What Special Congressional Elections Tell Us About the Midterms

By Bryan Goodman, Political Director
Photo: A lawn sign in opposition to an August 2 referendum on banning abortion in Kansas. The vote did not pass, an upset for pro-life advocates.

The battle on both sides of the abortion rights fight has intensified since the Supreme Court of the United States’ ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health which overturned the long-standing legal precedents established in both Roe v. Wade 410 U.S. 113 (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey 5050 U.S. 833 (1992). Many states across the US saw their trigger laws go into effect once this ruling was official—though many believed it was likely to occur once the leak of the draft majority opinion came out. Mass protests ensued nationwide and even stretched around the globe in opposition to the decision, whereas for the pro-life movement, it was seen as a major victory.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade will be a driving force for young people and women to vote in the 2022 midterms, which is critical if the Democrats hope to hold or even expand their majorities in both chambers of Congress. With items such as the Inflation Reduction Act becoming law and partial student debt cancellation, amongst other policy victories for the White House in the month of August, Democrats are becoming hopeful that they can hold both chambers of Congress.

This hope represents their rising popularity among the American electorate. Historically, Democrats have positioned themselves as “not Republicans” rather than developing an identity. But in a twist that took many by surprise, Democrats began to revive what was perceived as hopeless legislation. In a swift change of pace for Senate Democrats, the Inflation Reduction Act passed, providing much-needed funding to combat climate change, changes to the tax code to decrease the deficit and increase revenue, and healthcare spending and policy changes including allowing Medicare to negotiate prices for certain drugs. This last piece, Medicare price negotiation, has been a part of the Democrats’ campaign promises since the mid- 2000s, and they just now made true on their word. They also implemented a cap on insulin costs for Medicare recipients at $35, while an amendment to make this applicable to everyone failed 57-43, with seven Republican senators voting in support of the amendment. This amendment failed because of Senate rules regarding amendments to bills which require a three-fifths majority (60+ votes) to pass.

While legislation and executive action, such as the student debt cancellation we saw from the President, will likely motivate certain bases of voters to turn out in November, these are still not the greatest influencers of the upcoming election. Immediately following the Dobbs decision, many media outlets began reporting that abortion would not be a major issue in the midterm elections. They could not have been more wrong (so far). There are two notable articles in which the writers make clear that Dobbs/abortion will not be a major issue of the midterms. They come from Byron York, the Chief Political Correspondent of the Washington Examiner, and Rich Lowry, the Editor in Chief of the National Review.

The House of Representatives

It does not have to be November 9 for us to realize the impact that the Dobbs decision has had on this midterm cycle so far. We can simply examine various special congressional elections across the country and the Kansas abortion referendum. There were five special Congressional races—elections held to fill a vacancy due to death, retirement, or resignation. FiveThirtyEight has collected data pertaining to these pre and post-Dobbs special elections and compiled averages for the margins and the swings for them. Appendix A contains the graphic from the article (Rakich 2022). In a pre-Dobbs world, the swing margin in the sample of races was Republican +2, meaning that the Republican Party was outperforming expectations by two percentage points. However, the average partisan lean of this group of races was Democrat +12, yielding a vote margin result of Democrat +10. 

Conversely, in the post-Dobbs special elections, there was an average partisan lean of Republican +13 and an average vote margin of Republican +2, resulting in an 11 point swing in Democrats’ favor. This swing has turned the tides in the buildup to the November midterms. While FiveThirtyEight still forecasts that the GOP wins control of the House 69 out of 100 times, compared to Democrats’ 31 out of 100, these odds have certainly shifted since before the Dobbs decision. Since the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, two landmark abortion cases in the U.S. legal world, Democrats’ odds to hold the majority in the House have more than doubled. On June 24, the day the Dobbs decision was officially released, the odds were 88 out of 100 for Republicans and a mere 12 out of 100 for Democrats (FiveThirtyEight). There are several key House races that FiveThirtyEight has identified that have a large influence on who controls the House. There are several in California, including the 22nd and 27th districts which are vitally important if Democrats want to maintain their majority.

