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Midterm Elections: Things Remain Stable, Yet Competitive, in the States

By Lesley Kennedy  |  December 9, 2022

SAN DIEGO—Reid Wilson has a message for elected officials: Don’t get comfortable.

“Don’t get comfortable in your seat because it could be competitive. Don’t get comfortable in the majority because it could be competitive. Don’t get comfortable within the minority because it could get competitive, as well,” the founder and editor Pluribus News, an independent news source dedicated covering state legislative trends and policy, said during the NCSL Forecast ’23 session “What Just Happened?! The Midterms Explained.”

The recent midterm elections, he said, presented historical headwinds for Democrats running to keep their narrow majorities in Congress.

Part of the reason that Democrats did so well is the legacy of the 2010 election when Republicans swept to power virtually everywhere.
—Reid Wilson, Pluribus News

“Based on the president’s approval rating over the last several presidencies, this should have been a disastrous year for Democrats,” Wilson said, noting that, in recent history, if a president’s approval rating is below 50%, the president’s party loses an incredible number of seats. “This is basically the best performance that any president has ever had while losing the U.S. House of Representatives.”

The story for midterms in state legislatures, meanwhile, was one of remarkable stability, he added.

“When we look at this historical performance in state legislative districts, Democrats picked up four legislative chambers: the Minnesota Senate, the Michigan Senate, and then the Michigan House and the Pennsylvania State House,” Wilson said. “They did not lose control of a single chamber.”

And here, again, competition comes into play.

“Part of the reason that Democrats did so well is the legacy of the 2010 election when Republicans swept to power virtually everywhere,” Wilson said. “Democrats have been trying to climb out of that hole ever since, and they basically have nowhere to go but up.”

On the other hand, Wilson pointed out that the vast majority of places where either party made significant gains were in states where they already held large majorities; in fact, there are now 26 legislative supermajorities across the country.

“Take a look at where Republicans did best: Florida, pretty red state. West Virginia, very red state. South Carolina, Wyoming, Kentucky. New York is the only exception there,” he said. “Same thing for Democrats; places where they did best—Vermont, California, Colorado—all pretty blue states.”

The Wave That Wasn’t

So why did the expected red wave never materialize during the 2022 midterms? Wilson said unfavorable Trump ratings, along with the former president’s uptick in the news following the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search and his talk of launching a third presidential campaign, paired with the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, were large contributors.

When it came to campaign ads, Wilson said, Democrats focused a lot of their energy on abortion rights. “And that decision to do so, and the decision that the Supreme Court made, galvanized a couple segments of voters: younger voters, women and suburban women in particular, all of whom came out and voted for Democrats in surprising numbers,” he said.

Additionally, Wilson noted, the elections proved that candidate quality matters. “The political winds at your back can be really great, but if people really don’t like the candidates, they’re not going to vote for them,” he said.

Finally, it’s important for legislators to remember we’re increasingly living in two separate Americas that are sitting right next to each other.

“We’re having completely different conversations within our respective bubbles, and that makes it very hard to campaign for election and makes it very hard to make policy once you get to state capitols,” he said. His recommendation? “Go talk to people on the other side of the island and ask them what their most important issues are. Because that’ll at least start a conversation where you’re talking about the same thing, even if you don’t ultimately agree on it.”

Lesley Kennedy is a director in NCSL’s Communications Division.

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