clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Your 2022 midterms cheat sheet

Here’s what is really at stake in the 2022 midterm elections.

A circle full of black and white images sits in a teal background; the images, layered on top of one another as a collage, include the US Capitol, the US Supreme Court building, an elephant with its trunk extended, protest signs reading “my body, my choice,” a hand raised holding a $100 bill, and above all these, two US flags, in color. Christina Animashaun/Vox

The 2022 midterm elections are fast approaching, and right now, they’re anything but straightforward.

While Republicans were once favored to win a large House majority and even retake the Senate, things are looking more promising for Democrats as voters across the country have been energized by the issue of abortion rights.

With less than two months to go, there’s a lot that’s still uncertain, from how much Democrats can buck historic trends to just how big a role inflation will continue to play. Here are nine questions — many submitted by readers — that look at the factors in each party’s favor, the policies voters are focused on, and the long-term consequences these elections could have. If you have midterms questions you’d like answered, please submit them in the form below.

What is at stake in the midterms?

This year, as is the case every two years, voters decide who has the majority in both chambers of Congress. In 2022, that means the candidates voters choose in the November 8 midterm elections will determine, to a large degree, whether President Joe Biden can get any new policies passed or if Republicans will gain the ability to block most things he wants to do.

All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are on the ballot, as well as 35 Senate seats. (House seats are up every two years, while Senate seats are up every six.)

At the moment, split control seems likely. Democrats currently have narrow majorities in both chambers, and because the same party holds the White House, conditions are ideal for them to pass bills Biden will sign. They’ve had a relatively successful run recently. But forecasts suggest Democrats are likely to lose the House and keep the Senate this fall.

Under a Democratic Senate and Republican House, legislative action will likely halt outside of must-pass legislation such as funding the government. Even negotiations over things like that are set to be contentious, with each party seeing these measures as their only vehicles to pass policy.

Were Democrats to lose both chambers, they would be forced to rely on Biden to veto bills they disagree with.

Key state-level offices are also on the ballot in dozens of states, including governors, secretaries of state and attorneys general, along with members of the legislature. At least 12 gubernatorial seats could flip parties — including Massachusetts, Maryland, and Arizona. The winners of those contests will affect state policies on issues as varied as abortion, voting rights, and Covid-19.

Which party is expected to win control of Congress?

For now, forecasts from FiveThirtyEight suggest that Republicans would win the House in 74 outcomes out of 100, while Democrats would keep the Senate in 69 outcomes out of 100. Models from the Economist echo these odds.

These projections are based on a slew of factors, including historical trends and polling. They also remain fluid and could change again ahead of the elections.

Both parties have certain dynamics working in their favor. Republicans are expected to see a boost in House races because of the backlash that the president’s party typically experiences during the midterms. As FiveThirtyEight has explained, this pattern is due, in part, to the fact that some voters want to see a check on the president’s power. It’s a trend that’s been remarkably consistent in recent decades, with the president’s party losing House seats in 17 of the 19 midterms since World War II, reports Vox’s Andrew Prokop.

This trend is slightly different in the Senate, where fewer lawmakers are up for reelection and where candidates have to appeal to a broader swath of voters than House candidates do. In Prokop’s analysis, the president’s party lost Senate seats in 13 of the 19 elections since World War II ended.

In both the House and the Senate, recent developments could help Democrats stem their losses or maintain their majority. One major factor is the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, a move that is expected to energize voters to turn out and vote in favor of Democrats this fall.

In the Senate in particular, Republicans face a challenge with nominees who may be divisive and unpopular such as Herschel Walker in Georgia and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s aggregation of polls that ask people which party they’d support to represent them in Congress in a general election, Democrats are currently running slightly ahead of Republicans with 45 percent support versus 43.7 percent.

What does abortion have to do with the midterms?

Political strategists have identified the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in late June as a major turning point for Democrats in the midterms.

