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Midterm Elections Update: The Faster They Go, the Rounder They Get

Until anything happens that changes the political landscape in a dramatic way, we are looking at a midterm election cycle that may not have a whole lot of movement at all, at least in the Senate. At the moment, the most likely outcome is a swing of only 1 or 2 seats, in either direction, though that could start poking up higher if things begin to get wavy. (Herman’s Toteboard, 2/15/21)
Overall, the 2022 midterms don’t look a whole lot different now from where they were fifteen months ago. The races to watch are mainly in the new perennial tipping-point states of Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, with no more than a half-dozen additional states (especially Nevada) possibly creeping up into top-tier status. (The Toteboard, 5/8/22)
So where do things stand overall with the senate? Believe it or not, we’re still very much where we were when the Toteboard took its first look back in early 2021. There are theoretically nine (or perhaps ten) potentially competitive contests (note the double qualifiers), divided evenly between the two parties, but it’s very possible that only a couple of seats will actually flip – FiveThirtyEight currently rates at better than 40% that the final result will be either 50-50 or 51-49 one way or the other. It may end up as simple as senate control going to whichever team can win a two-out-of-three contest with Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, or maybe a three-out-of-five, with Arizona and either North Carolina or Wisconsin joining the mix. (The Toteboard, 8/8/22)

Strange as it may sound, not much has really happened since the Toteboard offered its first assessment of the 2022 midterms nearly twenty months ago, just days after Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won their respective runoff elections (something that is really beginning to feel like ancient history). Or perhaps more accurately, a lot has happened over that time, but the countervailing forces have more or less cancelled each other out and brought us right back where we started. If it initially looked like the democrats would be snake-bit by the customary midterm curse, the republicans have done everything within their power to present themselves as a really crummy alternative. Yes, Biden appeared to bungle the Afghanistan withdrawal, failed to anticipate runaway inflation, couldn’t seem to rally his own party to pass important legislation, and just sort of comes off as foggy and out of touch. But the republican-packed Supreme Court went off and issued the Dobbs decision, which prompted voters to take a closer look at the Trump loyalists, election deniers, conspiracy theorists, and almost-fascists who dominate the ostensibly out-of-power party (which is bent on enabling minority rule in the country). And they don’t particularly like what they see. The irresistible force and the immovable object are at a stalemate.

And so for now, with the election just a month down the road, we’re still at the place where the senate could go either way, and probably (though not definitely) by no more than one or two seats. Nate Silver and his fellow numbers geeks at FiveThirtyEight currently think there’s a better than two out of three chance (67.4%) that neither party will gain more than two seats, and not much below even money (44.7%) that neither party will gain more than a single seat (although Race to the WH has a somewhat wider bell curve). For the House, democrats currently lead the national generic ballot by less than single percentage point. We haven’t seen a midterm cycle that looks to be this close in more than thirty years. So here are the things to watch:


The democrats currently hold four senate seats, all in purple to indigo or even blue-ish states, that are generally regarded as at least somewhat competitive. The best-case scenario would simply be for the good guys to run the table and carry all four, and then see whether or not they can add to their majority. The good news is that in three of those – Georgia, Arizona, New Hampshire – the republicans nominated reality-bending Trump surrogates who have no political experience and (at best) marginal command of policy matters. Right now, it’s looking pretty good for Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire (although the state is the most elastic in the country and is known for unpredictable outcomes), and almost as good for Mark Kelly in Arizona. But Georgia is still Georgia, and even with the addled and inarticulate Herschel Walker stepping in shit just about every news cycle, the race is still showing to be a close one, with most of the big-name analysts still rating it as a toss-up. Unfortunately, it’s probably even closer (i.e., neck-and-neck) in Nevada, with freshwoman incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto facing a stiff challenge from Adam Laxalt, a political scion with solid name recognition and a (not entirely deserved) reputation as a relative moderate. If the democrats manage to pick off the one republican seat where they are currently favored (more on that in a minute), that means they will need to win either of these two toss-ups. And that’s where the math gets a little complicated.

In its most basic sense, you can think of Georgia and Nevada as two coin-flips (though Georgia is probably leaning a little bluer than that), which suggests that the democrats have at least a three out of four shot of winning at least of one of them. But the new conventional statistical wisdom argues that as elections have become increasingly nationalized, independent state contests have become increasingly correlated with one another. In other words, if one state starts to tip toward one party, that may reflect a general national mood that is also tipping toward that party. And so, it’s often the case that close races fall like dominos. A late-breaking republican trend may take both Georgia and Nevada with it. And if the “trend” turns more into a “wave,” then Arizona and even New Hampshire could be the next to go. And then Colorado would be next in line. And so on.

But we don’t have to freak out yet, mainly because there’s no evidence of such “trends” or “waves” yet, but also because Nevada and Georgia are demographically dissimilar, and so they may not correlate as well as, say, Georgia and North Carolina, or Nevada and Arizona. Georgia is a highly inelastic electoral state, where the democratic coalition consists mainly of Black (and other minority) voters, educated white urban professionals, and relatively moderate suburbanites who don’t fancy republicans taking away their rights (or dismantling our democracy). These voters have always been in Georgia, but it was only with the recent surges in Black voter registration (thanks to Stacey Abrams’ leadership) and the influx of new residents into Metro Atlanta, that Warnock and Ossoff were able to translate this coalition into a winning one. Basically, Warnock will have to duplicate that feat, ginning up turnout within his base, and burnishing his credentials as an aisle-crossing problem-solver to win over the few persuadable voters left. Warnock and Walker have what may be their only debate next week, for which Walker has set the bar pretty damn low – “I’m not that smart” – so this is certainly an important opportunity for Warnock to distinguish himself. There’s also a tremendous wild-card at work in Georgia, i.e., the addition of 1.6 million new voter registrations over the last four years, representing more than a fifth of all registered voters in the state. It’s not entirely clear who these voters are, but they tend to skew a little more urban and a little less white, which might bode well for democrats, if these folks actually get out and vote.

