One year out: 8 questions about the midterms

Biden’s approval rating, redistricting and more will shape 2022 races

 (Cartoon by R.J. Matson/CQ Roll Call)
(Cartoon by R.J. Matson/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 9, 2021 at 5:00am, Updated at 11:53am

If there’s one lesson from recent elections, it’s that a lot can change in a year. 

It’s important to keep that in mind with one year to go before voters next decide control of Congress. For an example of how things can change, consider that at this point in the 2020 cycle, no voters had heard of COVID-19. 

Campaign strategists in both parties predict the midterm environment will be friendlier to the GOP. Republicans feel especially confident that history is on their side since midterms are typically difficult for the president’s party. But there could be plenty of surprises and twists over the next year as President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats work to prevent Republicans from capturing the one Senate seat and five House seats needed to regain their majorities. 

With 12 months to go, here are eight questions about the midterms:

1. How do voters feel about Biden? 

Midterms are traditionally a referendum on the president, so Biden’s job approval rating will be a key indicator of Democratic prospects. 

The party controlling the White House usually struggles in midterm elections, losing an average of 33 House seats in 19 of the last 21 midterm elections. There have been more exceptions in Senate races. Of the last 25 midterms in the last 100 years, the president’s party broke even in two of them and gained seats on five occasions, most recently in 2018, according to calculations by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. That’s partly why Republicans feel more optimistic about their chances of flipping the House than the Senate. 

In the fight for the Senate, Democrats are buoyed by the fact Biden won six of the eight states Inside Elections rates as battlegrounds, although he won five of them by 2 points or less. The presidential election is usually a good indicator of which party will win a given state’s Senate seat — just six senators currently represent states that supported the opposite party’s presidential nominee in 2020. 

But Biden’s approval rating has suffered since the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Republican strategists believe voter dissatisfaction over the economy, rising costs and Democratic infighting in Congress has kept his approval rating low. With a year to go, Democrats are hoping Biden bounces back. 

2. What issues will matter? 

It’s difficult to predict what issues will be top of mind for voters this far out from Election Day. Some campaign strategists said the state of the pandemic could be a top issue, particularly for Democrats who campaigned on ending the public health crisis. 

“As Democrats, our choices are: Beat the virus or lose to the Republicans,” one Democratic operative working on Senate races said. 

Republicans believe the economy will be a salient issue if voters continue to feel the impact of rising costs. Democrats are celebrating the passage of a bipartisan package to boost infrastructure spending by $550 billion and are continuing to work on a sweeping social safety net spending package. Democrats believe battleground Republicans who vote against them will be open to attack for those votes. 

Abortion could also be front and center in the midterms, particularly as the Supreme Court considers state-level restrictions. Democrats believe this issue in particular could help them win suburban women who were crucial to capturing the House majority in 2018. GOP candidates are also expected to focus on education, particularly on how race is taught in schools and the role of parents, after Republican Glenn Youngkin successfully leveraged the issue in last week’s governor’s race in Virginia.

3. Who will (and won’t) show up? 

Turnout typically drops in the midterms compared with presidential elections, so a key question for both parties is whether their bases are energized enough to vote. Will the new voters who turned out for the 2020 presidential race come out again in 2022? And what does turnout look like in the suburbs, where Democrats found success in the Trump era? Virginia’s gubernatorial race was an early indication that, while Democrats are still turning out, Republican base voters are also energized.

4. What is the Trump factor?

Former President Donald Trump remains an X-factor in 2022 since he is out of office and no longer has his social media megaphone. But he continues to take sides in contested GOP primaries. So far, he’s made endorsements in multiple Senate battlegrounds and has vowed to defeat House and Senate Republicans who supported his impeachment or removal from office for inciting an insurrection on Jan. 6. Republicans believe he still holds considerable sway over primary voters, but his preferred candidates need to raise enough money to make sure voters know they have Trump’s backing. 

Republican congressional candidates who seek Trump’s support and work hard to align themselves with him to win their primaries may find those hard-earned close ties to be a liability in the general election as they try to woo independents and suburban women.

Democrats tried unsuccessfully to tie Trump to Youngkin in Virginia, and, as one GOP strategist put it, “We’ve never had an election that was about any former president. A midterm election is always about the current president.” But Youngkin kept the former president at arm’s length, and Trump is a unique figure, particularly as he tries to remain in the spotlight. And there are still lingering concerns among Republicans that Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen could hurt GOP turnout.