Many of these strategists — like Simon Rosenberg and James Carville — believe the threat of further restrictions on abortion access should the GOP take control of Congress, governor’s mansions, and statehouses will energize Democratic turnout in the fall. And in at least four states, abortion rights are literally on the November ballot, marking a record number of abortion-related measures that have been considered in a single year to date.

Some Republicans have already floated plans to consider a nationwide abortion ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy should they retake control of Congress, and 13 red states are set to implement their “trigger bans” by the end of September. Those policies defy the 85 percent of Americans who think that abortion should be legal in all or some circumstances, according to a long-running survey by Gallup.

While abortion is still behind the economy, gun policy, and education in terms of voters’ top priorities, it appears to be animating voters. In New York’s 19th District, the Democratic winner of a special election centered his campaign on abortion access. In Kansas, voters turned out in record numbers to resoundingly reject a constitutional amendment that would have allowed state lawmakers to further restrict abortion access in the state. Young people (particularly young women) are also registering to vote at a significantly higher rate in states where abortion rights are under threat.

What are the other issues and policies that are affecting voters?

Abortion, of course, is just one of the major issues this election season. Voters’ priorities vary depending on party affiliation, class, and education, according to polling this spring and summer.

Gallup, which has been tracking the issues most important to voters over the last few months, consistently finds economic issues ranking as top of mind. General dissatisfaction with the government, abortion, and immigration are among the remaining top concerns.

How important each issue is depends on whom you ask. Republican voters say they are most concerned with inflation, immigration, and abortion (in that order) according to a recent NPR/Marist poll. Democrats, meanwhile, ranked abortion, the January 6 committee hearings, and health care as top of mind.

Looking at just white voters with and without college degrees in the same poll, the breakdown appears similar. White college graduates strongly approve of Joe Biden’s job performance, back Democrats by a two-to-one margin, and are most concerned with abortion, inflation, and the January 6 hearings. Non-college-educated white voters, meanwhile, strongly disapprove of Biden, back Republicans, and are worried about inflation, abortion, and immigration.

For most of the year, the economy and record inflation eroded trust and satisfaction with the Biden administration and congressional Democrats. Much of that support is slowly returning, and reducing the drag that an unpopular Biden has on congressional Democratic candidates. Political independents, who play pivotal roles in swinging elections, still rank inflation as their top issue. But after the overturning of Roe, the January 6 committee’s trickle of revelations, and student loan cancellation, Democrats — and Biden — have gotten a boost.

It also helps Democrats that an unpopular Donald Trump is back in the news.

Trump is out of office. How is he still a factor here?

By his design and not, the former president has made this year’s Republican primary season all about him. He has tried to be a kingmaker, doling out more than 200 endorsements as punishments and rewards — though most have been in uncompetitive races where the incumbent was already a shoo-in for victory. He has loudly campaigned for election deniers and conspiracy theorists, elevating right-wing candidates in Arizona, Georgia, and Wyoming.

His chosen candidates have defeated just about every Republican who voted to impeach him after the January 6, 2021, insurrection. According to an NPR tracker, his endorsed pick has won 16 out of 18 open House primaries (where there was no incumbent running) and beaten the incumbent in four out of six House races.

A candidate backed by Trump has so far won every Senate primary race but one (Alaska’s primary allows four candidates to advance to the general). But those Senate picks aren’t faring well so far in their general election races. Trump’s controversial pick in Pennsylvania, the celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz, has consistently been outperformed by the state’s lieutenant governor, John Fetterman. The same goes for the right-wing, Trump-backed candidate in Arizona’s Senate race, Blake Masters. In fact, in the 10 most competitive Senate races, Democrats are leading in six and just slightly trailing in a seventh. In a few of those states, including Pennsylvania, Trump’s endorsement helped bury Republicans who likely would have been more competitive in their general elections.

Trump has also been dragging down Republican candidates because of news from the January 6 committee and revelations about his mishandling of classified information at Mar-a-Lago. These stories have flooded the airwaves with reminders of what his unpopular presidency looked like — and have made some independents uncomfortable with the idea of handing Republicans, especially those with complete loyalty to Trump, total control of Congress.

