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While the results of recent statewide elections in Virginia and New Jersey led to headlines featuring words such as “shocking” and “upset,” a more careful survey of the data and an understanding of the nature of the swing of the political pendulum show that both Glenn Youngkin’s (R) victory in Virginia and Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D) narrow win in New Jersey were predictable. As the moon changes the tide, these election results were part of a cycle that has now kicked off a series of political and legislative consequences that will greatly affect the construction industry and all Americans.

Setting aside the fact that Republicans have historically won gubernatorial elections in Virginia (two out of the last four, four out of the last eight and seven out of the last 14), to characterize Youngkin’s victory as a surprise based primarily on President Joe Biden’s 10-point win in 2020 is to ignore the vast and turbulent changes in recent public opinion and the importance of a well-messaged campaign. 

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McCauliffe’s misguided approach to several particularly important issues, including education and taxes, stood in stark contrast to the Youngkin campaign’s ability to capture and motivate the Republican base without alienating young and independent voters by maintaining a consistent, coherent message. More importantly, Youngkin—and many down-ballot Republicans across the board, including the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, and the new Republican majority in the Virginia House of Delegates—were identified as agents of change on their way to electoral success.

Just as the results in Virginia could have been predicted, so could they in New Jersey, where incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy just barely won a second term (<1%) over Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli. As points of reference on how impressive the Republican’s near victory was, Democrats outnumber Republicans in New Jersey by more than 1 million voters, and Murphy’s margin of victory just four years ago was 14%. The overwhelming common element in both Virginia’s and New Jersey’s gubernatorial and statewide races in 2021 is that people voted for change. 

If applied through a prospective lens, Youngkin’s victory and Ciattarelli’s incredibly close bid, while political in nature, also hold significant legislative consequences. Immediately following the Virginia and New Jersey elections, national Democrats accelerated the timeframe of their short-term legislative priorities on Capitol Hill. For the construction industry, these legislative priorities include the bipartisan, $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill, the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA), as well as the partisan budget reconciliation bill. 

In response to the election results, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, keenly aware of the history of midterm elections and the likelihood that they will lose one, if not both, chambers of Congress in 2022, have chosen to attempt to enact both pieces of legislation as soon as possible. And to their credit, just three days after Election Day, Democrats in the House of Representatives were able to pass the IIJA—although they were bailed out by the 14 Republicans who voted to pass the bill—sending the bill to the president’s desk by a 228–206 vote. However, the partisan budget reconciliation bill faces a much tougher battle in Congress, as the legislation has remained controversial for key Democratic members whose support is needed given the razor-thin margins in both chambers. 

To put the scale of the anticipated change into perspective, since 1902, there have been 30 midterm elections, which together have averaged the gain or loss of 30 seats in Congress and three in the Senate. In the last three midterms, that average change has jumped to 40 seats in Congress and four in the Senate. If past is prologue, then Democrats would be slated to lose their majorities by wide margins in 2022, just as they did in 2010. 

Moving into 2022, there are three key factors that will determine just how far the political pendulum might swing away from the Democrats in power: temperature, candidates and maps.

The Temperature

Throughout 2022, political prognosticators will continue to keep a close watch on national indicators that typically describe the intensity of the American electorate’s party preferences, most notably the president’s approval rating, the generic ballot and the answer to the question: Is America on the right track, or headed in the wrong direction?

Current trend lines are not in Democrats’ favor. An average of recent polling has President Biden’s approval rating at 42.9%, which is comparable to then-President Trump’s approval rating at the same point in his presidency. Additionally, as of early November, Republicans are dead-even with Democrats on the generic ballot (the question of “Which party do you favor if the election were today?”)—which is a welcome development for the GOP. According to recent polling, an overwhelming majority of voters (63%) believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction. While a number of unforeseen variables beyond the gravitational pull of history could profoundly change the temperature of these metrics over the next several months, as it currently stands, it is reasonably predictable that in 2022, Republicans will win +/-35 seats in the House and at least three or four in the Senate. 

The Candidates

The outcome of the 2022 elections will also be a measure of which party produces the more electable candidates in their relative states and districts. As a measure of potential success for Congressional Republicans, a trend worth noting from the successful 2020 election campaigns is that every seat flipped by House Republicans in 2020 was won by either a woman, a person of color or a veteran/former service member. This trend can also be seen in the Virginia 2021 success story, as Gov.-elect Youngkin was joined by Winsome Sears as lieutenant governor—the first black woman to be elected to serve statewide—and by Jason Miyares as attorney general, the first Latino so elected.

The Maps

As laid out in the U.S. Constitution, in a year following a census, candidates for the House are subject to the redistricting process in each state. This all-important congressional line-drawing process seems to be a relative wash in terms of favoring either party. While Colorado, Michigan and Oregon look to be the swing states that could become national redistricting hot points, partisan trifectas in certain states will lead to some partisan lines and congressional seat-flipping. Democrats will attempt to flip as many as five seats in New York, two in Illinois and one in New Mexico. All of this is easier said than done, and Democrats run the risk of stretching their coalition too thin—thus potentially weakening some of the seats they currently control. Republicans, meanwhile, will try to counter Democratic gains with favorable lines in Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, Ohio and Tennessee.  

For Senate candidates, the map has an entirely different meaning. To pick up the single seat needed to gain a majority in the 50-50 Senate, Republicans first will need to defend seats in 20 states. Successfully defending that sheer volume of seats up for reelection will be a difficult task. Further, should Republicans be able to keep all of their seats, they will still need to flip at least one Democratic seat. With competitive races coming across the country in Republican-held Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Democrats will need to protect increasingly vulnerable incumbents in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire in order to retain their single-seat majority. 

The Bottom Line 

The bottom line is that results from the 2021 Virginia and New Jersey elections proved to be reasonably predictable data points reflecting America’s interest in change. With the future makeup of America’s deliberative bodies on the line in less than one year, for Democrats to have a chance to retain their control in Congress, they would need to pass and sell their full agenda to the American people, hope that Republicans make mistakes in selecting candidates and defy the heavy gravitational pull of history. 

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