What are midterm elections and why are they important?

Control of Congress is in the balance during the midterm elections on Nov. 8.
Control of Congress is in the balance during the midterm elections on Nov. 8. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The next big national elections are coming up in November. President Biden won’t be on the ballot, but the people elected to Congress and state and local offices will have a big impact on what he can get done for the remainder of his first term — and on American life over the next couple of years.

These elections are called “midterms” (as in, they happen right in the middle of a presidential term). Here’s what you need to know to understand the news about them.

Much of Congress. Every two years, every seat in the House of Representatives is up for election. The Senate is a little different. About a third of the seats in the 100-member Senate are up, because senators serve six-year terms.

Many states have aligned their elections on this schedule, which means 36 governors, as well as various states’ chief election officials and thousands of state legislators, plus even more local positions, are on the ballot. Add to that various ballot initiatives to change state policies — like on abortion — and a single election season has the power to reshape the country.

When are the midterm elections?

Election Day is Nov. 8. If you’re registered to vote, you can at least vote for a member of the House of Representatives wherever you live (except if you live in the District of Columbia or in U.S. territories), and probably many more things. Check your voter registration status here and your deadline to register here.

Could Democrats lose control of Congress?

Yes. That’s one of the biggest question marks of this election: Will Biden have a Democratic-controlled Congress for the remainder of his first term? Or will Republicans pick up one or both chambers of Congress, which will empower them to block Biden’s agenda?

In fact, one of the surest trends in American politics is that the party that holds the White House loses seats in midterm elections. For decades, “it has usually been that the party in power expects a wake-up call” at the midterm elections, said Laura Smith, a presidential historian at Oxford University. “Americans have tended to vote in divided government in the midterms as a bit of a slap in the face to the sitting president.”

A September Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that Biden is largely unpopular, with 53 percent of Americans disapproving of the job he’s doing. And 51 percent of independent voters say they want Republicans in charge of Congress next year to act as a check on Biden.

But Democrats have found extraordinary momentum from two extraordinary events: The end of national abortion protections in America, and the rise of election-denying Republican candidates in key races.

What does the battle for the House look like?

Republicans need to flip just five Democratic seats to retake the House majority. Historically, a president’s unpopularity has translated into dozens of seats lost in the House in midterm elections.

Plus House Republicans may have already secured their majority through redistricting. Every 10 years, states must redraw their congressional and state legislative districts based on new census data. It’s supposed to reflect population changes, but many state politicians use the opportunity to affirm their party’s grip on power in state legislative and congressional districts (a process known as gerrymandering).

Republicans tend to be more aggressive than Democrats with gerrymandering, so they may have redrawn themselves into power or close to it, according to a redistricting tracker from the nonpartisan election analysts at the Cook Political Report.

Interactive: Find your congressional district for the 2022 elections

What does the battle for the Senate look like?

Two seats up

for election

Any losses or gains in seats may alter the narrow Democratic majority in the Senate.

Source: The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter

Two seats up

for election

Any losses or gains in seats may alter the narrow Democratic majority in the Senate.

Source: The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter

Two seats up

for election

36 Dems. not up for election

29 Reps. not up for election

Any losses or gains in seats may alter the narrow Democratic majority in the Senate.

Source: The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter

Democrats’ majority in the Senate is even more precarious than in the House — at least on paper. Republicans need to win just one Democratic seat to take back control of the Senate for at least the next two years.

But some of the most competitive Senate races are in states that voted for Biden in 2020, and Republican voters nominated arguably some of the most extreme candidates in recent memory. The Post surveyed candidates in 19 major gubernatorial and Senate races and found that a dozen Republicans wouldn’t say whether they would accept the election results. Others are having to backtrack on their support for strict abortion bans, which are largely unpopular with voters.

How Democrats can hold the Senate, in six races

What could happen if Republicans win Congress?

They have been signaling their intentions to be actively antagonistic to Biden’s agenda and the Democratic Party if they win a majority. They have threatened to retaliate against Democrats for investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol or censuring controversial Republican members of Congress; they have also threatened to draw the Biden White House into investigations, including into Biden’s son Hunter.

If Republicans regain power in the Senate, they can block Biden’s nominees — including if there is an unexpected Supreme Court opening. And some Republicans have rallied around the prospect of passing a national abortion ban, though the party’s leaders seem to reject that for now.

What could happen if Democrats keep control of Congress?

