The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

2022 was the ‘keep things as they are’ election

Republican gains were modest even at the state level

A member of the U.S. military casts a ballot during early voting in the Senate runoff election between Democratic Sen. Raphael G. Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker at a polling center in Columbus, Ga., on Monday. (Cheney Orr/Reuters)
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By the time the dust settles from the 2022 midterm elections — and dust is, in fact, still aloft as winners of some races at the federal and state level remain undetermined — it’s likely that the political landscape in the United States will look much the way it does now.

Yes, control of the House will have shifted from Democrats to Republicans. But the party will have picked up fewer than 10 seats, flipping a narrow Democratic majority to a narrow Republican one. (Take out redistricting and there might not have been a flip at all.) The Senate, meanwhile, will either remain exactly as it is or with the Democrats picking up one seat, not really affecting how that chamber conducts its business.

It’s been clear for some time that the midterms were not the indictment of President Biden that history would have suggested and that Republicans expected. But new analysis from the digital magazine Bolts shows that the relative inertia of the election trickled down to state legislative races, a place where there can often be — and has often been — much more movement.

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Bolts’s Daniel Nichanian assessed the state of play in the upper and lower houses of each state’s legislature. Across those elections, he determined, Republicans added fewer than two-dozen seats — out of more than 6,000 that were on the ballot. That’s far fewer than the shifts seen in the prior three midterms, where the two parties picked up between 250 and 600 seats at the state level.

Nichanian provided The Washington Post with his state-level figures. If we compare where the upper chamber of each state (usually a state Senate) was prior to the election (the inner circles below) with where they will be after (outer circles), you see that there’s not much change. In every state except Alaska, Michigan and West Virginia, really, the new composition of the chamber looks much as it did prior to Election Day.

The same is true of lower chambers (usually state assemblies or legislatures). New Hampshire’s lopsided legislator-to-resident ratio breaks the scale a bit, but you can see that the point holds. The outside and inside circles generally look the same with limited exceptions.

If we look at the shifts in party caucuses (meaning, including independents who ally with one party or the other), you can see that there were a lot of shifts. It’s just that they were small as a proportion of each legislative body and, cumulatively, didn’t advantage one party or the other. There are lots of red circles below (Republican gains) — and lots of blue ones, as well.

Nichanian points out that the problem for Republicans is even worse than simply underperforming.

“While they managed to net a few seats overall, their biggest gains came in chambers that they already massively control, such as the West Virginia or South Carolina houses,” he wrote, “or else in New York, where they are deeply in the minority.” Democrats, on the other hand, “soared in closely-divided legislatures and seized four previously GOP-held chambers.”

Those, too, were flips from a narrow majority by the GOP to a narrow majority by Democrats.

There’s another aspect of the midterm elections that reinforces the point that it didn’t involve much change. As University of Wisconsin Madison political scientist Barry Burden pointed out on Twitter, a victory in Georgia’s upcoming Senate runoff election by Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) would mean that, for the first time since senators were popularly elected by voters, no incumbent will have lost his or her seat.

There was a seat flip from one party to the other, in Pennsylvania. But no incumbents lost — though, of course, some retired before facing that prospect, again as in Pennsylvania.

It’s hard to overstate how unusual this is. Midterm election cycles are typically tumultuous moments when the government can be reshaped dramatically. This year, that didn’t happen. Voters may be frustrated with the direction of the country, but they collectively decided that its leadership should remain about as it was in the first place.