Midterm Wrap-up: How the Power Plays All Shook Out

November 23, 2022

Congress Capitol Building Photo by Darren Halstead on Unsplash

It was a midterm election that bucked virtually all trends and most expectations. It raises questions about how the plays for power all shook out, and how the country will be shaping up heading into 2023.

The Red Wave Didn’t Happen

Republicans had been anticipating a big night on November 8, predicting a “red wave” that would give the GOP a healthy majority in the House and firm control in the Senate.

Much of this prediction was based upon President Biden’s dreary approval rating, which even two weeks after an unexpectedly strong showing by Democrats on November 8 was hanging around 40% according to Gallup polling.

Further, the economy and inflation had polled as the most important issues among Americans ahead of Election Day—supposedly indicting the party in power, the Democrats.

And yet Democratic-friendly issues like abortion, climate change and gun control likely turned out to be just as powerful motivators—if not more so—for large voting blocs of women and for the first time, Generation Z, which was touted as holding off the Republican “bloodbath” that Donald Trump Jr. had tweeted about early on Election Night. Voters age 18-29 chose for Democrats over Republicans by 28 points.

The result? Democrats held on to the Senate majority, thanks to Vice President Harris’ tie-breaking vote. And although the Georgia Senate race has been thrown into a runoff to be held December 6 between Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) and Herschel Walker (R), a Warnock win would only cement Democrats’ majority while a Walker win would keep the Senate 50/50 with Harris breaking any ties in favor of Democrats.

As for the House, votes were still being counted in some races two weeks after Election Day, but the majority in that chamber had gone very thinly in favor of the Republicans, who were only set to pick up a handful of seats—not the 30 or so predicted in a red wave.

Republican House Leadership in Question

That lackluster showing by House Republicans has thrown their Leadership elections into question.

Current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) had hoped to ride into the Speakership on that nonexistent red wave, but at the moment it’s not clear that he can muster the 218 votes necessary to achieve his goal when party elections are held in January.

With such a small majority, it’s expected McCarthy can’t afford to lose more than four or five GOP votes. Yet some House Republicans are insisting that nothing will make them vote for McCarthy. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said last week, “There are definitely at least five people, actually a lot more than that, who would rather be waterboarded by Liz Cheney than vote for Kevin McCarthy for Speaker of the House.”

House Republicans stripped Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) of her number three-ranked position in 2021 for calling out former President Trump’s false 2020 election claims. She did not win her primary for reelection this year.

“It’s worth being challenged and make sure your competition’s there. But we have to work as one conference because if four want to vote one way, four can vote another,” McCarthy said on Sunday. “We have to unite as Republicans and understand the commitment we made to the American people.”

The House GOP’s conservative Freedom Caucus has reportedly been demanding concessions from McCarthy in exchange for their votes. These, in turn, would tie his hands, limiting his ability to stray from their MAGA agenda.

But if McCarthy doesn’t capture 218 votes, it’s unclear who else in the Republican leadership could.

Democratic House Leadership Realigning

By contrast the House Democrats, who lost their slight majority, appear to be lining up in sync despite a bombshell announcement by their longtime leader. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said on Thursday she’ll be taking a step back to simply represent the people of San Francisco in the 118th Congress.

Set to take her place is Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who is so far running unopposed for the position of House Democratic Leader, and widely regarded by his colleagues as all but certain to secure the post.

Just as Pelosi’s ascendancy made history when she became first woman Speaker of the House in 2007, so would Jeffries’ rise. Already the Democratic Caucus Chair, he’s now poised to become the first Black lawmaker to lead a major political party in U.S. Congressional history.

In the Minority position, however, Democrats’ power will be quite limited next year. Still, Jeffries said on Sunday, “I expect that we will strongly and vigorously be involved in pushing back against any effort at overreach by the extreme MAGA Republican wing of the House Republican Conference.”

Senate GOP Leadership Holds On

Despite not securing the Senate majority on Election Day, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) fended off a challenge and held onto his Leadership position among Republicans in that chamber.

McConnell’s survival in the position he has held since 2006 was hard won this time, however. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), the Chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), made a run at the post, causing McConnell to lose some key allies.

Eventually McConnell was reelected as Senate Minority Leader for the 118th Congress in a 37-10 vote. As yet, though, it’s not clear how the changing makeup of the chamber will impact his ability to lead. And McConnell himself conceded soon after winning, “I don’t own this job”—adding even so, “I’m pretty proud of 37 to 10.”

Losing Election Deniers Conceded–Mostly

This midterm, a majority of Republican candidates for the House, Senate and key statewide offices—291 out of a total 569—had denied or questioned the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election.

And just ahead of Election Day, a joint bulletin from DHS, FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and U.S. Capitol Police cautioned that government officials and staffs, candidates and election workers remained “attractive targets…including at publicly accessible locations like polling places, ballot drop-box locations, voter registration sites, campaign events, and political party offices.”

Fortunately, fears of election deniers digging in their heels—or worse, fomenting violence—didn’t come true, for the most part.

According to The Washington Post, the only election deniers to win governor’s races were incumbents. Election deniers lost all 12 races in which they were either challengers or running for an open seat, including in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona.

What’s more, most of the losing major candidates who refused to say Biden won in 2020 did concede their own defeat in 2022.

Arizona is perhaps the most notable exception to this trend. Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake lost to Democrat Katie Hobbs by nearly 20,000 votes, but Lake has dug in, complaining of long lines at some polling places and problems with ballot printers at some vote centers in Maricopa County.

Maricopa election officials have countered that all ballots were counted and that voters could go to any polling place in the county on Election Day, many of which had little or no line with wait times posted online.

Arizona’s Republican candidate for Secretary of State, Mark Finchem, has also refused to concede. The victor in that race, Democrat Adrian Fontes, has retaliated by calling all election deniers “traitors.”

And over the weekend, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department was compelled to move an elections official and his family to an undisclosed location while it investigated threats posted on social media.

The ongoing denialism and threats are likely feeding into Arizona’s reputation as a tinderbox of election controversies.

But overall across the country, the Brennan Center for Justice notes that despite fears to the contrary, “The elections were free, fair, and emphatically calm.”

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