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Perspective: Congress is split down the middle. Is the country as well?

While Americans aren’t happy with Biden or the economy, Democrats still did better than expected

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

While the House and Senate will be divided nearly in half by the time the dust settles on the 2022 midterm elections, the results also show that we Americans remain stubbornly divided along red and blue lines. Blue states got bluer and the red states got redder this year.

Neither party received a ringing endorsement from voters. The Senate was left in a possible 50-50 split, while the margin in the House will probably end up being only one or two seats. This could make it very hard for Congress to get anything done.

Election night was not good for Republicans who expected to see a red wave, but instead the GOP went into the weekend not even sure they’d taken control of the House. Democrats did remarkably well considering the party that controls the White House usually struggles in the midterms, and also considering the effect inflation is still having on families coast to coast.

Hopes were so high the GOP thought they might win some gubernatorial races in typically blue states like New York and Oregon. But New York Gov. Kathy Hochul was quickly declared the winner of her reelection campaign, beating out Republican Lee Zeldin, and the Oregon gubernatorial seat went to Democrat Tina Kotek in a close race against Republican Christine Drazan. Republicans were completely shut out of congressional races in New England, unless they manage to eke out a win in Maine, where a House race was still undecided as of Saturday.

Meanwhile, moderate Republican governors in Massachusetts and Maryland were replaced by Democrats.

It was a strange and unexpected year. Americans are unhappy with the status quo, and they are dissatisfied with President Joe Biden. A CNN exit poll showed 76% of voters think the economy is not so good or poor, and Biden has a 40% favorable rating. Typically, when the numbers are that bad, the party not in power can translate the dissatisfaction into votes. But not this year.

Democrats managed to win 62% of the vote from people who said the economy was “not so good,” and they won a plurality of voters — 49% to 45% — who “somewhat disapprove” of the job Biden is doing. They also managed to prevent a landslide while losing ground among Black, Asian and Latino voters.

On the flip side, exit polls showed former President Donald Trump is even less popular than Biden, with a 39% favorable rating. And Republicans struggled with moderate voters, only winning 41% of the vote from people who identify as ideologically moderate compared to 56% that went to Democrats. If Republicans want to start winning big again, they’re going to have to find a way to attract voters in the middle.

Here are a few other election night takeaways:

Incumbents performed well

Despite voter frustrations, incumbent governors and senators won all across the country, with the lone exception being the governor’s race in Nevada. And Republicans could still capture the Georgia Senate seat after the run-off election in December, but generally, incumbents ruled the night. Why voters decided to keep their politicians around when they claim they are so unhappy is something pundits will be trying to explain long after this election is decided.

Extreme candidates did not

Republican House Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia and Lauren Boebert in Colorado, and candidate J.R. Majewski in Ohio all underperformed compared to the Trump vote in 2020. All three have been accused of having ties to QAnon.

In Wisconsin, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes, who appeared at a rally sponsored by a group that wants to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement division and had said he wanted to reduce police budgets, lost to unpopular incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson.

The economy, or abortion?

Even though exit polls showed inflation was the No. 1 issue cited by voters, Republicans still struggled to get their candidates across the finish line. That may have been a result of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade earlier this year — voters ranked abortion as the second most important issue affecting their votes.

Right before Election Day, it looked as though abortion may have faded as a top issue for voters, but now, with hindsight, we can see that isn’t true. While a majority of married women, married men and unmarried men voted for Republicans, unmarried women overwhelmingly chose Democrats, 68% to 31%, according to CNN exit polls. And even in red states like Kentucky and Montana, voters rejected pro-life ballot questions, while constitutional amendments favoring abortion in Vermont, California and Michigan all passed.

Candidate quality mattered

When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Republican Party had trouble with “candidate quality” back in August, it sounded then like a euphemism for candidates endorsed by Trump.

As it becomes clearer that Republicans struggled to take back control of the Senate, with a couple of races still hanging in the balance as of Saturday evening, we should expect some GOP leaders to drop the euphemisms entirely and instead take Trump head-on. Already some are complaining that Trump is sitting on a campaign war chest which he barely used to help the candidates he endorsed and that his hand-picked candidates weren’t very good.

Donald Trump didn’t have a great night

Several conservative commentators took to Twitter on election night to blame Trump for Republican losses. Even far-right personality Mike Cernovich wrote in a tweet that Trump couldn’t win in 2024.

On the eve of the midterm elections, Trump said he would make a “big” announcement on Nov. 15. Although some say he may delay that announcement, many expect he will announce he is running for president again. But the midterm results may give him, or at least his advisers, pause. Several of the candidates who he personally recruited for the election, like Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker and Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz, either lost or struggled compared to other Republican candidates.

Ron DeSantis had a very good night

Meanwhile, Florida was very good to Republicans, and extremely good to Gov. Ron DeSantis. He won by more than 1.5 million votes against former Gov. Charlie Crist — a landslide in what used to be a purple state.

At his election night rally, DeSantis’ supporters chanted “two more years,” a nod to the likelihood that he will run for president in 2024. DeSantis has already received a lot of tough scrutiny from the national media, but has also earned some plaudits for his handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, which devastated parts of his state.

Trump is clearly looking over his shoulder at DeSantis. He sent message after message about DeSantis on his social media channels in the days following the midterms. Even before the election, Trump said he didn’t think DeSantis should run for the presidency in 2024, The Wall Street Journal reported.

“I don’t know that he’s running,” Trump said. “I think if he runs he could hurt himself very badly.”

Once the midterms are finally decided, this will likely be the political story to watch — who will Republican voters want to represent them in 2024 — Trump or DeSantis? Or maybe someone else entirely.