What are the House and Senate races we should be following?

According to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, there are roughly 10 Senate races poised to be competitive this fall.

The states set to have the tightest races are Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin, all of which have been rated as toss-ups. Others expected to be contentious include Pennsylvania, Colorado, and New Hampshire, which lean Democratic; and North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida, which lean Republican.

Democrats have the majority in a 50-50 Senate and they’ll need to either keep or pick up new seats to maintain even that narrow margin.

On the House side, meanwhile, some of the races we’re watching most closely are Democrat-held battleground districts that Republicans are trying to flip this fall. Because Republicans are projected to retake a number of seats, these races could determine whether the GOP is able to secure House control and the size of its majority if it succeeds.

Per Cook, there are 24 seats currently represented by Democrats considered toss-ups and 10 other Democrat-held seats that now are considered lean or likely Republican. That’s down from a few months ago; Cook recently shifted four House races that were toss-ups to be more favorable to Democrats as the political climate has improved for the party. These include several open seats where there is no incumbent running for reelection, as well as a number of newly drawn districts that are being defended by a sitting lawmaker.

These purple districts are located across the country in states like California, Kansas, Ohio, Florida, and Nevada and include places that Democrats flipped as recently as 2018. To win control of the House, Republicans need to hold the seats they already have and pick up five additional seats.

What are Democrats planning to do if they win? How about Republicans?

Biden and congressional Democrats now have a pretty clear list of goals for the second half of his term. They all center around the idea of electing at least two more senators to bypass the frequent roadblocks set by moderate Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and holding the House.

First among them is codifying reproductive rights and access to abortion, for which Biden has previously said he’d support an exception to the filibuster. He’s similarly called for dropping filibuster rules to pass voting rights protections — something that failed earlier in his term.

The Senate can also use budget reconciliation bills to get around the filibuster, and did so to pass sweeping economic, climate, and manufacturing programs like the American Rescue Plan and Inflation Reduction Act. With a safer voting margin, such bills could be more ambitious; universal pre-K, extending the child tax credit, and letting Medicare negotiate drug prices for Americans beyond Medicare recipients could all be part of future reconciliation bills.

With a majority willing to do so, Democrats could even scrap filibuster rules altogether or overturn the decisions of the Senate parliamentarian — who advises on what can go into a reconciliation bill — to pass some of those priorities, like raising the national minimum wage. But this, as we’ve said, is currently less likely to happen than split control of Congress.

If the House flips, Republicans, likely to be led by Kevin McCarthy, would be limited by a presidential veto and, probably, a Democratic Senate. But none of that will matter given their stated legislative goal is revenge.

House Republicans are planning on unveiling a four-part “Commitment to America” later this month. But much of that agenda would be limited by control of just one chamber — and still places payback first, like putting “an end to ‘Build Back Better.’”

What Republicans would do on abortion is less clear. After the Dobbs decision and before polling and elections showed an angry electorate, Republicans were talking about the possibility of passing a nationwide ban on abortion if they took control of Congress. Now, however, a handful of Republican candidates have begun to moderate their tone on abortion, given the results of special elections and extremely negative polling since the Supreme Court’s decision.

Republicans may also attempt to get spending cuts as concessions from the White House when the time comes to raise the cap on government spending in 2023. The cap must be raised to avoid financial disaster, something Republicans took advantage of back in 2011 to force Democrats to accept automatic cuts to government spending.

The top Republican on the House Budget Committee, Jason Smith, has already said that “everything is on the table” when it comes to next year’s spending debate — and congressional Democrats have warned about the possibility of Republicans mishandling that debate. That’s led some Democrats to contemplate raising the debt limit while they still control the House in the lame-duck period between the midterms and the start of a new Congress in January.

The most likely outcome of Republican House control will be the wild ride of congressional investigations of people, policies, and even corporations. McCarthy has already promised hearings for the Justice Department’s handling of its Trump Mar-a-Lago investigation, and threatened telecommunications companies that cooperated with the January 6 committee.

