clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Could an old-school approach to voting decide the midterms?

In nine states, voters might elect a Republican governor and Democratic senator (or vice versa).

An illustration showing red, blue, and purple movie tickets, torn in pieces. Christina Animashaun/Vox

Election Day is here, and voters will reveal whether tightening polls in competitive statewide races will mean a “red wave” sweeps the country.

If that wave turns out not to be as strong as expected, Democrats can likely thank split-ticket voting, the practice of electing candidates from different political parties for different statewide, congressional, or presidential races.

Split-ticket voting was once far more common, in part because of a belief expressed by Elon Musk recently. In endorsing Republicans up and down the ballot Monday night, he argued that “shared power curbs the worst excesses of both parties.” In an era of intense polarization, and narrow congressional majorities, that sentiment hasn’t proven to be the case and has generally waned. However, this cycle, with polling showing high dissatisfaction with certain candidates in key races, such as Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, some voters appear willing to cross party lines.

In nine states, that would look like voters having a senator and a governor (or another office, like secretary of state or US representative) from different political parties.

“It reached its height in the mid to late ’80s, especially at the federal level, [with] people voting [differently] for president and Congress,” Barry C. Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Vox. But as political polarization, the decline of local news, and the nationalization of local politics have increased in the past two decades, split-ticket voting has been dying a slow death.

“Very few states [have] senators of different parties, and they’re even elected in different years,” Burden, who co-wrote a book on this history, said. “Even the number of split Senate delegations, where senators are from different parties, is now at a relative low.”

In fact, if the nine states where split statewide tickets are possible this year do vote that way, it would mark a significant departure from current trends: Two states split their tickets in 2016, voting differently in the presidential, Senate, and governor’s races; five states elected governors and senators from different parties in 2018; and in 2020, only one state, Maine, voted for Biden but elected a Republican to the Senate — a “modern low,” according to Burden.

Below, we’ve broken down the states where voters have the potential to send dueling messages about the party they support and some reasons why.

States where incumbency and tradition are at play

There are two states that constantly befuddle laypeople and political nerds alike: New Hampshire and Vermont, which both have a history of wonky politics that allow for a situation where a massively popular Republican governor wins reelection in the bluest state. This year, Vermont might end up being the surest state to split its ticket, giving Republican Gov. Phil Scott another two-year term while electing Democratic Rep. Peter Welch as the state’s newest senator. Given that Vermont only has one House seat, Welch’s eight terms as a Congress member give him a huge leg up in the blue state (he’s also facing a conservative Republican), while Scott has won reelection twice before, running as a liberal Republican.

New Hampshire, meanwhile, has a similar libertarian tilt. A perennial swing state, it’s been more likely to split its ticket in recent elections, reelecting Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. A popular incumbent due in part to his family’s legacy in the state (his father is a former governor and his brother is a former senator) and moderate politics, Sununu is again expected to be reelected, while incumbent Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan faces a competitive race that leans Democratic, and an inexperienced, Trumpy opponent, Don Bolduc.

States where candidate quality is affecting tight contests

Four swing states feature the most competitive races this year, where even the slightest scandal could make all the difference between a split ticket or a sweep. In those states, voters’ dislike for a candidate might be strong enough to cause them to break with the political party they would usually choose.

In Georgia, most polling shows incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp with a solid lead over Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams, and consistently performing better than the Republican Senate candidate, Herschel Walker. Walker is in a tight race to oust Sen. Raphael Warnock, who has been leading in most polls, according to averages from RealClearPolitics.

Here, candidate quality and incumbency seem to be playing a role: Kemp has maintained relatively high approval ratings in the state (because of both a strong Covid-era economy —he quickly reopened businesses — and his conservative credentials), and has already beaten Abrams once before. Walker is a flawed candidate with low favorability ratings among all voters, including independents; his most recent abortion scandals haven’t helped with that perception. People already didn’t trust Walker to be honest before revelations that he paid for a woman to have an abortion; a bigger share now says they don’t trust him or don’t believe he has good leadership skills. Given Kemp’s track record and Walker’s scandals, voters could default to picking the incumbents they already know.

The opposite dynamic might be playing out in Pennsylvania, where most polling shows Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro outperforming the Democratic Senate candidate, John Fetterman. Both have previously won statewide office, are seen more favorably than their Republican opponents, and have polling leads — but while Shapiro’s lead has expanded over the last few weeks, Fetterman’s lead over Republican candidate Mehmet Oz has narrowed. Part of that might be due to previously undecided Republicans “coming home” to support their party’s candidate, but candidate quality plays a role here, too.

Oz, flawed and easy to meme, still comes across as a more palatable, traditional Republican candidate than gubernatorial counterpart Doug Mastriano: an election-denying Christian nationalist who has solidified support among the far right but may be turning off more moderate Republican, suburban, and independent voters in the state due to his strong opposition to abortion, presence at Trump’s January 6 rally, and connection to extremist figures. Though Oz may be appealing to those voters, they might be more comfortable with a known figure for governor: Shapiro was popular as attorney general, and he has been running a low-key, mostly positive campaign. If that breakdown sounds unusual, take it directly from one of those voters: the now-viral 25-year-old from Pittsburgh who is hoping for a Democratic governor and a Republican senator.

