Democrats Just Got a Sign That Midterms Might Not Be So Brutal

Democrats came closer than expected to winning a special election in Minnesota—the latest sign that their voters are engaged heading into the midterms.
Cameron Joseph
Washington, US
President Joe Biden appears at a campaign event as a candidate on October 13, 2019 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. ​
President Joe Biden appears at a campaign event as a candidate on October 13, 2019 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rick Loomis / Getty Images)

Democrats got a bit of good news in Tuesday’s elections that suggests this fall’s midterm elections might not be as brutal as the party once feared.

In Minnesota, Democrats lost a special election by just four points in a mostly rural southern Minnesota House district, a much closer margin than then-President Donald Trump’s 10-point victory in 2020.

The results are the latest sign that the national political climate has shifted away from a Republican tsunami, which appeared likely a few months ago. The country may now be headed for a hard-fought, race-by-race battle for control of Congress and key statewide races in the November midterms.


That comes in spite of President Biden’s continued abysmal standing with voters. Biden’s approval rating stands at just 40% in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, with 56% of voters disapproving of him. Polls show that voters continue to worry about the economy, and that inflation is taking a toll.

But a few key events seem to have shifted the narrative, turning this midterm from a referendum on an unpopular president into a choice between Democrats and a Republican Party that many voters are worried is trending in an extreme direction.

The biggest shift came with the Supreme Court’s decision in late June to overturn the national right to an abortion. Add that to Trump’s growing legal troubles, revelations from the House Jan. 6 Select Committee, and the success of several controversial Trump-backed candidates in primaries (more won primaries Tuesday night in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Connecticut), and Republicans’ chances at a major wave election look fainter than they did this spring.

The Minnesota election isn’t the only sign that Democratic base voters have come to life, enraged by the Supreme Court decision and alarmed by the prospect of the GOP returning to power. In a special House election in Nebraska just a few days after the abortion decision, Democrats lost by just six points in a district that Trump had won by 11.

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Republicans held a 2.3-point lead in FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls of which party voters wanted in control of Congress. Now the two parties are basically tied, with Democrats slightly ahead.

In Kansas, voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum that would have allowed lawmakers to ban abortion in their state. The 59%-41% margin against that referendum last week in a conservative state that Trump won by 15, combined with sky-high turnout, showed exactly how motivating the abortion issue is for Democratic voters—and how unpopular abortion bans can be with swing voters.

There are a few caveats. First, Democrats actually came *closer* to winning the Minnesota House seat in 2018 and 2020 than they did last night, though that was with a very strong candidate against a more flawed GOP nominee.

Second, we shouldn’t overread the results of any one special election—they’re both a snapshot in time and an imperfect predictor of overall trends, since candidates and local events matter.

And Republicans are still the heavy favorites to recapture the House even if the national political environment doesn’t favor either party, partly because redistricting has left them with more winnable seats.

But the results are the latest sign that what once looked like a GOP tsunami could end up looking more like a ripple.