The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The midterms could be a bloodbath for Democrats. And there may be little that candidates can do about it.

Supporters of Republican Glenn Youngkin dance during an election night rally at the Westfields Marriott Washington Dulles in Chantilly, Va., on Nov. 2. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Democrats are right to be concerned that the upcoming midterm elections could be a disaster. A close look at the data from 2021 elections in Virginia and New Jersey suggest it could become a bloodbath — and there’s likely little individual candidates can do to avoid it.

President Biden carried both states by large margins in 2020. That made the Republican sweep of all three statewide offices and close call in New Jersey a shocking development. This was amplified by the GOP’s gain of seven seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, giving them control of the chamber. The party also gained seats in the New Jersey State Assembly and Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli lost to Democrat Phil Murphy by only a little more than three points. In all, it was a terrible night for Team Blue.

These developments could be explained by local factors, such as Virginia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe’s debate gaffe in which he suggested parents shouldn’t have a say in their children’s education. But the weight of the evidence strongly suggests it was largely driven by antipathy to Biden and the national Democratic Party.

Consider these facts: Biden won the 2020 popular vote by 4.5 percentage points, but on election day 2021, his net job approval rating on the RealClearPolitics polling average was negative 8 points, a 12.5-point swing in about a year. That’s eerily similar to shifts seen in state contests. Youngkin won by 2 points, a 12-point swing from Biden’s 10.1 point win the year before. Murphy won by 3.2 points, but a 12.7-point drop from Biden’s winning margin.

Follow Henry Olsen's opinionsFollow

Identical patterns arose in both states’ lower house races as well. Democrats lost every seat in those chambers that Biden carried by less than 11.75 percent, according to data compiled by Daily Kos Elections. Democrats did narrowly hold one state Senate seat in New Jersey that Biden carried by 11.75 points — even as the two incumbent Democrat Assembly members from that seat were defeated (New Jersey elects two Assembly members per Senate district). In other words, Democrats lost 13 of 14 races in seats that Biden carried by 12.5 points or less just one year earlier.

That’s consistent with the ongoing trend in which races are increasingly nationalized and hyperpartisan. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was the only senator in 2020 to win in a state carried by the opposing party’s presidential candidate. The same is true for only 16 House candidates. In 2016, every winning senatorial candidate came from the same party whose nominee won that state. The 2021 results suggest this already strong trend went into overdrive in response to the Biden administration’s perceived shortcomings.

Democrats would suffer massive losses if the 2021 trend is replicated in 2022. Suppose Biden’s net job approval rating is still negative 8 points on election day, resulting in the same 12.5 shift from 2020 that we saw in November. Democrats hold 29 House seats at or below that threshold in states that have completed redistricting. With nearly 40 percent of the chamber’s 435 districts left to be drawn, 10 to 20 more seats will also be below that threshold when all the maps are final. That means Republicans would likely pick up the overwhelming majority of those seats, potentially netting a 35-seat gain, which would give them their biggest majority since the Great Depression.

And it could be even worse. Biden currently has a negative 14.4-point job approval rating on the RealClearPolitics average, a massive 18.9-point shift from 2020. If the 2021 trend holds firm and Biden doesn’t improve those numbers — and historical analysis from Inside Elections guru Nathan L. Gonzales suggests that’s unlikely — every Democrat in a district or state that he won by less than that amount could be seriously threatened. That includes seven Democratic senators up for reelection in 2022 — including Colorado’s Michael F. Bennet and Oregon’s Ron Wyden. Even Washington’s Patty Murray, already facing a well-funded challenger in Republican Tiffany Smiley, hails from a state Biden won by a bit more than 19 points. A 2021-style clean sweep on current polling data would give the GOP 57 Senate seats, more than any time since after the 1920 election. House Democrats could be looking at a loss of 60 members or more.

Past is not prologue, and it’s certainly possible that the 2021 results are not indicative of what will transpire in 2022. But if they are, and if Biden does not improve his job approval significantly by the fall, Democrats are looking at a wipeout unlike anything they have seen in a century.