But Nevada is a very different kind of animal. It’s a highly elastic state, dominated by the gaming and hospitality industries, with a large transient population. Nevada voters are, on average, less educated, only intermittently politically engaged, and prone to voting for oddball third- or fourth-party candidates, so it can be a challenge just to identify a potential coalition, let alone to turn it out on election day. This may explain why the candidates haven’t yet agreed on a single debate, i.e., they may not even know whom they should most be targeting. The race may ultimately be decided by the large and still-growing Hispanic vote, which has traditionally gone somewhat democratic (and with whom Cortez Masto should find a natural constituency), but it’s not a monolithic bloc, and it has become increasingly fluid in recent years. In any event, there’s really no a priori reason to expect that Georgia and Nevada will end up in the same corner. And again, the democrats will probably keep the senate if they can keep at least one of them.


Mirroring the democrats, the republicans also hold four seats, all in purple (or perhaps indigo) to burgundy states, that are more or less competitive. And as in the democratic-held competitive states, the republicans have again put forward at least a few less-than-stellar candidates. Mehmet Oz may not be the biggest bozo of the bunch, but he is running for an open seat in Pennsylvania, which is the bluest leaning of these states. And he’s running against John Fetterman, the towering, outspoken, everyman lieutenant governor. Fetterman has consistently led the polls, but they have begun to tighten a bit, and that is definitely a cause for some concern, as his stroke a few months back has clearly sapped a bit of his brash, off-the-cuff persona. The debate in two weeks, which may or may not be the only one, will be important. Fetterman has to demonstrate that he can still do his shtick, and Oz has to challenge his competence without coming off as too slimy (a difficult task, given that his slime quotient is already quite high). This one is a really, really big deal for the democrats. If they can’t flip this seat, they very likely have to run the table on the ones they currently hold, and that might not be easy. According to FiveThirtyEight, if they win Pennsylvania, the democrats have a better than 80% chance of holding the senate; if they lose it, they have a better than 70% chance of not holding it. This really might be the tipping point state, which would put us back to where we were in August, i.e., whoever wins two out of three in Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania wins the chamber.

Fortunately, republican vulnerability is not limited to Pennsylvania, and there are a few other possibilities where democrats could increase their majority or compensate if Fetterman falters. The best shot is probably Wisconsin, where out-to-lunch incumbent Ron Johnson is getting a strong challenge from lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes, and combating it with a predictable glop of racial dog-whistling and soft-on-crime accusations. Johnson and Barnes met for their first debate just a couple of days ago, and they more or less fought to a draw, with each candidate pretty forcefully playing to his base. Johnson has survived, just barely, in republican-leaning years, but everything is so unprecedented this year, and the state is (for some reason) so lightly polled, that no one really knows what’s going on. The next best shot is the perennially frustrating North Carolina, where the democrats won big in 2008 but have just barely fallen short in every election since then. Democrat Cheri Beasley and republican Ted Budd also debated a couple of nights ago for this open seat, where the former tried to frame the election as a chance to reject extremism and election denial, and the latter tried to frame it as a referendum on Biden. This one hasn’t really caught the public’s eye, perhaps because everything is so focused on Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, but the Toteboard certainly wouldn’t mind seeing Beasley make a little bit of history. The final competitive seat is in Ohio, to replace retiring wet-blanket Rob Portman. The polls still show an incredibly close race, with democratic congressman Tim Ryan barely ahead of professional nutcase JD Vance, but with pollsters seriously missing Ohio’s rightward trend in the last two presidential elections, no one really believes that it’s that close. But their debate is this Monday, so let’s watch how the voters, and the polls, react to it. Just to be clear, if a late shift in the national mood toward republicans could torpedo all four of the competitive democratic-held seats, an opposite shift could sweep all four of these republican seats into the democratic corner (a possibility FiveThirtyEight puts at about 12%). And if it gets even wavier, Florida would be the next to go. And there would be much rejoicing.


Just like the senate, the House could swing either way, though the republicans are slightly favored now, despite the nominal democratic lead on the generic ballot. Depending on how you count the votes, or which analysts you consult, the democrats are probably favored in about 200 races, with another 5 or so leaning slightly in their direction, and the republicans are probably favored in closer to 210, also with another 5 or so leaning their way. That leaves about 20 to 30 toss-ups (the “dirty thirty”) that will probably decide the fate of the House, though again, a shift in the national mood could start gnawing into what are now either light blue or pinkish seats. Not to get overly repetitive on this point, but while things are currently leaning republican, this is by no means a done deal. And while things are looking close, that's not a done deal either.

The other complicating factor is that matter of correlation. While FiveThirtyEight rates the democrats a 67% chance to keep the senate, and the republicans a 70% chance to flip the House, it might intuitively look like the most likely outcome is for a divided congress. But once the correlations are built in, Nate thinks there’s a better than 60% chance that a single party will end up controlling both branches of congress. So that could be really great news. Or it could be really terrible news. And we just don’t have any way of knowing yet which way it’s all going to work out. There are thirty days until the midterm elections, and the Toteboard will not be sleeping soundly in the coming weeks. I suspect that most of its readers won’t be either.

See you on November 1, a week before election day.

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