Alaska Special Congressional Election

In what might be the most shocking result of all of the special elections so far, Alaska elected a Democrat to represent them in the House for the first time since Richard Nixon was President in 1973. In this race, Democrat Mary Peltola came out on top in a race between her, Sarah Palin, and Nick Begich. However, thanks to Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system and the split of Republican votes between Palin and Begich, Peltola came out victorious. This could be viewed by some as a one-off election due to the disapproval of a candidate such as Palin, but there was a viable second candidate in Begich, who was not able to compete with both of them. Some prominent politicians, such as Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, believe that ranked-choice voting is “…a scam to rig elections” (Cotton 2022a) and that “60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican, but thanks to a convoluted process and ballot exhaustion—which disenfranchises voters—a Democrat ‘won’” (Cotton 2022b). Cotton’s claim that ranked-choice voting is a scam is a perpetuation of former President Trump’s false claims of fraudulent elections. While Cotton’s pointed out that 60% of Alaskans voted Republican, the two Republican candidates were inevitably going to split the vote. If there were no ranked-choice system in place, the Republicans still would still have lost since Peltola won a plurality of the vote after the first round of rankings were tallied (elections.alaska.gov). In Alaska, Democrats performed with a swing of +18, turning a typical R+15 district into a D+3 district. As of October 6, 2022, Pelota has been dominating recent polling, holding leads in the +20 range, increasing Democratic hopes for victories in November.

The Senate

On the day that the Dobbs decision was released, Republicans held a slight edge over Democrats, 53 to 47 out of 100, according to FiveThirtyEight data. Since then, Democrats have begun to run away with it in FiveThirtyEight’s forecast, with odds being at 67-33 in Democrats’ favor as of October 6, 2022 (FiveThirtyEight). The growing understanding that Dems will hold or expand their majority in the Senate is due in part to the nature of the Senate map this cycle favoring Dems, along with low-quality candidates running on the Republican ticket (Kapur and Thorpe V 2022). The Democrats have a favorable map this cycle as compared to what they will face in 2024, so it is critical for them to build the foundations of a future majority now and look to further expand on it in 2024. However, unfortunately for Democrats, there are many seats in key swing states and generally Republican-favored states that will be up for re-election during the presidential election year including Montana, Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Maine.

I want to focus on the 2022 Senate map though. This cycle, Democrats have to defend seats in Nevada, Arizona, New Hampshire, and Georgia, while looking for pickups in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, with even the possibility of flipping seats in Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida if everything goes perfectly for them. Democrats’ best bets are in both Pennsylvania and Wisconsin with two current Lieutenant Governors running for the Senate seats as Democrats. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and Mandela Barnes of Wisconsin are both hoping to yet again win a state-wide election that would propel them to the United States Senate with the hopes of overtaking Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema as the 49th and 50th votes that are needed for a majority in the chamber. Both Fetterman and Barnes have previously been elected Lieutenant Governor of their respective states. Fetterman has been performing incredibly well according to all polling data so far, and Barnes is beginning to pick up steam in his race against two-term incumbent Ron Johnson.

Kansas Abortion Ballot Initiative

On August 2, 2022, voters in the state of Kansas went to the polls to cast their ballot in the state’s primary election. Several statewide offices were on the ballot during this primary cycle, but that did not prove to be the main takeaway of the night. There was a direct ballot initiative—also known as a referendum—in which voters statewide had the option of choosing either “Yes” or “No” on a specific question posed to them. It is the purest form of direct democracy and has been previously used in Oregon to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs and instead make it a civil violation, passing with over 58% support (Templeton 2020).

In Kansas, voters had the chance to decide if the state constitution would continue to protect abortion rights, representing the first time voters anywhere in the country have had this opportunity. The framing of the question on the ballot has been quite controversial and had the potential to mislead voters when selecting whether to vote yes or no. The wording was as follows:

Because Kansans value both women and children, the constitution of the state of Kansas does not require government funding of abortion and does not create or secure a right to abortion. To the extent permitted by the constitution of the United States, the people, through their elected state representatives and state senators, may pass laws regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, laws that account for circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or circumstances of necessity to save the life of the mother. (Kansas No State Constitutional Right to Abortion and Legislative Power to Regulate Abortion Amendment, August 2022)

Following this explanation are the bubbles for yes and no options. This statement is exactly that – a statement, which those in favor seek to confuse voters with and get them to vote for their preferred outcome. Rather than posing an unambiguous question to the voters, those in support of stripping abortion rights wanted to make it more difficult for voters to comprehend what they are voting on in the hopes that they would simply vote yes and call it a day. This in and of itself is yet another example of voter suppression tactics. To achieve a specific political goal, confusing wording like this can be used to mislead voters and trick them into voting directly against what they believe.

