Democrats hoped that this year would be an exception. By trying to focus the electorate on Donald Trump, they sought to rouse the Democratic base. This approach would also avoid making elections a referendum on President Biden and his approval ratings, which have sagged after months of struggles with the Afghanistan exit, Covid, gas prices, inflation and congressional Democrats.
In other words, Democrats hoped that the usual rules of political gravity would not apply. But we should not be surprised that the familiar force endured.
Republicans performed well in races across the country — most notably in the governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey, states that Mr. Biden won by double digits in 2020. Vote counts are still being finalized, but it appears they shifted almost identically toward the Republicans compared with 2017, the last time those governorships were on the ballot — margins of about 11 points. Virginia provides a striking example of how often the presidential party does poorly — the White House party candidate has now lost the gubernatorial race in 11 of the past 12 elections.
Unfortunately for Democrats, political gravity is also likely to act against them in 2022 — and they face real limits on what they can do about it.
There were signs of Democratic decline in all sorts of different places. The suburban-exurban Loudoun County in Northern Virginia is an example. Terry McAuliffe carried it, but his Republican rival in the governor’s race, Glenn Youngkin, campaigned aggressively there on education issues and basically cut the margin compared with 2017 in half. Places like Loudoun are where Democrats made advancements in the Trump years. To have any hope of holding the House next year, the party will have to perform well in such areas.
Turnout in terms of raw votes cast compared with the 2017 gubernatorial race was up all over Virginia, but some of the places where turnout growth was smallest included Democratic urban areas and college towns.
But Republicans had no such trouble: Their turnout was excellent. In New Jersey, the county that saw the biggest growth in total votes compared with 2017 was Ocean, an exurb on the Jersey Shore, which Gov. Phil Murphy’s Republican challenger, Jack Ciattarelli, won by over 35 points.
Democrats have also struggled in rural areas, and the results last week suggest that they have not hit bottom there yet. In the Ninth Congressional District in rural southwestern Virginia, Mr. Youngkin performed even better than Mr. Trump did in 2020.
Like this year, the fundamentals for the 2022 midterms are not in the Democrats’ favor. Midterms often act as an agent of change in the House. The president’s party has lost ground in the House in 37 of the 40 midterms since the Civil War, with an average seat loss of 33 (since World War II, the average is a smaller, though still substantial, 27). Since 1900, the House has flipped party control 11 times, and nine of those changes have come in midterm election years, including the last five (1954, 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2018). Given that Republicans need to pick up only five seats next year, they are very well positioned to win the chamber.
It is not entirely unheard-of for the presidential party to net House seats in the midterms. It happened in 1998 and 2002, though those come with significant caveats. In ’98, President Bill Clinton had strong approval in spite of (or perhaps aided by) his impeachment battle with Republicans and presided over a strong economy; Democrats had also had lost a lot of ground in the 1994 midterm (and made only a dent in that new Republican majority in 1996). They gained a modest four seats.
In 2002, Republicans were defending a slim majority, but they benefited from President George W. Bush’s sky-high approval rating following the Sept. 11 attacks and decennial reapportionment and redistricting, which contributed to their eight-seat net gain.
So against this political gravity, is there anything Democrats can do? The passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill as well as the possible passage of the party’s Build Back Better social spending package could help, though there is likely not a significant direct reward — new laws aren’t a magic bullet in campaigning. But a year from now, Democrats could be coming into the election under strong economic conditions and no longer mired in a high-profile intraparty stalemate (the McAuliffe campaign pointed to Democratic infighting as a drag).
Factors like gas prices and the trajectory of Covid may be largely beyond the Democrats’ influence, but it is entirely possible that the country’s mood will brighten by November 2022 — and that could bolster Mr. Biden’s approval rating.
When parties have bucked the midterm history, they’ve sometimes had an unusually good development emerge in their favor. If there is any lesson from last week’s results, it is that the circumstances were ordinary, not extraordinary. If they remain so, the Democratic outlook for next year — as it so often is for the presidential party in a midterm election — could be bleak.
Kyle Kondik is the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and the author of “The Long Red Thread: How Democratic Dominance Gave Way to Republican Advantage in U.S. House Elections.”