The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How bad the 2022 election was for the GOP, historically speaking

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) walks off the stage after speaking during a House Republicans' party in the early morning of Nov. 9 at the Westin Hotel in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Oregon’s largest newspaper has declared Democrat Tina Kotek the winner of that state’s governor’s race. While the race hasn’t yet been called by other news media, Kotek’s victory would be significant nationally: It would assure that Democrats would actually gain ground in the 2022 governors’ races.

And that’s hardly the only evidence of a historic Republican underperformance in the 2022 midterms.

As we’ve emphasized many times, midterms are almost always good for the party that doesn’t control the White House. But this one has clearly not been — in multiple ways.

Republicans will still likely grab a narrow majority in the House, but it also seems likely they will fail to gain seats at every other major level. They’ll apparently lose modest ground at both the gubernatorial and state legislative levels. And while it’s still possible they’ll win control of the U.S. Senate by gaining the requisite one seat, their odds appear to be decreasing — and the election may even end with their having a net loss of one seat. (For all the latest on that, see here.)

As things stand, the GOP has lost one Senate seat, two governor’s mansions and four state legislative chambers.

Here’s how that compares historically with the previous 25 midterm elections over the past century:

  • The opposition party has lost Senate seats in just six of the past 25 midterms. On average, the opposition sees a gain of four seats. Republicans have currently lost one seat. (The GOP could ultimately gain one seat or even two if the final three races break for them in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, but Democrats appear well-situated to keep their majority.)
  • In that same timespan, the opposition party on average has gained nearly 30 House seats — though the average since 1994 has only been 25. As things stand, Republicans have gained around a half-dozen seats, according to race calls from the Associated Press. (Pegging the precise number is difficult, with incomplete results, since the districts candidates were running in are quite different now, due to redistricting.) The opposition party has failed to gain double-digit House seats just seven times in the past 25 midterms.
  • The opposition party on average has gained 4.5 governor’s seats. Republicans are currently down two, and if they have lost Oregon, their only remaining potential pickup is Nevada. This would be the first time since 1986 — and only the second time since 1934 — that the opposition party has had a net loss of governor’s seats.
  • Only once in the past 100 years has the opposition party lost both Senate seats and governor’s mansions: 1934. Republicans could feasibly do that.
  • The opposition party has gained state legislative chambers in every midterm election held since 2002, flipping an average of more than 12 chambers. Republicans have currently lost at least three chambers — both chambers in Michigan, and the Minnesota state Senate — and appear as though they’ll lose the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, as well.

Those state legislative elections actually provide some of the most subtly interesting numbers, given how vast the data set is. As the National Conference of State Legislatures notes, that number of chambers the GOP lost could soon grow, with races in Arizona and New Hampshire.

What’s more, the GOP is also likely to lose ground in terms of the raw number of state legislative seats — something that has happened only twice in the past 100 years.

Here’s a breakdown of how the shifts in House, Senate and governor’s seats have unfolded each midterm over the past century:

There are still many caveats with this year’s tally — most notably that we’re dealing with incomplete results, and the 2022 numbers will continue to shift somewhat.

It’s also worth emphasizing that, regardless of the final numbers, we’re looking at an election that may leave us somewhere close to the status quo. That’s happened on several occasions: 1962, 1990, 1998 and 2002 — the last election in which the opposition party hasn’t made major gains, which was held shortly after 9/11. Perhaps the best midterm for the president’s party in the past 100 years was 1934, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democrats gained major ground in the Senate but relatively little elsewhere.

The 2022 election wasn’t that good for today’s Democrats. But it’s clearly an exception to the rule that the opposition party benefits quite a bit in the midterms the vast majority of the time. And that’s even more striking considering how many on the right assured just a few days ago that we were headed toward a “red wave.”