5. Where are the battlegrounds?

While the initial Senate battlegrounds are clear, operatives in both parties are also watching open-seat races in Ohio and Missouri as potentially competitive contests depending on the nominees. And if Democrats struggle to win states that Biden carried easily in 2020 — New Jersey went from giving Biden a 16-point win to reelecting Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy last week by less than 3 points — there’s potential for GOP takeover opportunities to extend to Colorado, Washington and Oregon.

The House battlefield remains decidedly unsettled, as numerous states work to finalize their congressional maps after delays in the 2020 census. Redistricting could put significant hurdles in front of some Republicans seeking reelection in California and New York, states that are each losing a seat to reapportionment. GOP-controlled states such as Florida and Texas, however, gained a seat each. In addition, some of the maps already adopted are being challenged in court, guaranteeing it will be many more months before there’s any clarity about how much redistricting affects House Republicans’ quest for a net five-seat pickup.

6. Who is (or isn’t) running? 

The candidate fields could still shift as more lawmakers retire and more candidates jump in. In the Senate, Republicans Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and John Thune of South Dakota have not yet said if they’re running for reelection. Neither has Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont. Republicans are also watching a handful of governors who could challenge vulnerable Democrats. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said Tuesday he would not challenge Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, depriving the GOP of a potential top recruit. National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott has also mentioned Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey as potential candidates, but both have signaled publicly they aren’t interested. 

As more states release their House maps, more incumbents may decide to retire or seek other office, if their new district lines seem unwinnable. 

So far in this Congress, five senators have said they will not seek reelection, fewer than the average of six per election cycle since 1946, according to the Brookings Institution’s Vital Statistics on Congress. In the House, decisions to not run for reelection typically increase in cycles like this one when states are redrawing district maps. So far, 24 House members are retiring or seeking other offices, compared with 39 in 2012 and a redistricting-year average of 41 since 1952. 

Already, some House members know they’ll have to face a fellow incumbent in 2022, as is the case in West Virginia, where Republicans Alex X. Mooney and David B. McKinley have been drawn into the same district.

7. What will we learn from the primary campaigns? 

Contested primaries will provide clues about where each party is moving on issues and messaging, and there are plenty to watch. For the first time in recent memory, Democrats have contested primaries in three top Senate pickup opportunities — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina — with the national party yet to take sides. But Democrats aren’t concerned these primaries will be a problem because their candidates have not seriously started attacking each other, yet. 

That’s not the case for Senate Republican primaries, particularly in Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where GOP candidates have already gone after each other on the campaign trail and on the airwaves, with several arguing that they are Trump’s strongest allies.

A high-profile House primary such as the challenge to Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney won’t change the math for control of the chamber if another Republican is elected to replace her. But Trump, and Cheney’s vote to impeach him, will factor prominently and could force the issue into other primaries. Should other pro-impeachment Republicans in more competitive districts lose their primaries, Democrats could pick up seats, depending on how the new lines shake out. 

House Democratic candidates, likewise, could find themselves at a disadvantage in the general election if they have to cater to their party’s progressive base to get through a primary. 

8. What’s happening with fundraising?

Democrats have dominated campaign fundraising since Trump was elected, tapping into energized grassroots donors to raise eye-popping sums. That green wave has continued to lift Democrats, particularly Senate candidates, even with Trump out of office. Republicans expect their Senate nominees to be outraised, but one strategist took solace in the NRSC’s strong fundraising numbers as a sign that money will eventually flow directly to candidates. And, money isn’t everything — 2020 Democratic candidates raked in millions but still lost Senate races in Maine, Montana and North Carolina, for example. 

House Democrats, too, have continued to post big fundraising totals heading into 2022. One of the chamber’s most vulnerable members, Maine’s Jared Golden, for example, had nearly $1.3 million in the bank as of Sept. 30. Republican candidates have begun to compete for small-dollar donations through the online platform WinRed. California freshman Michelle Steel, who is expected to face a tough reelection campaign, had nearly $1.4 million on hand at Sept. 30, with more than half coming in smaller, unitemized donations. 

Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, told reporters in mid-October that his group had already raised more than $100 million, a benchmark it didn’t reach until February 2020 in the previous cycle.

“We’re never going to have their resources, but you’ve got to have enough, and we’re on track,” Emmer said.