Opinion 5 reasons Democrats could defy history in the midterms

Former president Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February in Orlando. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

By now you’ve heard it a hundred times: The president’s party almost always sustains a brutal defeat in the midterm elections, and this November is unlikely to be any different. With President Biden’s approval ratings in the dumps and Democrats in Congress struggling to pass legislation, this year will probably look like 2018, 2014, 2010, 2006 and 1994 — all years when the president’s party got crushed.

But what if this year is one of the exceptions?

This isn’t a prediction; no one can tell you what will happen. But there are at least five big reasons this year could become one we mention alongside 1998 and 2002 — midterms when the president’s party emerged unscathed. Almost all those reasons have to do not with anything brilliant Democrats are doing, but the many ways Republicans are turning voters off.


GOP extremism

Right now the GOP is gripped by two forces that are distinct but operate in concert: an ideological extremism born of backlash politics, and an opposition to democracy that increasingly manifests in outright lunacy. While that’s just what many Republicans want, it also could alienate voters in the middle and motivate Democrats to vote.

Democrats certainly see this as working to their advantage, which is why many Democratic organizations are intervening in Republican primaries to boost the most extreme candidates, in the hope that they’ll be weaker in the general election.

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

While a strong argument holds that this is a terrible idea (think of the consequences if those candidates win), it could work. And in many races, Democrats believe focusing on the extremism of their opponents is an effective strategy.

It could make a difference at all levels; while voters might be only dimly aware of whether their local Republican House candidate believes a cabal of Satan-worshiping cannibals used smart thermostats to steal the 2020 election, the more they hear about Republicans who do believe something like that, the more they may choose the status quo of sane Democrats.


Bad Republican candidates

This has been a particular problem in the Senate, where a net gain of just a single seat would win the chamber for Republicans. Despite that opportunity, the party has nominated a number of weak or problematic candidates. No one exemplifies that more than Herschel Walker in Georgia, whose campaign has been a string of embarrassing revelations, ridiculous lies and comical policy faceplants.

But it’s not just him. Other candidates are underperforming as well, including J.D. Vance in Ohio, whose fundraising has been weak and who is polling even with Rep. Tim Ryan in a state Donald Trump won by 8 points in 2020. In the end, one or two poor candidates could make the difference.


Abortion and the Supreme Court

The court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has not only angered Democrats, but also produced a wave of national news about state-level Republicans devising evermore draconian abortion laws, and the horrific effects those laws are already having. Combined with other unpopular court decisions, this could move independent voters away from Republicans while motivating Democrats to turn out.


The economy

The most important thing to know about the economy is that as recent history has taught us, no one, not even the best-trained economist, really knows what it will look like a few months from now. The Federal Reserve is poised to continue hiking interest rates, which could produce a recession. On the other hand, job creation has been spectacular during Biden’s presidency.

And the most important weapon Republicans had in bashing the administration — the price of gas — now looks very different than it did just a month or two ago. The average cost has fallen 69 cents in just the last six weeks, and it may continue to fall. While prices are still high, daily news stories about gas prices have disappeared, which could enable a shift to issues more friendly to Democrats.



It has become clear that Trump intends to run for president in 2024, and the more he’s in the news — holding rallies, shouting paranoid election fantasies, indulging in childish whining — the better it could be for Democrats. He lost in 2018, he lost in 2020 and he could help Republicans lose again in 2022.

All those are reasons this election might be different — not reasons it will. But there are indications something unusual is happening this year. Most strikingly, despite Biden’s poor approval ratings, in the House generic ballot matchup, the two parties are essentially even.

One should also remember that exceptions to the midterm rule don’t come in a single form. The two times in recent history that the president’s party avoided defeat were entirely unlike each other. In 1998, voters recoiled from Republicans’ impeachment of President Bill Clinton. In 2002 the public was still gripped by the shock of Sept. 11 and war fever amid the imminent invasion of Iraq.

So 2022 could, for its own unique reasons, be one more exception to the rule that the party in power loses big in midterms. And if the chaos of our current politics shows one thing, it’s that while history is an important guide, anything could happen.

Understanding the 2022 Midterm Elections

November’s midterm elections are likely to shift the political landscape and impact what President Biden can accomplish during the remainder of his first term. Here’s what to know.

When are the midterm elections? The general election is Nov. 8, but the primary season is nearing completion, with voters selecting candidates in the New York and Florida primaries Tuesday. Here’s a complete calendar of all the primaries in 2022.

Why are the midterms important? The midterm elections determine control of Congress: The party that has the House or Senate majority gets to organize the chamber and decide what legislation Congress considers. Thirty six governors and thousands of state legislators are also on the ballot. Here’s a complete guide to the midterms.

Which seats are up for election? Every seat in the House and a third of the seats in the 100-member Senate are up for election. Dozens of House members have already announced they will be retiring from Congress instead of seeking reelection.

What is redistricting? Redistricting is the process of drawing congressional and state legislative maps to ensure everyone’s vote counts equally. As of April 25, 46 of the 50 states had settled on the boundaries for 395 of 435 U.S. House districts.

Which primaries are the most competitive? Here are the most interesting Democratic primaries and Republican primaries to watch as Republicans and Democrats try to nominate their most electable candidates.