the huffpost guide to making sense of the midterms

There is a lot on the ballot on Tuesday. Without a presidential contest, midterm election years lack a single focal point. Instead, attention is divided among a slew of Senate and gubernatorial elections, a battle for control of the House, plus dozens of referenda and state races.

It can all get a little confusing, especially if you’re trying to figure out what it means for the future of American politics and policy. Here’s HuffPost’s guide to how to watch the midterm elections and how to think about what happens.

The Expectations Game

Let’s start here: What would count as a good night for the Republican Party? Typically, the party that’s out of the White House gains roughly 25 seats in the U.S. House and four seats in the Senate. Right now, the top political forecasters are predicting gains of roughly that size in the House and smaller gains in the Senate.

But would matching the historical average count as a win? After all, most presidents were more popular than Joe Biden, whose approval rating in the FiveThirtyEight average is a measly 41%. And most of those presidents were not presiding over an economy with inflation at its highest levels in 40 years.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) predicted after Election Day last year that the party could flip more than 60 seats this year, an outcome very few expect. National Republican Senatorial Committee chair Rick Scott (R-Fla.) has suggested the GOP could control as many as 55 Senate seats, a similarly bold claim. Should they have to reach those marks to claim victory?

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, predicted Herschel Walker and a lot of other Republicans would join the Senate after Tuesday’s midterm elections.
Jessica McGowan via Getty Images

For Democrats, should they meet Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s predictions, they would hold their respective chambers. But will simply keeping GOP margins small enough to reclaim them in 2024 be enough?

Answering those questions could end up being the subject of days of cable news panels, so we’ll just add this: Many Democrats have spent the past two years wondering where the GOP’s political punishment was coming from for their unpopular positions on abortion rights and their lies about the 2020 presidential election. If the Republicans fall short of the historical benchmarks, that will be their punishment. It just might not feel like one, since it will likely still be enough to take the House.

In political terms, a smaller-than-average Democratic loss would lead to finger-pointing ― a loss of any size will lead to finger-pointing ― but might not indicate Democrats made any massive political mistakes, such as focusing too much on abortion rights. At the same time, the near-certainty of GOP victory in the House means party officials will undoubtedly be celebrating on Tuesday night, but simply matching historical averages won’t prove their political genius.

From a governance perspective, simply getting to 218 and giving Republicans control of House committees will cause headaches for the Biden administration and end any Democratic hopes of achieving further policy goals. But keeping the Senate would mean Democrats could continue to confirm Biden-appointed judges and executive branch appointees.

If Republicans win control of either chamber, expect the legislative agenda for the next two years to be thin and defined by Republican investigations and brinkmanship over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling.

The Size And Shape Of GOP Majorities

Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) is holding on in a tough political environment, according to internal polling from both parties.

Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) is holding on in a tough political environment, according to internal polling from both parties.
Associated Press

If neither party is going to be passing major legislation for the next two years, then why do these races matter? Well, they’ll shape the majorities each party could deploy the next time they gain full control of government.

For instance, if Democrat Russ Feingold had defeated GOP Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin all the way back in 2016, the party would have had an additional member in the Senate once Biden finally won, making Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) a bit less relevant. Add in a victory for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) in 2018, and suddenly the party had a chance to do away with the filibuster.

For Republicans, then, the goal is to win as many Senate seats as possible to pad their margins for a potential presidential win in 2024. That Senate cycle will be brutal for Democrats: They have only two marginal pickup opportunities in Texas and Florida, and will have to defend seven senators in states former President Donald Trump won at least once. If the GOP can run up the score this year, it’s possible they could reach a filibuster-proof majority in 2024. On the flip side, if Democrats want to govern again after 2024, limiting Republican gains to one seat will be essential.

With House elections occurring every two years, the effects of a wave can be reversed much faster. But as a Democratic strategist noted, requesting anonymity to frankly discuss with HuffPost his party’s faltering prospects, the right Democrats might be losing in 2022.

Internal polling for both parties shows a number of Democrats’ swing-district representatives, like Reps. Jared Golden (Maine), Matt Cartwright (Pa.) and Elissa Slotkin (Mich.), holding on even as Democrats lose open seats in territory generally seen as far more friendly, like Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District and in California and Oregon.

Those blue-tinted seats could be relatively easy for the party to flip back before their next chance to govern, while a Republican who claimed Golden or Cartwright’s seats might prove exceedingly difficult to dislodge.

