A Midterm Mandate?

Update 649 —  A Midterm Mandate?
Finding Meaning in Voters’ Message

The GOP may be in dire need of introspection, reappraisal, and course correction, following the message delivered by the voters and the best midterm performance by the party in power in almost a century. The lessons of this success need not be lost on the rest of us. What is this message, what are these lessons, insofar as they are discernible at this juncture?

Voters delivered a resounding vote for democracy itself and against extremism. Democrats defied the odds with democracy on the ballot. The second highest youth turnout in 30 years helped, as voters aged 18-29 broke for Democrats by 28 points. This was not a vote in support of Dobbs, burning books, and cutting aid to Ukraine. But neither was it a vote for the economic status quo. A closer look at the message and mandate of the midterms, below.

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Three days after the election and control of Congress is still unclear. Despite high inflation and low approval for the party in power, Democrats outperformed expectations, making this midterm election one of the closest in recent memory. 

Around a third of voters were motivated by inflation. Republicans blamed the party in power for high costs, even if they didn’t have a concrete plan to lower costs, while Democrats had passed several policies to curb inflation, even if the cohesive message didn’t materialize. The widely anticipated red wave never came and no matter which party controls Congress, the majorities will be tight, necessitating more bipartisan cooperation like we saw this past Congress.

America Weighs Economy in Voting Booth

Perhaps a month too late for political use, the latest Consumer Price Index report offered respite for pocketbooks:

  • Month-over-month inflation holding steady at 0.4 percent versus an expected 0.6 percent
  • Core CPI came in cooler than expected at 6.3 percent year-over-year versus a forecast of 6.5 percent year-over-year
  • Month-over-month core inflation came out top 0.3 percent compared to 0.5 percent expected 

Decreases in prices for natural gas, medical care services, and used cars and trucks helped offset other contributors to inflation. But most categories saw inflation rates decline over the month, an incredibly welcome sign for consumers and policymakers. 

This is the type of report the Democrats and the Federal Reserve want to see as it wrestles with rising prices. With this report coming two days after the midterm elections, many take little solace in what could have been a helpful boost in the party’s efforts to retain control of Congress. 

Inflation pummeled Democrats all throughout the cycle:

  • Heading into Tuesday, 49 percent of voters voiced that the economy was an extremely important issue for them as they cast their ballots.
  • As voters cast their ballots on Tuesday, exit polls showed a third of voters cited inflation as the most important issue in deciding how they voted for House candidates. 

Democrats found it hard to craft a cohesive message on how to tamp down inflation causes rather than effects, despite voters weighing the issue heavily. As Republicans slammed the party in power ad after ad despite offering no substantive plans for inflation of their own, Democrats wobbled on how best to staunch or reverse it. Democrats turned to a litany of prescriptions: cutting costs through the Child Tax Credit and ACA subsidies, investing in crucial manufacturing and energy sectors, and combating corporate profiteering. 

Despite an inconsistent message on inflation, these policies, supported by a robust labor market, amounted to a particularly strong forward-looking economic message that helped mitigate Democrat’s weaknesses on inflation. Focusing on full employment with a bevy of policies to alleviate cost burdens and direct investment toward important industries proved to be the messaging medicine Democrats needed, even if not an intentional one.

And despite running against eight percent inflation in a midterm, already a deflator for the White House’s party, Democrats may return to power in the Senate — even possibly expanding their majority — with 50 to 51 seats and come a handful of seats away from retaining the House — possibly by one seat. 

So today’s report is an even more gruesome reminder that elections, and majorities, are won on the margins: marginally lower inflation or a marginally better economic message could have ushered in another two years of working-class and middle-class politics under a Democratic trifecta. 

House: Kevin Still Counting His Chickens

Control of the House is still up in the air as we await the results of a number of key West Coast races. Republicans are still the favorites to take control of the House next Congress, albeit by a significantly smaller margin than anticipated. As it currently stands, Republicans hold 211 confirmed seats to Democrats’ 195. Democrats still maintain a narrow path to the majority, though either party is likely to hold a very slim majority.

Despite redistricting favoring Republicans in a number of key states, a significant number of vulnerable Democratic incumbents defied expectations to keep their seats, including Reps. Susan Wild, Abigail Spanberger, and Sharice Davids, among others. DCCC chair Sean Patrick Maloney was the party’s most notable election night casualty. Reps. Cindy Axne and Elaine Luria were also unseated this week. They will join Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Andy Levin, victims of member-on-member primaries, in leaving the House at the end of the year.

If Republicans do take control of the House, it is unclear if Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy will win a bid for Speaker of the House, after his party’s underwhelming performance Tuesday and the complexities of his caucus. Should Democrats hang onto their majority, however, Speaker Nancy Pelosi will likely remain in her position as Speaker. Pelosi has no clear successors who would be able to maintain control over a one or two seat majority caucus. House Democrats may also see a bit of a shakeup at the committee level as well, with House Budget Chair John Yarmuth and House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney both departing at the end of this Congress.

Senate Majority Looks Peachy

While results are still pending in Nevada, Democrats seem poised to keep their narrow majority in the Senate. If Senator Catherine Cortez Masto’s lead holds, Democrats will have the 50 seats they need to maintain control of the chamber headed into Georgia’s December runoff. Apart from the two outstanding races, Democrats managed to hold each of their other seats, including New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan, who was thought to be one of the most vulnerable incumbents this cycle. Retiring Appropriations Committee Chair Patrick Leahy is the only departing Democrat this year, and he will be replaced by Peter Welch.

John Fetterman won his hotly contested Pennsylvania race against reality television doctor Mehmet Oz, flipping the seat held by retiring Senator Pat Toomey and offering Democrats the opportunity to slightly expand their majority should they hang on to their other seats. Unless both of the two incumbents still awaiting results are unseated, not much will change in the Senate. However, should Democrats end up with a 51 seat majority rather than an even split, there could be additional opportunities to pass progressive economic policies. While Democrats did not flip enough seats to abolish the filibuster this Congress, holding 51 seats would offer slightly more options for reconciliation. 

A major problem plaguing the majority during the 117th Congress has been finding a reconciliation bill that will satisfy both Senator Joe Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema. With Fetterman in the Senate, leadership will only have to satisfy one of them while securing the votes of the rest of the caucus in order to reach fifty votes and bring in Vice President Kamala Harris for the tie-breaking vote. However, any reconciliation prospects will still hinge on control of the House.

To 2024 and Beyond

Democrats withstood the threat of a red wave. Republicans should have walked away with both chambers by sizable margins as midterms typically disfavor the party in power and rising prices were causing many to view the Democratic party as immensely disfavorable on the economy. 

But through a chain of events kicked off by the Supreme Court’s decision to eradicate national protections for abortion rights, Democrats were able to effectively seize victory from the jaws of defeat. In addition to being the pro-choice party, Democrats added a positive economic message by promoting a historically remarkable economic recovery, intentionally investing in key industries, and providing much needed relief for student debt holders. While Democrats governed, Republicans put up extremist, conspiracy-driven candidates who threatened democracy itself in key races. These factors enabled a defiance of political gravity resulting in Democrats likely holding the Senate and maybe only narrowly losing the House. 

Perhaps most importantly, voters overwhelmingly re-affirmed the value of and need to protect democracy. With voter intimidation, conspiracy theories, and outright rejections of democracy rampant throughout the Republican party, voters opted to reject them and chose to continue our democratic experiment for the foreseeable future.