When the first primary votes were cast, Russian troops were on the outskirts of Kyiv, gas prices were rapidly rising, Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land, and Queen Elizabeth II was alive. By Tuesday, when the last primaries before Election Day were held, Russians were rapidly retreating from a Ukrainian offensive, gas prices had been steadily declining, states were passing abortion bans, and the days-long line had already begun forming through London to see the queen’s coffin.
The 2022 primary season started March 1 in Texas and wound across the country over the course of six months before finally ending after Labor Day with Delaware, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. It featured contests in 49 of 50 states (plus a bonus primary date in New York after a court overturned its redistricting map, forcing a two-month separation between the state’s gubernatorial primary and its congressional primary).
In the course of voters deciding partisan nominations for thousands of state, federal, and local offices, the US political environment shifted wholesale. Both parties lost special elections in once-safe seats, and the number of investigations of Donald Trump seemed to grow almost every week.
But for all that changed, it did reveal some cohesive trends, and some clear winners and losers.
Loser: Senate Republicans
The recriminations are already beginning on the right about how Republicans ended up nominating a slate of flawed candidates in swing states across the country, particularly after a number of top-tier recruits opted not to run in the first place. Already, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), have gone back and forth in indirect criticism after McConnell last month expressed concerns about “candidate quality” in Senate races. That prompted an op-ed from Scott deriding “treasonous trash talk.” While Scott’s financial stewardship of the NRSC has also faced criticism, it’s the comparatively weak candidates produced by the 2022 primaries that have raised the most concerns.
Three popular Republican governors opted against running for the Senate. In Arizona, the term-limited Doug Ducey decided not to run after a barrage of criticism from Trump for his refusal to support efforts to overturn the 2020 election. In New Hampshire, incumbent Chris Sununu decided he didn’t want to be in the Senate and instead sought reelection, and in Maryland, term-limited Larry Hogan opted against running as well.
Then, Trump’s intervention in primaries produced flawed candidates who have since been struggling in recent polls, including Blake Masters in Arizona and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. In Arizona, Ducey would have been a much stronger candidate, and operatives in both parties concede in Pennsylvania that Oz has been an unusually weak campaigner.
Senate Republicans could still pick up seats and regain control of the chamber, but as they are forced to invest heavily in the Republican-leaning state of Ohio and letting reach seats like Washington, which they were optimistically eying a few months ago, slip off the map, they now are likely to fall far short of what their best-case scenario looked like at the beginning of the cycle.
2022 has been one of the most brutal years for congressional incumbents in modern history: 14 incumbent members of Congress, eight Republicans and six Democrats, have lost their primaries.
Several lost member-on-member races as a result of redistricting. The most notable included a faceoff in Manhattan between two senior Democrats, Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, and in suburban Chicago, where two-term incumbent Sean Casten trounced first-term Democrat Marie Newman after Newman was implicated in a corruption scandal.
Many Republicans, however, lost not because of new maps but due to the former president. Trump went out of his way to campaign against Republicans who voted for impeachment or who otherwise irked him. In two member-versus-member primaries, Trump backed Mary Miller over Rodney Davis in Illinois and Alex Mooney over David McKinley in West Virginia. Although both Davis and McKinley opposed impeachment and Davis, as the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, has perhaps been the most successful GOP member at pushing back against the January 6 committee, they were both insufficiently MAGA in Trump’s eyes.
But Trump also notably campaigned against those impeachers who sought reelection, most notoriously in Wyoming where Liz Cheney lost by nearly 40 points, but also Peter Meijer in Michigan and Jaime Herrera Beutler in Washington. The latter two both lost to controversial Trumpists in competitive districts.
Winner: MAGA Republicans
The Republicans elected in 2022 are going to be significantly more MAGA — meaning more into Trump and Trumpism — than those in office now. At least eight of the 10 House Republicans and two of the seven Senate Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump will not be in office next year. With the exception of Georgia, where Trump’s attempt to primary the statewide slate of Republican officeholders failed, the former president’s endorsed candidates have been very successful in primary elections.
Even if many of these candidates lose their general elections, (such as the Trump-endorsed gubernatorial nominees in Massachusetts and Maryland), there will be fewer non-MAGA GOP officeholders. This shrinks the pipeline of Trump skeptics in future races, as many candidates have had to at least give lip service to the former president’s false claims about the 2020 election in order to win their primaries.
Loser: The hard left
Hard-left, anti-Israel candidates suffered defeat after defeat in primaries. Starting in Ohio with Shontel Brown beating Nina Turner handily in a rematch of Brown’s 2021 special election victory, Democratic primary voters repeatedly rejected candidates on the far left of their party.
This culminated in New York’s August congressional primary where Yuh-Line Niou, an ardent NIMBY who endorsed the fringe BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement, which is considered antisemitic by many, lost the race in a congressional district with one of the biggest Jewish voting populations in the country. Most voters backed three other more mainstream progressives, including winner Daniel Goldman as well as city council member Carlina Rivera and Westchester Rep. Mondaire Jones. Although there were occasional bright spots — including the narrow win by Summer Lee in a Pittsburgh-based district — it was clear that the political tide has ebbed for those on the left just two years after Jamaal Bowman in New York and Cori Bush in Missouri knocked off longtime incumbents.
Not only has the battlefield become more balanced as incumbents in danger of a primary from the far left have gotten better prepared for challenges and outside groups have invested considerably in a number of races, the political winds have changed over the past few years. Slogans like “defund the police,” which enjoyed a brief moment in the zeitgeist, have become politically toxic, while Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 Democratic primaries and then in the general election showed a model for mainstream Democrats to be successful after many on the left were disillusioned by the successive defeats of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
More mainstream progressives did notch primary victories. Two incumbents who helped to block Joe Biden’s reconciliation plan in the House lost reelection. In Oregon, incumbent Kurt Schrader, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, lost to challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner, and in Georgia, Lucy McBath bested Carolyn Bourdeaux in a battle between two incumbents.
Almost since the moment Joe Biden was declared the winner in 2020, Washington pundits have been looking ahead to try to predict what would happen in 2022.
At one point in 2021, Democrats were optimistic that repulsion over the January 6 attack on the Capitol and the end of the Covid-19 pandemic would sever Trump’s hold on American politics and start a new progressive era. At one point in 2022, Republicans saw Biden’s approval numbers falling while inflation and the price of gas soared, and predicted a red wave where the GOP would win victories comparable to midterm landslides in 1994 and 2010.
Increasingly, though, based on polling, it seems that 2022 will be a continuation of the grim trench warfare of 2020, when Biden bested Trump and Democrats narrowly won a tied Senate in the Georgia runoffs but Republicans picked up 15 seats in the House and narrowed Democrats’ majority to a handful of seats. While the GOP is still favored to take control of the House, there is now a small chance that Democrats could hold on as the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule Roe v. Wade seems to be the major factor redounding to Democrats’ favor.
But the party in power has only gained House seats in midterms twice since World War II, and there are other reasons Democrats are tempering their recent optimism.
Instead of what either party thought was possible over the last two years, it’s likely that a divided country will be once again represented in a divided Congress and the election results will simply resemble the continuation of the Trump era of American politics more than any sort of major shift.