The past two years have seen a pandemic, the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the resurgence of urban crime, and a revival of inflation. Democrats and Republicans invested $16 billion in the midterm elections, expecting to profit from these upheavals. Yet astonishingly little about American voters’ preferences appears to have changed. Congress was balanced on a knife’s edge following the 2020 election, and it seems set to remain that way. Despite deep public dissatisfaction with the state of the country, incumbents of both parties appear to have enjoyed record rates of electoral success.
In fact, if Democratic senators Catherine Cortez Masto and Raphael Warnock hold their seats, 2022 will be the first Senate election cycle in which no incumbent of either party has been defeated since the 17th Amendment requiring the direct popular election of senators came into effect in 1914. (In that year, Democrats picked up two open seats from retiring Republicans, plus another from a Republican who had been defeated in a primary.)
This remarkable outcome was not due to an absence of pick-up opportunities for either side. The Senate was split 50-50 going into November 8th, with 21 Republican and 14 Democratic senators up for reelection. Yet the only gain for either party has been made by Democrat John Fetterman in Pennsylvania—filling an open seat, following Pat Toomey’s retirement.
Incumbents enjoyed similar success in gubernatorial races, with only Republican Joe Lombardo ousting an incumbent, Steve Sisolak, in Nevada. Democrats gained control of governors’ mansions only in Massachusetts (where Charlie Baker opted not to seek reelection) and in Maryland (where Larry Hogan was term-limited). In both cases, the popular incumbents would undoubtedly have won if they had run again. An open race in Arizona looks to be going down to the wire, while Tina Kotek eked out a narrow win in Oregon’s contest to replace her Democratic colleague Kate Brown. The success of incumbent governors cut across party lines: Democrat Laura Kelly was reelected in deep-red Kansas, while Republican Phil Scott secured a landslide in deep-blue Vermont.
The power of incumbency explains much of the ticket-splitting that occurred. In New Hampshire, Democratic senator Maggie Hassan and Republican governor Chris Sununu both won by comfortable margins. In Wisconsin, Republican senator Ron Johnson and Democratic governor Tony Evers both won by smaller margins. In Georgia, the reelection of Republican governor Brian Kemp was accompanied by Democrat Raphael Warnock’s first-round victory over Herschel Walker; that race will now go to a run-off December 6, on which control of the Senate may hinge. In each of these Biden-voting states, Republicans may imagine they might have made more gains without the impediment of incumbency—as might Democrats.
In the House of Representatives, very few incumbents were defeated. An exception was in New York State, where court-ordered redistricting forced many incumbents to contest counties that they had previously not represented. As a result, Republicans look poised to make multiple gains, which may put them in control of the speakership.
The power of incumbency has long played an important role in American politics. In particular, it did much to entrench Democratic control of the House of Representatives from 1954 to 1994, despite landslide presidential wins for Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan, and various crises afflicting Democratic administrations. Liberal legislators would routinely support unpopular measures in Congress in unrecorded votes, and then run for reelection as moderates back home—relying on relationships with owners of local TV and newspaper monopolies not to publicize the disparity. The most spectacular success of this strategy came in 1972, as Democrats across the country distanced themselves from George McGovern to carry the House of Representatives 242 to 192, while Richard Nixon claimed a 49-state landslide at the top of the ticket.
Eventually, this gameplan broke down. A new generation of House Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, sought to “nationalize” congressional elections. The rise of cable news and the Internet broke down old liberal media monopolies and facilitated the process. As a result, the incumbency advantage, which was worth around 8 percentage points from the 1960s to 1990s, fell to three points in the 2010s. As University of California San Diego political scientist Gary Jacobson notes, “Members of Congress now have a much harder time holding on to states and districts with constituencies that lean toward the rival party.”
So why has the power of incumbency seemingly reemerged in 2022? To some extent, the apparent power of incumbency has always been inflated by officeholders’ decisions to bow out of races that they expect to lose. That may explain why Toomey didn’t run, though it is not obvious that he would have lost to Fetterman. Such reluctance certainly was part of the reason the National Republican Senatorial Committee was unable to recruit popular blue-state governors Sununu and Scott to challenge incumbent Democratic senators in their states. Yet it doesn’t explain why Democrats were also unable to defeat any incumbents.
An alternative theory would be that stalemate yielded stalemate. After 2020, the Democratic House majority was only 10 seats, while the Senate was split only by the vice president’s tie-breaking vote. This protected the Democratic Party from legislative overreach, forcing it to abandon the most unpopular elements of its agenda. As in the 2002 midterms, following a similarly divided Congress, there was less of a backlash against incumbents.
Seventy percent of those recently polled suggested that they thought the country is on the wrong track, but they do not appear to have held their chosen representatives responsible. Even though voters were furious about inflation, Republicans were unable to convince many 2020 Biden voters that this was the fault of the Democratic Congress and not of Vladimir Putin. Conversely, though Kentucky voters rejected a ballot amendment curbing abortion, the state’s Republican congressional incumbents all won easy victories.
Maybe the rise of partisanship and the Internet has made it too easy for voters to absorb interpretations of events that favor their own tribe. This may be part of the explanation, but it’s hard to reconcile with historically high swings against incumbents in each of the previous three midterm elections in 2010, 2014, and 2018. Maybe new technology is making old fashioned advantages, like money or name recognition, valuable again. Or maybe the absence of incumbency simply made Republicans more vulnerable to weak candidates winning their primaries.
The causes and consequences of the incumbency effects are hard to identify statistically. A Google Scholar search for “incumbency advantage” returns 11,500 results. Trying to explain the 2022 election results will surely keep political scientists busy for years to come.
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