Arizona has a similar dynamic: Incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly has been overperforming in the newest swing state due in part to the poor perception voters have of his opponent, the far-right Republican candidate Blake Masters. Masters, an anti-abortion election denier with a history of questionable statements, has not led in any recent polling, while Kelly, who won a special election in 2020 by a better margin than Biden won the state, benefits from name recognition, independent personal popularity, and fundraising prowess. He’s been outraising and outspending Masters, who has struggled to get national Republican support this year.

The gubernatorial contest, however, is much closer. The right-wing, Trump-loyalist former TV news anchor Kari Lake has been leading her Democratic opponent, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, in most recent polling, and seems to be running one of the most unconventional campaigns in Arizona history: calling out the state’s Republican establishment, declining to hire a traditional campaign staff, and going with her gut instead of hiring pollsters.

Candidate quality matters again: Lake is just as extreme as Masters, if not more so, but is much more of an exciting figure to her base than Hobbs is to hers or Masters to his. She’s a gifted public speaker (decades of TV experience will do that for you) and commands the direction of every conversation she engages — “Trump with media training and polish,” the Washington Post’s Ruby Cramer calls her. She seems to be holding together much of the state’s Republican coalition through a combination of 2020 election fraud claims, harping on inflation and Arizona’s affordability crisis, and old-fashioned personality politics (like calling Hobbs a “coward opponent” for not debating her). As a result, she’s lifting up a pack of 2020 election-denying statewide candidates down-ballot.

In those races, for Arizona secretary of state and attorney general, election deniers Mark Finchem and Abe Hamadeh are running slightly ahead of their Democratic opponents. Republicans have also held the governor’s office since 2009, and up until 2018, Arizona was a reliably Republican state — so enough voters who find Kelly to be an appealing candidate may still default to voting Republican down-ballot.

Finally, Nevada seems to be the state where Democrats are most likely to be swept away by a red wave, where the fundamentals of a midterm election as a referendum on the party in power might be too toxic for any Democrat to survive. Still, incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is running a strong campaign and performing slightly better than incumbent Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak. Among the issues that Cortez Masto has brought to the center of her campaign, like inflation and abortion rights, is the “Big Lie” that Trump won the 2020 election. That’s because of the central role that her opponent, former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, played in trying to delegitimize Nevada’s election results, serving as the Trump campaign’s Nevada co-chair and spokesperson while holding press conferences to boost false voter fraud claims and spreading claims of fraud on TV, internet, and radio.

Laxalt has tried to stay out of the mainstream spotlight (almost exclusively doing interviews with right-leaning outlets) but still carries a lot of baggage. Though he was elected attorney general after Cortez Masto served two terms, he lost in the 2018 governor’s race to Sisolak by a whopping (by Nevada standards) 4 percentage points, or 40,000 votes. This time, Sisolak faces a more conventional Republican candidate: Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo. Despite some missteps and a tightly contested Republican primary, Lombardo has managed to unite Republicans, with help from Trump. That might result in a Laxalt loss but a Lombardo win.

States where politicians are the face of issues that have voters upset

Elections in three other states might also hinge primarily on the issues that are unfolding in the state.

In Oregon, frustration with housing affordability, crime, and homelessness helped drive down the term-limited current Gov. Kate Brown’s approval rating to the lowest in the country. Her party’s candidate to succeed her, Tina Kotek, is similarly weighed down by frustration with the status quo and her ties to the Democratic establishment in the state. But these issues have also led to a gush of Democratic support to a moderate independent candidate, Betsy Johnson, a former Democrat who is pulling support away from Kotek among disgruntled Oregonians. That could lead to the election of Republican Christine Drazan, who would be the first Republican governor in Oregon since the 1980s. No similar dynamic is playing out in the state’s Senate race, where incumbent Ron Wyden is a shoo-in for reelection.

In Wisconsin, meanwhile, abortion, crime, and policing are playing a central role in both marquee statewide races. In his reelection effort, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers is highlighting his defense of abortion rights and kitchen-table issues, like expanding broadband internet, against a Trump-backed challenger, Tim Michels. The race is much more competitive than the state’s Senate contest, where incumbent Ron Johnson, long seen as one of the most vulnerable Republicans on the ballot this year, looks more likely to win reelection. He’s been centering crime and his opponent’s progressivism as liabilities: In TV ads that have blanketed the state, Johnson portrays Mandela Barnes, the state’s lieutenant governor, as a “radical leftist” for his history of backing more progressive policing. The negative ads have contributed toward an expanding lead, and though still seen as a toss-up race, almost every poll since September has shown Johnson beating Barnes. Those attacks, coupled with the advantage of incumbency, could mean Evers ends up narrowly winning, while Barnes loses.

Kansas presents another opportunity for ticket-splitting: Republican Sen. Jerry Moran is cruising to victory in his bid for his third term, but the state’s Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, is fighting to make politics local and win reelection by focusing on cutting taxes, increasing spending on education, building affordable housing, and expanding access to high-speed internet. Unlike in any other state, her opponent, Attorney General Derek Schmidt, is trying to make her talk about abortion as she resists, and she tries to focus voters’ minds on her plans for education and the state’s economy. Though the state voted overwhelmingly to protect abortion rights this summer, the issue was seen through a local lens — the same way Kelly wants to be judged instead of being tied to national politics. That strategy may work — and show the limits of nationalizing politics.

Update, November 8, 1:50 pm ET: This story was originally published on October 25 and has been updated with recent comments from Elon Musk.