Tuesday was a great night for Republicans. The GOP flipped the governor’s office in Virginia, a race often seen as a bellwether for the following year’s midterm elections (though perhaps this is an overreaction). But that wasn’t all. Even more impressively, Republicans came remarkably close to winning the New Jersey governor’s race, which was not thought to be nearly as competitive.
Looking ahead to the 2022 midterms, the better omen for the GOP might be how consistently they outperformed expectations across the board on Tuesday night.
Republicans won not only the governorship in Virginia but also the lieutenant governor’s office and attorney general’s office. They appear to have gained one seat on net in the New Jersey state Senate and at least four (perhaps as many as eight) in the New Jersey General Assembly. And they won several down-ballot offices that hadn’t gotten as much attention, such as a state Supreme Court seat in Pennsylvania and municipal offices in New York. But the icing on the cake is that they took a majority in the Virginia House of Delegates, putting them just one vote in the state Senate away from full control of state government.
And these state-legislative elections arguably have the most to tell us about what the political environment will be in 2022. As we’ve written previously, special elections for both Congress and state legislatures can be quite predictive of the midterm elections they lead up to — as long as you consider them in aggregate and look at their margins of victory, not just who won.
So far, neither party has consistently punched above its weight in congressional special elections held in 2021. Perhaps this was, in part, because most special elections happened earlier in the year, when Biden was still popular. However, his approval ratings have since sunk (43 percent approval, 51 percent disapproval),1 and this week we got results from 100 Virginia House of Delegates elections and 40 New Jersey state Senate elections that took place under that anti-Democratic environment2 — and they exhibited a clear pattern of Republican overperformance.
On average, the current3 margins in those state-legislative races4 are 7 percentage points better for Republicans than their districts’ FiveThirtyEight partisan leans.5 Specifically, Republicans overperformed by an average of 7 points in the Virginia House of Delegates:
|2021 Vote Share|
And they overperformed by an average of 6 points in the New Jersey Senate:
|2021 Vote Share|
This overperformance was consistent — Republicans outran partisan lean in almost every district. It was also the biggest overperformance we’ve seen in the three times that we’ve done this analysis for odd-year legislative elections — although, in fairness, that’s still a pretty small sample size. In 2017, Democrats overperformed in the Virginia House of Delegates by 2 points and in the New Jersey Senate by 5 points; in 2019, Democrats overperformed in the Virginia state Senate by 4 points and in the Virginia House by 3 points.
Since partisan lean represents our best guess of how a district would vote in a neutral political environment, this implies that the nation currently leans toward Republicans by 6 or 7 points. If that holds true a year from now, the 2022 midterms would be a veritable red wave.
Of course, we don’t yet know the partisan leans of all the House districts that will be on the ballot next year, because most still haven’t been drawn. But just for illustrative purposes, if Republicans won every district in the current House map6 that has a partisan lean redder than D+7, they would flip 47 seats en route to a 260-175 majority. And if every state with a partisan lean redder than D+7 votes Republican for Senate next year, the GOP would flip five seats: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire and Colorado. (This obviously ignores other potentially important factors like candidate quality; it’s just meant as an illustration of how impressive Republicans’ performance was on Tuesday.)
To be clear, this is probably the worst-case scenario for Democrats, just as this 7-point Republican overperformance in 2021 legislative elections is the worst for Democrats of the handful of midterm indicators we currently have at our disposal. The most obvious piece of counterevidence: Democrats still lead polls of the generic congressional ballot by an average of 2.3 points.7
But if I were the Democratic Party, I’d be feeling less comforted by that number after Tuesday. While polls are usually in the right ballpark, they are still subject to a margin of error, as Democrats themselves discovered in 2020, when the generic-ballot polls overestimated their margin by 4.2 points. Plus, there was already good reason to think that generic-ballot polls right now are overestimating Democrats: Almost all so far have surveyed registered voters rather than likely voters, who tend to be a more Republican-leaning group, especially in a midterm election when the president is a Democrat.
Nothing about 2022 is written in stone, and there’s no guarantee that a red-wave election will come to fruition. But the historical expectation with a Democratic president has always been that Republicans would have a good election cycle, and the evidence for that is mounting. The Republican overperformance in the 2021 elections is simply a reminder of how bad things could get for Democrats.