2022 Election Preview

Political Environment

Historically, midterm elections in the first term of a presidency are rather textbook in nature. Whichever party has recently won the presidency tends to face an unfavorable electoral environment. On average, the party in power loses 36 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and faces challenges in races from the top to the bottom of tickets in all kinds of states.

In 2018, two years after President Trump was elected, Wisconsin Democrats swept every race at the top of the ticket including U.S. Senate, governor, attorney general, and state treasurer. Nationally, Democrats picked up 40 seats in Congress and flipped seven governor’s offices from red to blue.

Will 2022 yield similar results? Early indications were an emphatic “yes.” The question wasn’t whether there was going to be a “red wave,” but rather what the size of it would be. With the economy teetering on recession status, gas prices higher than they have been in years, inflation at historic levels and refusing to cool down, mortgage rates nearly doubling, and the stock market dipping into bear territory for the better part of a year, economic angst has firmly set in. Factor in President Biden, whose approval numbers have hovered around 40 percent for the last year, and the environment would appear to have Republicans positioned for epic victories at every level.

Enter the Dobbs decision. The U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade in June has added an element of doubt into election forecasts. Right after the June 24 decision, the environment shifted. Whether this was a temporary shift or one that will have an impact on November races remains to be seen. The generic ballot shifted from consistently showing a preference for Republican candidates to voters narrowly choosing the generic Democratic candidate.

While there weren’t many non-primary elections that took place shortly after June 24, there were a couple notable races in which the Dobbs decision played a role. In Kansas an amendment to prohibit abortion was on the ballot. It failed by a sizeable vote of 59 to 41 percent, significantly outpacing the expected margin based on polling. There were also several special elections that took place where the Democratic candidate performed substantially better than what polling had suggested pre-Dobbs.

Where does that leave us with less than two weeks before Election Day? Republicans appear to be positioned to easily win the U.S. House, and the cascade of recent polls show them having regained the lead in generic ballot tests. Dobbs was four months ago, and economic concerns are omnipresent in every district. All things considered, the environment should still favor Republicans both nationally and in Wisconsin.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R) vs. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D)

To fully understand this race, it must be considered in the context of the national landscape. Democrats have a working majority in the U.S. Senate by virtue of holding the presidency, with Vice President Harris accounting for the 51st vote in an otherwise 50-50 split. Republicans will control the Senate if they net one seat this cycle. The Democrats need to break even to hold control, but the party would rather like to pick up two seats to avoid needing Sens. Manchin and Sinema for every vote. Additionally, Democrats will be on the defensive in 2024 and want to protect seats now given likely losses in two years.

Early on, many predicted Wisconsin to be possibly the top U.S. Senate race in the country for both sides, but that calculus has changed. Toss-ups in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and potentially close races in several other states have broadened the playing field and lessened the focus on Wisconsin. Based on available polling there are still up to nine seats in play heading down the stretch, and in an environment where Democrats need to protect all the seats they have, Wisconsin is receiving less attention from national Democratic players.

Does this mean those national players have given up on Barnes? Not necessarily, but it does strengthen Johnson’s position. Coming into this race, Johnson’s favorability was among the worst in the country and he was considered the most vulnerable Republican incumbent. Yet shortly after the primary, when the first post-election Marquette Poll showed Barnes with a 7-point lead, Johnson and allies went on the attack.

Significantly outspending Barnes and his allies, they defined him with a relentless barrage of negative ads, mostly focused on crime, taking over control of the race. Johnson has led in every subsequent poll. The RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight polling averages show Johnson with 2.7 and 2.6 percentage point leads, respectively. The FiveThirtyEight election forecast rates Johnson as “favored to win,” winning 76 out of 100 simulations of the election.

While Barnes and allies will match and perhaps even outspend Johnson in the final weeks, the die may have been cast already when Johnson was able to define Barnes negatively with little counter-messaging in response. At the same time Johnson has also improved his favorability numbers and is rock solid with Republican voters. Even if Barnes had run a perfect campaign, the environment as it relates to the economy is likely too much to overcome.

Still, with two weeks to go, Barnes is close enough in recent polling to pull it off if turnout in Wisconsin hits the sweet spot of an increased vote total in Milwaukee, increased vote totals from young women voting because of Dobbs, and increased turnout on campus.  These are all realistic goals when you factor in President Obama’s visit to Milwaukee, some evidence of more young women registering to vote in Wisconsin post-Dobbs, and rumors of increased turnout efforts on campuses. That said, going into Election Day, one would much rather be in Johnson’s position than Barnes’.

Gov. Tony Evers (D) vs. Tim Michels (R)

This race has turned out to be a true toss-up to this point. Neither candidate has been able to establish much of a lead in any of the polling and while the environment certainly favors the challenger, most of the October polling we’ve seen or heard about shows Evers tied or with a narrow lead.

Michels entered the race for governor months after his established primary opponent, Rebecca Kleefisch, who had been raising money, building her team, and barnstorming the state. Michels was able to use his personal wealth combined with an endorsement from Trump to quickly close any advantage Kleefisch had, beating her handily in the August 9 primary.

Michels is running as a political outsider and successful businessman with a blue-collar vibe who wants to put Wisconsin on the right track (as an aside, polling shows the vast majority of Wisconsin voters believe the state is on the “wrong track”). Despite his primary win and previous run for U.S. Senate, Michels was still largely unknown to voters. Similar to Johnson’s strategy against Barnes, Evers and allies were aggressive out of the gate in running negative ads on Michels. The ads focused predominantly on abortion and Michels’ position on it. Advertising from Michels in the first few weeks after the primary lagged Evers, allowing him to blunt Michels’ post-primary momentum.

This race remains one of the tightest in the country. FiveThirtyEight shows Evers with a 0.6 percentage point lead and has forecast Evers winning 55 out of 100 times in simulated elections. The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Evers with a 1-point lead.

Three things I like if I’m Team Evers:

  1. Turnout models that show polling under increased turnout scenarios seem to benefit me. If in fact there are more young women voting due to Dobbs (and there is some evidence of this), I should be in a stronger position than what current polls show.
  2. Even with Michels being able to spend millions of his own dollars, I’ve raised record amounts for a Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial candidate and have spent it effectively. The negative attacks on Michels have blunted his momentum and increased his unfavorables.
  3. At the height of high gas prices and inflation, I still held a lead or remained even in the polls. With gas prices dropping a bit, it may soften the focus on the economy.

Three things I like if I’m Team Michels:

  1. The current environment is poison for Democrats. The two biggest concerns for Wisconsin voters this year are the economy and crime and I have a better story to tell on both. Evers only won by 30,000 votes in a very favorable environment four years ago, so it is hard to imagine that he can hold on here.
  2. Our negative ads are working. Since September, Evers’ favorability and job performance numbers are upside down. Factor in the president’s negative approval rating, and overall, it’s a bad year to be a Democrat. Messages on crime that dovetail with Johnson’s attacks on Barnes help us win back some of the suburban women we might have lost because of Dobbs or Trump.
  3. Polling shows both in Wisconsin and nationally that Republicans are more enthusiastic about voting. If there is higher turnout it could very well be in places that benefit Republicans.

For a full list of state executive and legislative candidates and other information about the 2022 elections, check out our issue update page.