Legislative Report: 2022 Midterm Election Analysis
Living in a coastal state, New Jersey residents know a thing or two about waves. Sit on any given beach, and you can watch the breakers come and go. Some waves crest early, some waves break late and some appear big but then simply fade away. The tides, the wind and the ground underwater have a lot to do with waves, and all we can do is sit and watch waves do what they do.
The 2022 midterm election was supposed to be a “red wave.” Some were even predicting a tsunami-level event that would wipe Democrats out of power in Washington, D.C. and in local races across New Jersey. The poor economy, the unpopularity of the president and the history of midterm elections all led pundits to declare for weeks that the GOP was on the verge of a potentially historic election that could reclaim the House and Senate for their party.
But on the morning after the election, that wave did not materialize. The day after the election, and in the days following, numerous races across the nation remained too close to call and/ or were waiting on late-arriving votes to be counted. The GOP won control of the House and came up just short of winning a majority in the Senate. But that isn’t the result the Republicans dreamed of, and it means divided federal government is a near certainty.
It would be overly simplistic, however, to say that the GOP failed and the Democrats succeeded. Like all waves, there is a lot more at play than meets the eye. Candidate selection, redistricting and personality all played a major role in who won or who lost. And it will take weeks to strip away the noise to determine what factors mattered most in individual races.
The news was in no way terrible for Republicans nationally, though the lack of the predicted tsunami will make it seem like they had a terrible election night. There were some bright spots for the GOP in New Jersey. Florida Republicans absolutely decimated the Democrats from top to bottom. Even New York will deliver a number of GOP upsets in what few people before the election believed was possible. But it is best not to judge a wave until it has crested.
Let’s take a closer what at what transpired in the 2022 Midterm Election.
New Jersey Congress
Kean defeats Malinowski for a GOP pickup
Tom Kean Jr. has defeated Democratic incumbent Congressman Tom Malinowski in a rematch of their 2020 race. Kean’s lead after Election Day was nearly 14,000 votes. This race was widely predicted to favor Kean after it was redistricted to make it more GOP-friendly.
Kean will be the only candidate in a New Jersey Congressional race to knock off an incumbent, and if the House GOP majority comes to fruition, Republicans can look to the suburban New Jersey district as a major success in an otherwise frustrating election. Kean will also build on his family legacy of service in Congress, which includes his grandfather.
Kim holds off Healey
Congressman Andy Kim won re-election against Viking Yacht CEO Bob Healey. Kim was the recipient of a friendlier district after redistricting replaced heavily GOP Ocean County with Democratic-leaning towns in Mercer County. Healey made Kim work hard for the win in a District designed to reelect Kim.
Gottheimer, Sherrill cruise
Representatives Josh Gottheimer and Mikie Sherrill easily won re-election to the House. Gottheimer has established himself as a leading moderate and bipartisan voice in the House who is willing to stand up to address issues that bring both parties together. As a result, he was not only capable of building a massive campaign war chest but has kept himself above the fray in a bitterly partisan D.C.
Sherrill has established herself as immovable in the revised 11th District with a massive margin of victory. Sherrill potentially could use this success as a springboard to consider a run for governor in 2025. Absent a crisis, she will be a lock in the district for as long as she wants to be.
Menenedez Jr. wins
There was little question that Robert Menendez Jr., son of U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, would romp in the impenetrable Democratic 8th District. He will join Congressman Donald Payne Jr. as the sons of former members of Congress to follow their fathers into elected national office in the current Delegation.
Other House incumbents have no issues
As expected, there were no roadblocks for the remaining House incumbents as Representatives Norcross, Van Drew, Smith, Pallone, Pascrell, Payne and Watson Coleman won re-election easily.
State legislative incumbents have no trouble
While most of the state was focused on the races for Congress, two special elections for the New Jersey Legislature still needed to be decided. Neither race was expected to be competitive, and the results do not impact the balance of power in Trenton.