One of their priorities could be limiting what a President Trump could do. Some House Democrats have already proposed legislation to make it harder for a president to filter out federal government workers who don’t agree with them, and to strengthen protections for whistleblowers in the federal government. But like most controversial legislation in Congress, Republicans in the Senate could easily block it with a filibuster.

It’s possible — though not likely — that Democrats grow their majority in the Senate and have enough votes to break through the filibuster on key issues for their party, from voting rights to gun control. They might also move to codify abortion rights and same-sex marriage into federal law.

“If you give me two more senators in the United States Senate,” Biden said recently, “I promise you, I promise you, we’re going to codify Roe and once again make Roe the law of the land.”

What about races for governor and state legislatures?

They’re just as important as Congress, because so much of what heats up our national conversation right now — abortion, democracy, gerrymandering — is really decided in the states.

Some of the biggest races for governor are happening in presidential battleground states, report The Post’s Dan Balz and Marianna Sotomayor. If Republicans win governor’s mansions in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, they have a chance to control all of state government in those states.

Republicans dominate state legislatures, as they have for the past decade. They are hoping to flip Democratic-controlled chambers in Colorado, Nevada and Maine. “Democrats are playing more defense this year,” said Democratic strategist Carolyn Fiddler, who focuses on state legislature races.

Also, there are secretary of state races, the chief election official in many states. In Arizona, Nevada and other states, Republicans have nominated election deniers who could call into question the legitimate results of an election.

What are the top issues for voters?

The economy, abortion and inflation, in that order, said voters in that Post-ABC poll.

Democrats weren’t sure what they were going to talk about to motivate voters, until a conservative Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and with it 50 years of federal abortion protections. Democrats find themselves on the winning side of public opinion, as underscored this summer by voters in conservative Kansas rejecting a proposal that opened the door to an abortion ban.

Republicans are trying to steer the midterm elections to where they think Democrats are weakest: The cost of gas and groceries, and some voters’ concerns about rising violent crime and border crossings. Their strategy carries some risk: Democrats accuse Republicans of using coded racist language on crime, and The Post-ABC poll shows neither party maintains a lead on immigration.

And though inflation remains high, the poll shows that voters are split about how big of a concern it is for them. Voters’ confidence in the economy is returning somewhat as at least the cost of gas comes down.

Key issues in the 2022 midterm elections

As Biden campaigns for the midterms, he has led his party in characterizing portions of the Republican Party as anti-democratic. “MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people,” he said in a recent speech. But his words are likely to resonate only with the Democratic base. Polling shows that though many voters name “threats to democracy” as a top concern, what they consider a “threat” can vary wildly depending on their party.

We can get a good sampling of the big narratives in the 2022 midterms by focusing on four battleground states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

All four of them have competitive governor’s races and election deniers running statewide; most have big Senate races. Michigan also will have a major referendum on abortion rights.

Also, despite their swingy nature between Democrats and Republicans, all four of these states have Republican-controlled and heavily gerrymandered state legislatures that would take a herculean effort on Democrats’ part to flip.

Here are some major candidates you’ll hear about:

  • Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) is facing a challenge from election denier Tudor Dixon (R).
  • Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (D) is facing a challenge from election denier Kristina Karamo (R).
  • Pennsylvania has a very competitive governor’s race, between Democrat Josh Shapiro and Republican Doug Mastriano (an election denier who would get to appoint a secretary of state to run that state’s election if he wins).
  • Pennsylvania also has a competitive Senate race, between Democrat John Fetterman and Trump-backed Republican Mehmet Oz.
  • Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) is facing a challenge from election denier Tim Michels (R).
  • Democrats are trying to unseat Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R), the only Republican senator running for reelection in a state that voted for Biden. His challenger is Democrat Mandela Barnes.
  • In Georgia, there is an extremely competitive Senate race between Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) and Republican Herschel Walker. (Like Oz in Pennsylvania, Walker responded to a Post survey and said he’d accept the election results of 2022.)
  • Also in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp (R) is facing a challenge from Democratic star Stacey Abrams. Recent polling shows the race — like many of these — too close to call.
  • In Arizona, almost all of the Republican candidates for statewide office are election deniers: Kari Lake for governor, Blake Masters for Senate and Mark Finchem for secretary of state.

What happens if election deniers win key positions?

In many Republican primary elections this spring and summer, denying the legitimate results of the 2020 election was the price of admission. That means election deniers are likely to win races to become members of Congress, perhaps senators, and even governors and secretaries of state. And that means by next year, election deniers could be in charge of their states’ elections, including in key swing states for the 2024 presidential race.

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