Despite dissatisfaction, midterm voters did not kick out the incumbents

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High inflation. President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings. Polls show a majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction the country is taking.

The general landscape ahead of the 2022 midterm elections looked bleak for incumbents across the country, and Democrats in particular, as many prepared to feel voter outrage after Republican-led attacks on crime, immigration and high food and gas prices. But early numbers show voters have largely opted to keep their members in Congress.

Out of more than 365 House districts in which an incumbent is up for re-election, only six Democrats have lost their seats so far: Cindy Axne of Iowa, Elaine Luria of Virginia, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, Al Lawson of Florida and Tom O’Halleran from Arizona. All six competed in places where the redistribution had made their chances more difficult.

On the Republican side, that number is three: Ohio’s Steve Chabot, Texas’ Mayra Flores and New Mexico’s Yvette Herrell.

In the Senate, no Democratic incumbent has yet lost re-election with Mark Kelly’s win Friday night in Arizona, although two in battleground states — Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada and Raphael Warnock in Georgia — remain in heated races.

“Without clarifying the Democratic races most at risk, it’s difficult to draw any comprehensive conclusions,” said Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst at Inside Elections, a bipartisan newsletter that analyzes congressional races. “But so far there doesn’t seem to have been an anti-incumbent wave – in any chamber.”

If Cortez Masto and Warnock hold out, Rubashkin added, it would be the first time since 1914 that no Senate incumbent would lose a general election. This was the first election following the ratification of the 17th Amendment, which provided for senators to be elected by the people rather than to be appointed by state legislatures.

Democrats attribute their victories to strong candidates, solid fundraising and effective abortion messaging, and legislative gains such as a major bipartisan infrastructure package and measures to reduce prescription drug costs. “Our members have shown that they really care about their communities,” said Chris Hayden, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

They also pointed to the weaknesses of Republican candidates backed by former President Donald Trump, some of whom reinforced lies about a stolen 2020 election and took absolutist positions on abortion, both of which Democrats have attacked as extremist.

Republicans countered that they had, in fact, defeated the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents before the campaign even began.

“We spent the early part of the cycle aggressively baiting the Democrats into retirement,” said Calvin Moore, a spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a superpolitical action committee dedicated to electing Republicans to the House of Representatives. “So a large number of the competitive seats were open seats. If their candidates are so strong, why did they all run to the mountains?”

The overall picture is more complex and remains fluid.

In Nevada, where poll officials have yet to finish counting ballots, Cortez Masto was engaged in a pitched fight with her Republican challenger, Adam Laxalt, a former attorney general.

On Friday night, The Associated Press reported that three of Nevada’s Democratic incumbents beat their Republican opponents in the House of Representatives. But the state’s Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak conceded his race to Joseph Lombardo, the Trump-backed Clark County sheriff, who was running as a law-and-order Republican.

Several tight races in competitive districts across the country have yet to be declared, including that of a House Democrat incumbent in Maine and four in California.

In Alaska, Senator Lisa Murkowski, a centrist Republican seeking a fourth full term in Washington, and her Trump-backed Republican rival Kelly Tshibaka are heading for a ranking final under the state’s new voting system. In Georgia, Democratic incumbent Warnock and Republican opponent Herschel Walker face a December runoff.

Bipartisan election analysts said the lack of losses among Democratic incumbents appeared to be evidence of strong candidates campaigning powerfully and showing they took heated races seriously. These included Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, who promoted his work on bills to expand infrastructure funding, encourage domestic semiconductor manufacturing and reduce child poverty.

In Washington state, Senator Patty Murray, who won a sixth term, faced a strong Republican challenge but won by promulgating legislation on the climate, reducing prescription drug costs and protecting abortion rights.

Minnesota Rep. Angie Craig beat Republican challenger Tyler Kistner in one of the closest home races in the nation by focusing her campaign on abortion rights and encouraging support from law enforcement officials. In Virginia, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a centrist Democrat, focused on abortion and her work on infrastructure and combating gun violence and won her race.

Spanberger also portrayed her opponent Yesli Vega as an extremist after she was recorded describing people arrested in the January 6, 2021 Capitol attack as unfairly persecuted and falsely implying that pregnancy through rape was unlikely, because “it’s not something that happens organically.”

Money also played a role. Kelly and Reps. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan were among Democrats in competitive campaigns who far outstripped their challengers in fundraising and emerged victorious.

For Republican incumbents, voter discontent worked to their advantage. In Wisconsin, Sen. Ron Johnson, a right-wing Republican prone to spreading misinformation, won a third term by accepting a challenge from Lt. gov. Rejected Mandela Barnes in one of the ugliest contests in the country and the most expensive in Wisconsin history.

Johnson and his allies bombarded Barnes with commercials depicting him as a criminal, anti-American radical. He won by a single percentage point, even though the state’s incumbent Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, was reelected by a comfortable margin.

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