One of the most common refrains in politics is voters hate Washington and want outsiders to be elected to office. But Sen. Raphael Warnock’s victory in Georgia’s Senate runoff on Tuesday is part of a trend that suggests that, at least in 2022, that wasn’t true.
Each of the 29 Senate incumbents who ran for reelection won. This year’s Senate elections marked the first time in at least a century in which no incumbent senator up for reelection lost.
So what just happened? Bad challenger quality, a map without a lot of competitive races taking place in an era of high polarization and an unusually tight national environment combined to create history.
Let’s start with the fact that Republicans were not able to take advantage of the typical midterm headwinds that move against the president’s party. That happened in part because of bad candidate quality.
Think about the challengers in the highest profile Senate races (Arizona, Georgia and Nevada) where Republicans hoped to knock off Democratic incumbents. All of the challengers had negative net favorability (favorable – unfavorable) ratings. All the senators up for reelection in these states had positive net favorability ratings.
You’ll also note that all of these states are ones in which President Joe Biden won in 2020. This brings up a second important point: The list of competitive races on this Senate map was quite small.
Most of these same Senate seats were last up in 2016. That year, the party that won the presidential race in a state won the Senate race, too. Two of these Senate seats changed parties in special elections in 2020, but both of those changes occurred in states (Arizona and Georgia) that flipped on the presidential level that year as well.
In fact, Wisconsin was the one state on the Senate map this year where the incumbent running was not of the same party that won the state in the 2020 presidential election. Biden won that state by less than a point.
In an era in which polarization is high, and pretty much all the incumbents were from states that their party carried in the previous presidential election, one of two things needed to happen for the incumbents to lose: Either the challengers had to be much better liked than the incumbents or the national environment needed to be strongly in favor of one of the two parties.
We already mentioned that Republican challengers in the most competitive races with Democratic incumbents were not more popular than the incumbents. That was true as well in Wisconsin, where the Democratic challenger had a negative net favorability rating, too.
This meant that the national environment had to lean strongly toward one party to make it likely that an incumbent would lose. This didn’t happen. Instead, the Democratic and Republican candidates for Senate got about the same share of the vote nationwide when you tally up all of the races.
Indeed, it was a historically close election nationally. The cumulative nationwide Senate vote margin will be the closest since at least 1990.
Interestingly, the fact that not a single Senate incumbent lost seems to be in line with other history made in the 2022 election.
Like in the Senate, incumbent governors across the board seemed to do historically well. There was just one governor who lost reelection (Steve Sisolak of Nevada). That one loss marks the fewest losses by sitting governors in cycles in which at least 10 of them ran since at least 1948.
And as in the Senate races, the cumulative vote in gubernatorial races was closer than in any midterm or presidential year since at least 1990 as well.
It turns out that few voters seemed to want to “throw the bums out” in 2022. Voters actually seemed ready to have a steady hand in government in which incumbency and minimal change was favored. In an era dominated by the presence of former President Donald Trump, that’s certainly notable.