Count The Trifectas (And The Vetoes)

On the state level, both parties are looking to build and disrupt trifectas ― the common terminology for when a party holds both chambers of a state’s legislature and its governorship, giving it near total control over state government. Right now, Democrats have trifectas in 14 states, covering about one-third of the American population, and Republicans have trifectas in 23 states, covering 42% of the population. A quarter of the population does not live in a state with a trifecta.

Democrats are set to pick up at least two trifectas ― Maryland author Wes Moore and Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey are set to flip the governor’s mansions in their states. Republicans, meanwhile, are aiming to build trifectas by ousting Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and disrupt Democratic ones by winning governorships in New Mexico or Oregon.

The picture is more complicated in other states: In Michigan, Republicans still have hope that conservative commentator Tudor Dixon can beat Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, while Democrats are hopeful they can win control of the now un-gerrymandered state Senate. If Republicans hold the Senate and win the governor’s race, they’ll pick up a trifecta.

In Minnesota, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz is heavily favored to win reelection, but control of both the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate is on the line.

Beyond the threat to Evers in Wisconsin, a further GOP gerrymander of that state means Republicans could potentially pick up enough seats in both chambers of the legislature to override Evers’ vetoes and render him irrelevant. A similar threat exists in North Carolina, where Republicans need to pick up just two seats in the state Senate to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes.

Which Polls Are Right About Latino And Young Voters?

Whether Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), the first Latina senator, survives a challenge from Republican Adam Laxalt could depend on how far-reaching Republican gains with Latinos have become.

Whether Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), the first Latina senator, survives a challenge from Republican Adam Laxalt could depend on how far-reaching Republican gains with Latinos have become.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

A fascinating split has emerged in polls of two key voting blocs ahead of this year’s elections. In broad polls of the electorate, indications are Latino voters are shifting significantly toward Republicans compared with 2018, continuing a trend from 2020. But the Latino subsamples in those polls are small, with significant margins of error.

Dedicated polls of Latino voters from groups like the National Association of Latino Elected Officials and Univision, however, show Democrats essentially holding their ground compared with 2020. These polls, however, are relatively few in number.

Similarly, most national polls have shown young voters with far less interest in voting compared with 2018. A dedicated poll of young people from the Harvard Institute of Politics, however, found 40% of 18- to 29-year-olds would “definitely” vote in 2022, which would match their turnout rates from 2018.

Older people always vote in midterms at substantially higher rates than younger people, but a surge in youth turnout could help Democrats stem any developing red wave, since young people are their most loyal and liberal demographic. Similarly, few doubt that GOP gains with Latinos are real, but the size of those gains could make or break key Senate races in Nevada and Arizona.

Concern over youth voter turnout has caused some Democratic strategists to privately express frustration with Biden for not discussing his push to cancel student loan debt and reform marijuana laws more on the campaign trail.

If you’re looking to measure the youth vote, it’s worth watching New Hampshire’s 1st District, home to the University of New Hampshire and a toss-up race between Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas and former Trump administration aide Karoline Leavitt. New Hampshire Democrats have long depended on the state’s college students, and its same-day voter registration laws, to win elections.

Measuring the Latino vote is trickier, especially since Cuban Americans in Florida, Puerto Ricans in Northern cities and Mexican Americans in Nevada and Arizona could all vote differently. But a new Latino-majority seat in Colorado, the state’s 8th District, should make for a decent bellwether.

Split-Ticket Voting And The Power Of Gubernatorial Incumbency

The best way to tell if a candidate excelled in modern American politics is to compare them to the other members of their party. Did they do better than other candidates for different offices in their state or district? Split-ticket voting has been in a long decline in America, and the rare politicians who can cause it are now incredibly valuable. (There’s a reason super PACs spent more than $112 million on GOP Sen. Susan Collins’ 2020 race in Maine.)

If a candidate does run substantially ahead of the other members of their party, chances are the candidate is doing something right (or their opponent is doing something very, very wrong). For example, polls show Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan doing far better in Ohio against Republican J.D. Vance than are other statewide Democratic candidates, something that has other Democrats closely studying his campaign.

But there is a complicating factor here: Gubernatorial incumbents almost always outrun members of their own party ― and rarely lose. No incumbent Democratic governor has lost since 2014, and just six incumbent governors lost reelection bids from 2010 to 2020.

And if you look at where split-ticket voting is happening, the effect is clear: Gov. Brian Kemp is running ahead of Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker in Georgia, Gov. Mike DeWine is doing better than Vance in Ohio, even Evers is doing a tiny bit better in polling than Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin.

But the point remains: If you want to find candidates whom it’s worth modeling future campaigns on, look for candidates who convince voters to split their tickets.

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