What to know about the 2022 midterms

The U.S. Capitol reflected off a vehicle at dusk. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford

The next big national elections are coming up in November. Even though President Biden won’t be on the ballot, the people elected to Congress and state and local offices will have a big impact on what he can get done for the remainder of his first term – and on American life over the next couple of years.

These elections are called “midterms” (as in, they happen right in the middle of a presidential term). Here’s what you need to know to understand the news about them.

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The midterms are when much of Congress is up for election

Every two years, every seat in the House of Representatives is up for election. And about a third of the seats in the 100-member Senate are up (since senators serve six-year terms).

Any losses or gains in seats may alter the narrow Democratic majority in the Senate.

That has big implications for individual members of Congress, whose jobs are on the line. But more important, control of each chamber of Congress can shift, depending on who wins more of these individual races. The party that controls the House or the Senate gets to decide what Congress will even consider and how much the party’s lawmakers want to work with the White House to pass laws. Democrats run both now.

Many states have aligned their elections on this schedule, which means 36 governors and thousands of state legislators, plus even more local positions, are on the ballot. Add to that various ballot initiatives to change state policies – you’ll hear about things like marijuana and campaign finance – that will come before voters on Election Day.

There’s also momentum to be captured for the next presidential election: If Republicans have a good midterm, as it appears they might, it sets up former president Donald Trump – or whoever runs for president on the GOP side – to try to unseat Biden, who has said he plans to run again in 2024.

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When are the midterms?

The next ones will be on Nov. 8. If you’re registered to vote, you can at least vote for a member of the House of Representatives wherever you live (except if you live in the District of Columbia or in U.S. territories), and probably many more things.

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Nevada voters participate in early voting at the Meadows Mall Clark County polling station in Las Vegas on Oct. 21, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

Why are the midterms important?

Both chambers of Congress need to approve a bill for it to clear Congress, so if even just one chamber switches hands from Democrat- to Republican-controlled, Republicans can stick together and stop anything Biden wants to do for the rest of his first term.

That’s not to say bipartisanship is dead. Congress does many things that require Republicans and Democrats to work together. But on the really big stuff – like immigration, gun rights, health care, even funding the government – the parties increasingly do not see eye to eye. Having a Democrat in the White House and a Republican-controlled Congress is almost certainly a recipe for gridlock.

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored how much influence state officials – such as governors, and state and local lawmakers – have over Americans’ lives. These officials decided on stay-at-home orders for communities, whether people wore masks, and whether and when businesses and schools could stay open. With Congress increasingly gridlocked, states are where most laws are passed that affect Americans’ everyday lives, such as on education, public safety and taxes.

For decades, “it has usually been that the party in power expects a wake-up call” at the midterm elections, said Laura Smith, a presidential historian at Oxford University. “Americans have tended to vote in divided government in the midterms as a bit of a slap in the face to the sitting president.”

Americans are often comparing still-fresh campaign promises from the presidential election with what has been done. “There’s often this huge gap between expectations of the president and the realities that they haven’t achieved anything,” she said.

During President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, six were with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and Republicans stopped Obama’s efforts to overhaul immigration and gun laws.

Republicans eager to get back into power have been signaling their intentions to be actively antagonistic to Biden’s agenda and the Democratic Party if they win a majority. They have threatened to retaliate against Democrats for investigating the Jan. 6 attack or censuring controversial Republican members of Congress, or to draw the Biden White House into investigations. They may even shut down the bipartisan Jan. 6 committee.

If Republicans get power in the Senate, they can reject Biden’s judicial or political nominees for almost any government position you can think of.

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Republicans are already expecting a good midterm performance

Republicans are feeling confident that they can take back control of the House and maybe even the Senate and defend their majorities in many state legislatures and governors’ mansions. In other words, they think there’s a red wave building.

The data backs them up so far. Biden isn’t very popular, his standing hurt by the public’s views of the economy, the Afghanistan withdrawal and the pandemic. Historically, a president’s unpopularity has translated into dozens of seats lost in the House in midterm elections. Republicans need a net gain of only five seats to retake the House majority.

The Senate is a bit more complicated. Republicans need to knock off only one member of the Democratic caucus and keep all their senators to take back the majority. That’s certainly possible: They’re eyeing at least three purple states in which Democrats are running for reelection. But Democrats are also trying to unseat Republicans, and the GOP has a few candidates with significant baggage, some of them elevated by former president Donald Trump.

This past November, Democrats struggled in elections in two states that hold their elections in an off year: Virginia and New Jersey. Republican wins in these states surprised even some Republicans, and they feel that what worked for them (talking about education, the economy and crime and safety) is transferable to political races across the nation.

Polls tell us that at this point, most Americans don’t see significant improvement in their lives with Democratic control. Democrats hope that will change after passing a major bipartisan investment in infrastructure. But their big plan to dramatically expand the government safety net and fight climate change has been put on hold, robbing many members of Congress of something to talk about on the campaign trail.

In the states, Republicans have had remarkable success in recent elections capturing governors’ mansions and state legislatures. So they will mostly be on defense trying to keep their power while trying to knock off Democratic governors in Kansas, Michigan and Wisconsin.

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One big question: How did legislative districts change?

This election cycle has the additional twist of redistricting. Every 10 years, states are constitutionally mandated to redraw their congressional and state legislative districts on the basis of new census data. Because of relative changes in population, some states lost congressional districts and others gained some.

Most states give their state legislatures the power to redraw congressional districts, and in many key states, Republicans control those chambers. That means Republicans get to draw many of the maps that lawmakers will run on in 2022.

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What issues will voters care about in these elections?

Things can and will change, but for now, here’s what’s shaping the political discussion in America.

The economy: Inflation is a big issue. The cost of nearly everything in the United States is rising, driven by a variety of global factors. (Not the least of them is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is driving energy prices up.) When Americans perceive the economy as struggling, they tend to blame the party in power. And though unemployment is going down and wages are going up, Republicans are all too willing to help drive the narrative that the economy is bad.

“For many of my constituents, this is a choice in some cases between putting food on the table and staying warm,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said of rising energy prices.

Whichever party is talking more about the economy usually has the upper hand, said Smith, of Oxford University. Unlike in a presidential election, where voters tend to focus on sweeping, broad themes about the country and who will lead them, the midterms are more localized. “You will find people vote more on kitchen-table concerns, like how they are feeling about the economy or their health care,” she said.

The coronavirus: If the pandemic finally subsides as a daily threat to Americans, Democrats will have more confidence about their prospects. But even as the country opens up and politicians lift mask mandates, new variants threaten to damage Biden’s campaign promise to return U.S. life to normalcy.

Crime: Violent crime is up across the country since the pandemic hit. Experts say that’s possibly the result of a variety of reasons, reports The Post’s Griff Witte, like the pandemic making people feel more isolated, and strained relationships between communities of color and police departments. Whatever the reasons, Republicans are trying to make this a major campaign issue, blaming Democrats for the crime wave since they are the party in power in Washington while it’s happening.

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