The upcoming midterm elections will determine which party controls the halls of Congress. Republicans are seeking to regain a majority in both the House and Senate, while Democrats are looking to hold their control in order to advance President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.
Current polling and predictions indicate that Republicans will likely regain their majority in the House, and a handful of states will decide the fate of the Senate, including Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Nevada.
Overall, on Nov. 8, the midterm elections will put 35 Senate seats, 435 House seats, and 36 gubernatorial seats up for grabs. Since 1790, the United States has held the midterm elections at the midpoint within a president’s four-year term in office on the first Tuesday of November. Historically, an incumbent president’s political party has lost seats 13 times in the House and nine times in the Senate over the last six decades in 15 midterm elections.
U.S. voter turnout is generally lower during the midterm elections when compared to the presidential races due to less awareness of the candidates and the election itself. According to Pew Research Center’s senior writer Drew DeSilver, “Voter turnout regularly drops in midterm elections, and has done so since the 1840s.” However, in the latest 2018 midterm, voter turnout reached unprecedented highs, which was followed by the record turnout of the 2020 presidential election.
Despite this, there have been multiple midterm elections that had an impact on political discourse. Generally, sitting presidents are the chief advocates of their party during this period, and success during the midterm is usually carried over into the following presidential election.
Biden is currently dealing with record-low approval ratings as Republicans have gained ground in the polling in several tight gubernatorial and Senate races.
A look at some significant and historic midterm elections
On Nov. 7, 1978, the midterm elections to determine the members of the 86th U.S. Congress were held during the midpoint of Democratic President Jimmy Carer’s term in office. In the Senate, 35 seats were contested, and 36 states held gubernatorial elections. Democrats lost three seats in the Senate to Republicans but still retained their majority while winning the nationwide popular vote by a margin of 8.9%.
Moreover, in the House, Republicans lost 15 seats, failing to secure a majority in that chamber as well. This election remains the last time that Democrats have maintained a trifecta in the federal government – retaining control of both chambers of Congress while controlling the executive branch – through a midterm election.
The 1978 election, along with the 2002 midterm, remains one of the few elections in modern history where a sitting president retained control of his party’s congressional majority.
However, despite the electoral success of the Democrats during the 1978 midterm, it did not carry over into the 1980 presidential election as Republican Ronald Reagan defeated Carter by a landslide in the Electoral College.
Another significant midterm election occurred on Nov. 8, 1994, for control of the 104th Congress during the midpoint of Democratic President Bill Clinton’s first term in office. Of the 35 Senate seats up for election, Republicans had a net gain of eight; they also had a net gain of 54 in the House. Moreover, the GOP gained a net of 10 of the 36 gubernatorial offices up for a vote and won record majorities in state legislatures across the country.
Republicans catapulted to victory off the reforms Clinton had pushed during his first term, including allowing homosexuals to serve in the military, universal health care, gun control and higher taxes. The GOP’s victory was dubbed the “Republican Revolution” after the party captured majorities in both chambers of Congress for the first since 1952. Moreover, the victory is the only time any party has flipped both chambers of Congress with an opposing incumbent president; however, this may change in the upcoming 2022 race.
Despite the congressional defeat, Clinton was able to hold onto power two years later during the presidential election against Republican contender Bob Dole and third-party candidate Ross Perot.
One of the largest victories for the Republicans in the last few generations was on Nov. 2, 2010, during the first term of Democratic President Barack Obama. Along with all 435 House seats, 38 Senate positions and 38 gubernatorial offices were put up to vote during this race. At the time, Democrats had unified control of Congress. Republicans gained a net of seven seats in the Senate and won the House by one of the largest margins in six decades, with a net gain of 63 seats.
Congressional Republicans in office and contenders during the campaign rallied voters against the slow recovery from the 2008 recession and the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Moreover, this midterm is one of the more significant races in recent history because it brought in a new generation of Republicans that was more socially and fiscally conservative than in prior years.
Regardless of the historic loss, Obama was able to soundly defeat Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney two years later to secure a second term.