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GOP had big opportunity, but voters balked at sweeping change

Democrats won a surprising number of tight House races

With one race in Georgia headed to a runoff, the five new GOP senators in the next Congress all filled seats previously held by Republicans. From left, Sens.-elect Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma and Ted Budd of North Carolina, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sens.-elect Katie Britt of Alabama, J.D. Vance of Ohio and Eric Schmitt of Missouri pose for photos before a meeting in the Capitol on Tuesday.
With one race in Georgia headed to a runoff, the five new GOP senators in the next Congress all filled seats previously held by Republicans. From left, Sens.-elect Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma and Ted Budd of North Carolina, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sens.-elect Katie Britt of Alabama, J.D. Vance of Ohio and Eric Schmitt of Missouri pose for photos before a meeting in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — Elections are humbling, and this time it’s Republicans’ turn for some soul-searching.

Republicans were handed a tremendous opportunity in 2022. Midterm elections are typically a referendum on the party in power, and the party in power was coming up short. Just 17 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with the way things were going in the country, 68 percent of voters said the condition of the nation’s economy was either “not so good” or “poor,” and a majority of Americans disapproved of President Joe Biden’s job performance. 

The GOP needed a net gain of a single seat for a Senate majority and a net gain of just five seats in the House. History was on the GOP’s side; the president’s party has lost an average of 30 House seats in midterm elections going back a century. 

And yet Republicans barely got the ball over the goal line. 

Voters were primed for change but largely upheld the status quo instead. They didn’t punish Democrats for Biden’s job performance and were uncomfortable putting the GOP in control. Overall Democratic performance in the face of Biden’s standing and midterm history is remarkable. 

While the fight for the House was closer than expected, the 2022 Senate results were not a surprise. 

The final Inside Elections projection in the Senate was anything from a Democratic gain of one seat to a Republican gain of two seats. The final outcome, either no net change or a Democratic gain of a seat, will be within that range, pending the outcome of the Dec. 6 runoff election in Georgia. And the final Senate result will be within a seat or two of our earliest Senate projection.

The Senate map was relatively favorable for Democrats, considering Biden won six of the eight initial battleground states. But Democrats remained in a precarious position, as the president’s approval ratings in those states remained underwater throughout most of the cycle. In the end, not only did the 2020 Biden coalition hold in enough key places, but some Democrats, including John Fetterman in Pennsylvania and Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona, overperformed Biden.

In the House, Democrats won a surprising number of tight races. The final Inside Elections projection in the House was a Republican gain of between 13 and 30 seats. That assumed that the Toss-up races would break evenly or that GOP candidates would win them disproportionately as independent voters soured on Biden, prioritized economic concerns and wanted change. Instead, Democrats won a disproportionate number of Toss-up races.

While our range underestimated Democrats’ strength in these Toss-up races, the results in individual districts fell in line with expectations. Race ratings informed by polling (public and private, partisan and nonpartisan) were accurate and helpful. With fewer than a dozen races left to call, it looks like just a handful of races out of 435 broke against the ratings. 

In the end, GOP House gains will likely fall between four and 11 seats, which still leaves the door open a crack for a Democratic majority.

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