In just a few weeks, millions of Americans will cast their votes in the midterm elections. But we aren’t electing a new president just yet, so what exactly will be happening this November?
Like their name suggests, midterm elections occur halfway through a president’s four-year term. Although Biden still has two more years in office, Congress, or the combined body of the Senate and the House of Representatives, operates under different term limits. Members of the House face re-election every two years, while Senators serve six-year terms. The primary goal of the midterms is to hold elections for these Congressional seats that will expire before the next presidential elections, though some states may also choose to include state and local elected positions like governors and mayors on their ballot. This great tool from Ballotpedia generates a sample midterm ballot based on any given address.
Elections can be complicated, but we wouldn’t have a democracy without them. Here are some key things to know about the midterms:
Who is up for election?
Not every member of Congress is up for re-election in November. The Constitution states that members of the Senate hold office for six years. All 100 seats in the Senate, however, are not up for election at the same time. Instead, the Senators are divided into three “Classes,” sort of like grades in school. Every two years, one Class is up for election while the others continue their terms.
In 2023, the terms of Class III will expire, so their seats are the ones up for election. Here’s a list of the Senators that are members of Class III. Some names you might recognize include Georgia’s Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s first African American Senator, and Kentucky’s Rand Paul who previously ran for president.
The House of Representatives has a less complicated election cycle. Like Senators, House members are subject to term lengths set by the Constitution. But their terms are shorter: Each member of the House serves just two years before facing re-election. Since the members of the House are not divided into Classes, this means that all 435 seats will be up for election during the midterms.
At first, that may seem like a lot of people to vote on, but good news! Citizens who are eligible to vote only have to do so for the officials representing their Congressional District.
Want to know who represents you? Enter your zip code into this website and it will tell you their name and party affiliation.
Why do Midterms Matter?
Although the Midterms don’t receive the same level of attention and fanfare that presidential elections get, they are equally important to the American political landscape, especially when they follow monumental elections like 2020’s.
Even though it is easy to think of the president as the sole force behind American politics, a lot of his or her ability to act, especially on matters of legislation, depends on how much support he or she has in Congress. This is because the president does not act alone when creating laws. According to the rules for lawmaking outlined by the Constitution, a bill must first be voted on and approved by a majority of both the Senate and the House of Representatives before the president can sign it into law.
Based on this structure, in order to optimize efficiency in creating legislation, it is within the interest of the president to work alongside a Congressional body that aligns with their political ideology. When this is not the case, it becomes harder to create laws, as members of different parties frequently oppose bills proposed by those on the other side of the political spectrum.
The midterm elections create the opportunity to alter the course of the remainder of a president’s term. Often, political parties state that their goal for the midterm elections is to “take control,” or gain a majority of the seats, of Congress. Doing so makes it easier to pass their own legislation and to block the legislation of the other party. Therefore, the president typically wants his or her own party to take or maintain control of Congress.
What’s the Deal with the 2022 Midterms?
Currently, the Democrats hold the presidency and a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, there is a split between Democrats and Republicans. Because of the current makeup of the Senate, Democrats either need total support from their side or they need to pull Republican votes in order for a bill to make it to President Biden.
With 34 Senate seats (and all of the seats in the House) on the line, this creates a vital opportunity for both parties. Should the Democrats gain more seats in the Senate, they would have a clearer path for passing legislation that typically falls along partisan lines. This includes legislation on matters such as gun control, healthcare, and climate change.
If Republicans prevail, we will still have a Democratic president for two years, so the only bills that could pass would require bipartisan support. If neither party gains a clear majority in both chambers of Congress, then we can probably expect gridlock in Washington.
Beyond the parties, however, the midterms are a vital opportunity for American citizens to participate in their democracy as they determine how they are represented in the national government. Despite this, polling data from the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that in the 2018 midterm elections, just 53% of the voting-age population actually voted. In contrast, the Census Bureau’s data for the 2018 presidential election states that 62% of the American voting-age population casted their ballot. While this a significant improvement upon previous years, this means that nearly half of the American voting age population missed the opportunity to use their voice. The more people participate in our democracy, the more our democracy will reflect our values.
If there’s anything that history suggests about the midterm elections, it’s that the president’s party doesn’t usually fare very well. The thermostatic model of electoral politics tells us that a critical segment of the population, the persuadable voters in the middle, will want to moderate the direction of policy experienced in the first two years of a president’s term. When the politics gets too hot in either direction, public opinion turns down the heat.
A unique aspect of these midterms, though, is that the most notable change in federal policy since Biden’s election was not in the direction of his party. Overturning Roe v. Wade has been a policy goal of the Republican Party for the last half-century. The recent Supreme Court decision over Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization finally saw that accomplished.
Abortion is arguably the issue most emblematic of the “us versus them” mentality that has recently prevailed in the United States, but importantly, while the country is about fifty-fifty on the morality of abortion, many more than half believe in some restrictions without full criminalization. That being the case, it is possible that Democrats will get some of the ‘thermostatic’ boost, as voters both in the middle and on the left are energized by the Roe v. Wade decision and the restrictions that have since been proposed in a variety of states.
In the upcoming House elections, even with the potential boost for Democrats from the Roe decision, Republicans are looking strong. FiveThirtyEight’s model for predicting elections has Republicans carrying the house in 69 of the 100 scenarios. That said, the competition is still fierce. It is not impossible, but for Democrats to win the house they would need to hold onto all of their incumbents and snatch a handful from across the aisle. To win some of these seats where victory seems less likely, many Democrats are turning to the issue of abortion to bring out more voters.
One race where the abortion debate will be especially impactful is in Washington’s third congressional district where Trump-backed Joe Kent will be up against Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a working-class democrat emphasizing abortion rights. Without the Roe decision, Kent would almost certainly have won the race. If Gluesenkamp is able to bring out pro-choice voters in her district it could be the boost she needs to win the race.
In Senate elections the abortion debate has also contributed to the improving national environment for Democrats, though the upper chamber is by no means guaranteed in either direction. According to the Cook Political Report, just ten Senate elections are really still in play, with only three ranked as true toss-ups. With 21 Republican-held and 14 Democrat-held seats up for election, a few vital factors affecting voters stand out across many of the key states.
The first of the three true toss-ups is Georgia, the site of the extremely closely contested runoff election of January 2021 where Raphael Warnock, once again on the ballot, won the seat. Warnock is slightly favored even though Republicans are considered to have an advantage in the state overall, largely due to controversy around his republican opponent Herschel Walker.
This is an issue for Republicans in a number of states: they could potentially have the support, but candidate-specific issues are holding them back. In Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Ohio, the GOP is also losing ground for similar reasons.
A Toss-up in Nevada
Senator Catherine Cortez Masto is running for reelection on the Democratic ticket against Republican Adam Laxalt. Both candidates are former Nevada State Attorneys General. The issues animating this race are consistent with the national focal points: crime, abortion, and the economy will be key issues everywhere.
The final toss-up, which FiveThirtyEight estimates Republican incumbent Ron Johnson leads by 0.1 of a percentage point, is Wisconsin. Biden won the state by less than one percentage point in 2020, and this election gives voters an extremely stark choice between Johnson and the young Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes
Every vote counts, so this November make sure to urge your eligible friends and family to head over to their nearest polling place and become a part of American history by casting their vote in the 2022 midterm elections.