Briefing

How did Democrats keep the Senate?

The lower house is still up for grabs — but Democrats managed to hang on to Senate control in the midterms

Democrats have managed to hold on to the Senate. Can they gain a bigger majority?

The latest

Democrats have held on to the Senate after flipping Pennsylvania and winning tight races in Arizona and Nevada. Democrats now have the opportunity to gain a slightly larger majority if they win the Georgia runoff election taking place on Dec. 6.

The Senate victory defies many pundits' and polls' predictions that there would be a "red wave" of Republican momentum. Much of the discrepancy came because of the large turnout of Gen Z voters, who voted overwhelmingly Democrat. Polls have been unable to capture data on Gen Z because many of their methods are outdated and likely to be ignored by the younger generation.

Many have also turned to blame former President Trump for the disappointing GOP results, even discouraging him from announcing a re-election campaign before the runoffs. Additionally, abortion ended up being one of the largest issues for voters working in the Democrats' favor. Five states voted to protect abortion rights, including typically conservative states.

What did the polls look like?

Usually, midterm elections tend to favor the party not currently holding the presidency. Some of the reasons for this are lower turnout for those in the president's party, the president's approval rating, or even major events or legislation that come out of the first half of the administration, Vox reports. 

Earlier this year, the polls seemed to veer in favor of Republicans, notably in a number of states that Biden won by under 3 points, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada. However, polling numbers shifted over the course of the year — in June, polls predicted that Republicans would take control of the Senate, but by mid-October, numbers looked better for Democrats.

However, the showdown was even tighter than previously predicted. As of Nov. 7, FiveThirtyEight deemed the race a dead heat, predicting a 54 percent chance that Republicans would take control of the Senate, with 51 seats to 49.

A poll by The New York Times and Siena College forecasted that Democratic control of the Senate would come down to only four key races: Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Nevada. This came in the wake of the John Fetterman (D) and Mehmet Oz (R) debate in Pennsylvania, which tightened the race, as well as Herschel Walker's (R) abortion allegations

Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada have Democratic incumbents, which would tank the Senate lead if the seats flipped. Polls in the week before Election Day showed the Pennsylvania candidates even in the polls, and Arizona's Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly slightly leading. Georgia and Nevada's polls had the Republican candidates slightly leading, but all the races were within two points. 

What factors were playing in the Democrats' favor?

Just how did the polls shift so quickly against historical advantages? Since the turn started in June, one of the biggest contributors was the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973). The decision raised President Biden's approval rating by 9 points and improved Democrats' polling margin by 2 points when people were asked which party should control Congress, The Economist reports. 

Abortion has proven to be a bigger issue for voters than Republicans may have anticipated. For example, Kansas overwhelmingly voted against a proposed anti-abortion law, despite being a state that overwhelmingly votes Republican. A number of swing states were particularly affected by the abortion issue, The New York Times reports. Many Republican candidates either softened their stance on abortion or drew attention away from their opinions on it in response to the backlash. 

Another contributor is former President Donald Trump's conduct, including the Justice Department's investigations into mishandled classified documents and his involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection. In the final Jan. 6 hearing on Oct. 13, the committee unanimously voted to subpoena Trump. A poll conducted by Fox News showed that 65 percent of Americans believed it was wrong for Trump to take classified documents, reports USA Today. While normally, the actions of a former government official wouldn't necessarily affect current elections, Trump's case is different. Dozens of candidates in the running gained prominence after being backed by Trump. While Trump himself hasn't lost popularity amongst the GOP, many Republican candidates have, USA Today continues. 

Veteran Republican political consultant Christopher Nicholas said that Trump's investigation "takes away from our efforts to talk about all of Biden's failed policies." It became enough of a concern that Justice Department officials considered halting the investigation due to an unwritten rule that the department should avoid taking any steps in the 60 days before elections that could affect how people vote. In the end, they did not halt investigations.

In October, Biden also pardoned thousands of people convicted of simple marijuana possession and announced he had asked the attorney general to reassess marijuana's classification as a Schedule I drug. A majority of Americans back the president's decision, according to a Politico poll; however, it remains unclear just how big an effect it had on votes. 

What wasn't in the Democrats' favor?

The biggest issue that harmed Democrats' chances of winning was inflation. Inflation has continued to grow over the past year, and the Federal Reserve once again raised interest rates. All of this contributes to fears of a recession in the coming years. The issue was a top concern in many states and was the number one concern in Wisconsin and Georgia, according to polls

Republicans tried to push the issue of inflation as much as possible to better their chances, the Times reports. To combat this, Democrats, including President Biden, focused less on inflation and more on abortion and the potential loss of democracy. This messaging seemed to be working, leading to lowered inflation concerns, and leaving the GOP to focus on other issues, like crime, The Washington Post explains. 

Though Democrats emerged victorious in the battle for the Senate, Republicans are still expected to take back control of the House. Democrats have been heavily fundraising for campaigns that were neck and neck down to the final days. This includes Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) funneling his own campaign money into other candidates' funds, especially in close elections.

Update November 14, 2022: This piece has been updated throughout to reflect that Democrats maintained their control of the Senate.

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