On Monday, August 1st, many residents throughout Kansas began receiving text messages about the referendum vote saying, “‘Women in KS are losing their choice on reproductive rights, voting YES on the Amendment will give women a choice. Vote YES to protect women’s health’”(Stanley-Becker 2022). This is another example of strategies employed by anti-choice groups and individuals who are attempting to thwart the protections granted to Kansans by their state constitution. 

Once voters made it to the polls the following day, it was clear from almost the beginning that the amendment would fail thus keeping the protections for abortion in place in Kansas. As of the morning of August 4, with estimates of over 95% of the total votes counted, the referendum is expected to fail, with “No” prevailing by a margin of over 17%. This victory for pro-choice Americans is just the beginning of what we may see in the fall during the midterm elections. Many predicted that abortion would be a non-issue in upcoming elections, and the results of the election in Kansas have shown the country that is far from true. 

It is important to take a realistic approach to the polling we have seen so far. Historically, polling has proven to underrepresent Republican support; however, in recent months it has been doing this for Democrats. Appendix A further supports this claim and has proven that despite large partisan leanings, Democrats have been able to overcome such roadblocks to either run competitive elections or outright win them. It will be an extremely difficult task for Democrats if they want to maintain their majorities in both chambers of Congress. While history says it is extremely unlikely, it is not impossible for them. These indications from the special congressional elections and the Kansas referendum vote on abortion have shown us that there are countless single-issue voters throughout the country that have the potential to turn the tides of the “red wave” that was predicted to happen in the 2022 midterms. Only time will tell, but as the elections grow closer, the gap for the Democratic Party is shrinking and bringing both the Senate and even the House of Representatives within striking distance of retention.

Appendix A

This graphic was retrieved from the FiveThirtyEight article by Nathaniel Rakich (see references).

Bryan Goodman is currently the Political Director for Happy Medium. In this role, he consults with both writers and the editing team about specific pieces that could potentially be hot-button issues. He is a graduate student from Valhalla, Westchester County, NY. He attended Westchester Community College for two years before transferring to Binghamton University to complete his undergraduate studies in political science. Bryan is currently enrolled in the 4+1 Master of Public Administration program. Bryan is also passionate about judicial politics and a variety of social/economic issues. His future plans hope to include either law school or a public policy program to further his studies in the field. Bryan hopes to one day be fortunate enough to positively impact as many lives as possible.


Cotton, Tom. 2022a. Via Twitter. August 31. https://twitter.com/TomCottonAR/status/1565139540834222080?s=20&t=BCt3Ld-02GP1GA5lsuaGig.

Cotton, Tom. 2022b. Via Twitter. August 31. https://twitter.com/TomCottonAR/status/1565139542000246784?s=20&t=BCt3Ld-02GP1GA5lsuaGig.

Kapur, Sahil and Thorpe V, Frank. 2022. “McConnell says Republicans may not win Senate control, citing ‘candidate quality.’” NBCNews August 18. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2022-election/mcconnell-says-republicans-may-not-win-senate-control-citing-candidate-rcna43777.

Rakich, Nathaniel. 2022. “What Democrats’ win in Alaska tells us about November.” FiveThirtyEight, September 1. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/what-democrats-win-in-alaska-tells-us-about-november/.

Stanley-Becker, Isaac. 2022. “Misleading Kansas abortion texts linked to Republican-aligned firm.” The Washington Post, August 2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/08/02/kansas-abortion-texts/.

“State of Alaska 2022 Special Election.” State of Alaska. https://www.elections.alaska.gov/results/22SSPG/RcvDetailedReport.pdf.

Templeton, Amelia. 2020. “Oregon becomes 1st state in the US to decriminalize drug possession.” OPB, November 3. https://www.opb.org/article/2020/11/04/oregon-measure-110-decriminalize-drugs/.

“2022 House Forecast.” FiveThirtyEight. https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2022-election-forecast/house/?cid=rrpromo.“

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