though a few remain outstanding.
A few initial takeaways from Election Week:
A ripple not a wave
This election was not the forecasted repudiation of the president and the party in power, as suggested by historical precedent – including from 1994, 2010 and 2018. (Indeed, some observers have said it may serve as a repudiation of former President Donald Trump.) The Democrats have retained control of the Senate and Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) and Herschel Walker (R) will now head to a runoff on December 6 with the potential to further secure their majority. While a handful of races have not yet been called, the Republicans have secured control of the House with a narrow majority – far narrower than predicted. Democrats also performed far better than expected at the state level – across red, blue and purple states – in gubernatorial and state legislature races. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) rolled to a reelection victory and seems poised to consider a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
We’ve moved from Election Day to Election Season
Americans should no longer expect to know the final outcome of elections on Election Night. As seen in 2020, many races remained too close or too early to call for several days. This is a product of the rise in early/mail-in voting, as well as state rules on when and what ballots can be counted, and the number of competitive races that go to run-offs, including in those states that have newly embraced ranked-choice voting.
Candidate quality – not endorsements – matters
This election was not a successful showing for the candidates endorsed or hand-picked by former President Trump and those who supported the 2020 “Stop the Steal” movement. A marked increase in ticket-splitting – voting for candidates from different parties – and the performance of several third-party candidates shows voters are not entirely confined to “teams” but choose based on the candidate.
Voter turnout and demographics are deciding factors
Women, Hispanic and young voters, as well as those who identify as independents, propelled candidates to victory – including many Democrats. And while turnout fell short of the record share of voters who came out in the 2018 midterm elections – widely regarded among Democrats as a referendum against then–President Trump – it is still expected to surpass other recent midterms. Turnout was particularly high in key battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, the latter of which is on track to exceed 2018 by four percentage points.
Voters appeared motivated by democracy and abortion rights in states where they were prominent or under threat
In the lead-up to election day, media coverage and polls focused on the prominence of inflation, gas prices and crime as pivotal issues. And they were. But abortion rights and democracy also played a role in voters’ decisions. Voters protected abortion rights in all five states where abortion was explicitly on the ballot, including in solidly red states. And so far, it was a good election for democracy: candidates on both sides of the aisle have respectfully conceded in called – but close – races, including candidates who have denied the results of the 2020 presidential election. Notably, in a number of states where abortion rights and democracy were perceived to be under extreme threat – such as Pennsylvania and Michigan – Democrats outperformed traditional midterm expectations up and down the ballot, compared with states where those issues were not viewed as on the ballot – such as New York and Florida.
U.S. House of Representatives
Republicans have regained control of the House of Representatives, but not on the wide margins projected (30+ seats).
Currently, 211 House races have been called by the Associated Press for Democrats and 218 races for Republicans, bringing them to the exact number of seats needed to flip the chamber and take the majority. Six races remain uncalled as of today, primarily in western states where counting is still underway, as well as in Alaska, due to the use of ranked-choice voting.
Heading into Election Day, the Cook Political Report ranked 64 House seats as either toss-ups or “leaning” in one direction – fewer than in previous election years, in part due to redistricting dictated by the 2020 census. In some cases, state legislature-driven gerrymandering played a significant role in rendering a new district non-competitive. Due to these issues, a number of districts have flipped parties – or are likely to – and could remain in control of one party until the next round of redistricting following the 2030 census. New York State, for example, appears to have a notable number of seats flip party from Democrat to Republican.
Democrats have secured the Senate majority for another congress, though Vice President Kamala Harris may still need to serve as tiebreaker pending the outcome of the Georgia run-off election.
Among open seats, Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman’s (D) victory over Dr. Mehmet Oz (R) put the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in the Democratic column. But Rep. Ted Budd (R) won over former state Supreme Court justice Cheri Beasley (D) in North Carolina, keeping retiring Sen. Richard Burr’s seat red, and author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance (R) prevailed over Rep. Tim Ryan (D) in Ohio to keep Sen. Rob Portman’s seat for the Republicans.
Most Senate incumbents held onto their seats, but the race remains uncalled in Alaska between two Republicans, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) vs. Kelly Tshibaka (R). In Georgia, Sen. Warnock will continue to defend his seat in the Dec. 6 run-off. The Alaska case is unique as the state employs ranked-choice voting for the first election cycle, resulting in two Republican candidates going to a run-off later this month, but it will not impact control of the Senate.
Voters considered a range of prominent issues through state ballot measures. Ballot initiatives regarding abortion were among the most high-profile, with voters explicitly supporting continued access to abortion in five states. Three states – Michigan, California and Vermont – approved adding the right to an abortion to their state constitutions, while in Republican-led Kentucky and Montana, voters struck down ballot initiatives seeking to restrict access to abortion.
Other notable ballot measures considered during this election include:
Of the 36 gubernatorial elections this cycle:
Alongside the gubernatorial elections, thousands of state legislators were elected, determining control of state legislatures. While Republicans control the legislature in most states, with majorities in 61 chambers to Democrats’ 37 going into the election, Democrats made some noteworthy gains. Four chambers previously held by Republicans appear to have flipped to Democrats: the Michigan House and Senate, the Minnesota House and the Pennsylvania House, though Alaska and Pennsylvania’s legislatures have not yet been called.
These outcomes for legislatures and governors’ mansions have resulted in fewer divided state governments. Democrats now have full control of state government – a trifecta – in 17 states, with Republicans holding 21 states. Just nine states have divided government.
The lame–duck session may involve a shift in priorities. Although all eyes have been on two must-pass bills – the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the omnibus government funding bill – Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is now expected to prioritize confirming President Biden’s judicial nominees during the lame duck, which kicked off on Monday, November 14.
Congress has until December 16 to pass a FY2023 omnibus government funding bill – or pursue another continuing resolution to extend the deadline into the new Congress. The funding bill will likely serve as the vehicle for other priorities Democratic lawmakers want to advance before the power balance in Washington changes, which could include further aid to Ukraine or even an extension of the child tax credit that members of the New Democrat Coalition are pushing House leadership to advance.
Congress also needs to pass the NDAA by the end of the year; the House passed its version in July, but the Senate has yet to act. The Senate version of the 2023 NDAA has already attracted 900 amendments. While it’s unlikely all amendments will be considered and many are uncontroversial, one amendment to watch is the Senate’s Electoral Count Act overhaul, submitted by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) in late September. The Electoral Count Act is a bipartisan bill that aims to protect future elections following the numerous fake elector schemes that led to objections in the Electoral College certification process on January 6 and the related insurrection at the Capitol.
Another prominent item advancing during the lame–duck session is a vote in the Senate to protect same-sex marriage as part of Democrats’ response to the perceived threat to personal rights following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. In addition, both parties will need to select leadership for the 118th Congress. Current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has announced she will step down from leadership, leaving opportunities for a new generation, and current Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has secured support from the Republican caucus in his bid for the speaker’s gavel.