The House Oversight Committee, which was responsible for many of Congress’s investigations during the Obama presidency, would also likely investigate Hunter Biden and “the origins of Covid,” according to a Politico interview with the next likely chair of the committee. That Congress member, Rep. James Comer, has also told other outlets about plans to investigate “Biden’s border crisis, energy crisis, [and] inflation crisis.”

Finally, McCarthy has threatened to remove Democrats from House committees as payback for efforts to hold Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene accountable for past incendiary comments. Other Republicans have also floated the idea of impeaching executive branch officials, including President Biden.

And if Democrats end up holding just the Senate (the most likely case), they would likely focus on what they can do with that chamber’s power: confirming federal judges and other executive branch appointments.

What are the state-level races we will hear most about, and what’s at stake in those?

The midterms won’t just decide which party controls Congress. There are governors’ races in 36 states this year. According to the Cook Political Report, 10 of those races are rated either a toss-up or lean Democrat or Republican. Many of them feature Democratic governors running for reelection, including Laura Kelly of Kansas, Tony Evers of Wisconsin, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, and Steven Sisolak of Nevada. With the exception of Sisolak, all of those incumbents are running in states where Republicans control at least one chamber of the state legislature.

That’s especially important where candidates are offering competing visions of abortion access. Democrats hope to wield veto power over legislation from Republican-controlled state legislatures that want to curb abortion rights. And Republicans want to use governorships to defend existing state laws restricting abortion and chart a path to further curbs to the procedure.

Arizona’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf are both term-limited, so those governors’ races are wide open and competitive. The Republican nominees in both states are ardent 2020 election deniers and have been endorsed by Trump.

In Arizona, former news anchor Kari Lake has said she would not have certified the results of the 2020 election. Pennsylvania’s GOP gubernatorial candidate, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, bused hundreds of people to Washington, DC, and was outside the US Capitol on the day of the January 6 insurrection. He was also a key figure in Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in Pennsylvania.

Secretary of state races have become high-profile focal points in Trump’s ongoing attempts to delegitimize the results of the 2020 election and potentially the results of the 2024 presidential election as well. He endorsed Republican candidates for secretary of state in five states this cycle, notably including 2020 election deniers Kristina Karamo in Michigan and Mark Finchem in Arizona. If elected, they could abuse their power over certifying elections to subvert a result they personally disagree with.

State legislatures have become forums for battles not just over elections policy and abortion rights, but also issues including guns, “critical race theory,” and more. Currently, Republicans control 30 state legislatures, Democrats control 17, and three states have split control. A total of 10 state legislative chambers are rated as competitive in 2022, and most of them are controlled by Democrats, according to an analysis by Louis Jacobson of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Democrats’ best shot at a flip is the Michigan Senate; Republicans, meanwhile, are eyeing the Maine Senate and House and the Minnesota House, which Democrats currently hold by just a four-seat margin.

How do I make sure I can vote in the midterms?

Lawmakers in at least 18 states have passed 34 laws placing new restrictions on voting since the beginning of 2021, which threaten to disproportionately affect voters of color, according to the Brennan Center.

In light of those new laws, now is a good time to check that you’re registered to vote and that your voter records are up to date. Though the rules differ by state, many states have voter registration deadlines up to 30 days prior to Election Day, which means registering before October 9.

In some states, you’ll need a photo ID in order to register to vote and also present that ID when you cast your ballot. Most states allow you to vote in person during a designated early voting period ranging from three to 46 days, though in some states, you may need to request a mail-in ballot to vote early.

Whether or not you can vote by mail may be different this year than it was in 2020. After voters embraced mail-in voting during the pandemic, red states clamped down on the practice on the false premise that it was a source of widespread fraud in 2020. They tightened eligibility requirements, reduced the number of ballot drop boxes, shortened the amount of time voters can request an absentee ballot, and stopped sending mail-in ballots automatically to infrequent voters, among other measures. Check with your state and local elections office for the most up-to-date requirements.