In the 28th District, State Senator Renee Burgess was elected to finish the term of retired Senator Ron Rice. This is a safe Democratic district.
In the 12th District, Assemblyman Alex Sauickie easily defeated a challenge to secure the remainder of the term left open following the passing of longtime Assemblyman Ron Dancer. This is a safe Republican district.
Democrats reset after 2021 at the local level
New Jersey is widely regarded as a “blue state,” but it would be overly simplistic to suggest that it is simply a wall of Democrats from top to bottom. After the 2021 election in which the GOP shocked state Democrats from the top of the ticket down, Democrats at the county level had something to prove.
With the exception of Cumberland County, where the GOP won the majority on the Board of County Commissioners, Democrats were able to regain their footing from 2021 by holding onto commissioner seats in Passaic, Somerset and Gloucester counties. Last year, Republicans won commissioner races in Passaic and Gloucester and nearly took a seat in Somerset. The wins here are good news for the Democrats that the races could not be nationalized, and that they still are in the driver’s seat going into the 2023 legislative elections in potentially competitive districts centered on these counties.
But Democrats were unable to make inroads in GOP areas in places like Monmouth and Atlantic counties.
It is still too soon to make final determinations about what this election means, especially while waiting for the balance of power in D.C. to be determined. However, several themes are developing as the dust clears.
Longstanding assumptions about what happens to the party of the president in a midterm election may need to be reset in consideration of what redistricting has done to the competitive nature of Congressional seats. Underneath all the talk of waves and historical results sits the reality that most Congressional seats are gerrymandered to make them safer for one party or the other.
Every state has its exceptions. New York State tried to gerrymander safe Democratic House seats, only to have the map thrown out for a more competitive map, where Democrats’ poor standing on the economy and crime likely did cost them a few Congressional seats. Some otherwise “safe” incumbents from both parties will lose this year in other states as well. All politics is local, and candidate behavior, personality and messages still matter.
But in states like Florida, redistricting has certainly made the House Congressional delegation more Republican. The same could be said for the Democrats in Illinois, where GOP members were squeezed out of their old districts. New Jersey Congressional districts were drawn to protect the incumbents, with the exception of the seat that Tom Kean took.
Historically, House incumbents have won re-election more than 90 percent of the time. But this is a different political environment. A serious question can be raised as to whether creating an overwhelming number of safe seats reduces opportunities for bipartisan cooperation and thereby drives decisions to appeal exclusively to the party base, so that surviving a primary election becomes the objective, rather than winning to govern.
If the GOP fails to take control of the U.S. Senate, there will be a nationwide debate as to whether different candidates could have led to different results. Donald Trump had substantial influence in the primary elections for the GOP in states like Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Arizona and Georgia.
An argument can be made that non-Trump-aligned or more establishment candidates would have performed better this year, especially in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. The GOP may still win the Senate when all is said and done with Trumpbacked candidates in Georgia, Nevada and Arizona. But the question will be whether these races should have been close at all.
Georgia is a perfect example. Republican Governor Kemp, whom President Trump attacked repeatedly, won re-election easily enough to avoid a runoff. However, Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker ran five points behind Governor Brian Kemp in his bid to take out incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock. This race will be decided in a December runoff election that Walker still may win, but it is fair to question whether Walker was a flawed candidate who, like Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, was interesting more for his celebrity status than his suitability for the office.
The next two years are going to be among the most tense and unproductive in recent history. The GOP House majority will be slim, and the U.S. Senate will either remain tied or in the control of one party by a single vote. The Senate will not be able to move legislation due to its filibuster rules no matter what, and the House GOP will need to decide if it wants to legislate or attack the president.
And the next two years are going to be dominated by talk about the 2024 presidential election. Every decision by President Biden will be dissected for hints as to his reelection choices. The GOP will be forced to react to a potential Trump candidacy while waiting on its up-and-comer bench of candidates, starting with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, to decide on their future.
It is fairly clear that gridlock is the likely result of this election.