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With Georgia’s race still undecided, a look at whether Democrats’ midterm Senate wins are historic
President John F. Kennedy is shown as he ends his official day after 7:30 pm with a final phone call to his press secretary from his Oval Office desk at the White House in Washington, D.C., March 16, 1961. (AP) President John F. Kennedy is shown as he ends his official day after 7:30 pm with a final phone call to his press secretary from his Oval Office desk at the White House in Washington, D.C., March 16, 1961. (AP)

President John F. Kennedy is shown as he ends his official day after 7:30 pm with a final phone call to his press secretary from his Oval Office desk at the White House in Washington, D.C., March 16, 1961. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher December 1, 2022

If Your Time is short

  • Biden is the first Democratic president since John F. Kennedy to see his party avoid a loss in Senate seats in his first midterm.

  • Since Kennedy in 1962, three Republican presidents saw their party gain Senate seats in their first midterms.

  • If Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., defeats Republican Herschel Walker in the Dec. 6 runoff, it will be the first time since 1934 that any president in either party has seen all incumbent senators of his party win re-election.

MSNBC talk show host Lawrence O’Donnell and Ron Klain, President Joe Biden’s White House chief of staff, seemed elated that Democrats kept control of the Senate in the November midterm elections.

O’Donnell interviewed Klain after Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s win determined that Democrats retained at least 50 Senate seats, and thus a majority, given Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. One remaining race in Georgia will be decided in a Dec. 6 runoff.

"Well, I mean obviously, it’s enormously significant," Klain said. 

"Historically, this is something no president’s done since John F. Kennedy — to hold Senate seats and potentially even go up one Senate seat, depending (on) the outcome in Georgia, to keep control of the Senate, which will indeed allow the president to pass legislation in the Senate and, of course, get people confirmed."

Klain’s characterization is vague, but raises an interesting question about whether Democrats’ performance in the Senate midterms is historic. We decided to take a look.

Biden is not alone among all presidents since 1962 when it comes to avoiding a loss of Senate seats. In first midterm elections, three Republican presidents since Kennedy, a Democrat, saw their party make gains in the Senate. They were Richard Nixon in 1970, George W. Bush in 2002 and Donald Trump in 2018.

But he has made history within the Democratic party; Biden is the first Democratic president since Kennedy in 1962 to see his party avoid a loss in Senate seats in his first midterm.  

The Senate map favored Democrats in that all of their vulnerable senators ran in states that Biden carried in 2020, while no Democratic incumbents were running in states that Biden lost, said Jacob Rubashkin, a congressional elections analyst with the Inside Elections newsletter. 

"In an era of increasing partisanship and correlation between presidential outcome and Senate outcome, that put Democrats in a strong starting position," he said.

Party that controls the White House usually loses ground in midterms

Historically, the party that controls the White House has typically lost seats in Congress in the midterm elections, more so in the House than in the Senate.

Political scientists call this the "thermostatic" effect — voters adjust how they vote, as they would a home thermostat. The common pattern is that if a president is a Democrat, Republican voters are more energized to vote, and vice versa; anger motivates voting more strongly than contentment.

In the Senate, midterm losses tend to be worse in a president’s second midterm than in the first.

Democrats held at least 50 seats, with no incumbent losses so far

Democrats gained three Senate seats in the Kennedy midterms, according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

So far in the Nov. 8 midterms, Democrats have secured 50 seats, the number they had before the midterms.

That makes Biden the first Democratic president since Kennedy in 1962 to see his party avoid losses in the Senate in the first midterm election, according to Rubashkin and Molly Reynolds, who oversees the "Vital Statistics on Congress" data set at the Brookings Institution think tank.

  If Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., wins the runoff against Republican Herschel Walker, it will be the first time since 1934 that any president, Democrat or Republican, has seen all incumbent senators of his party win re-election, Rubashkin said. 

Why Democrats performed well

Democrats performed well in the 2022 Senate midterms for several reasons, including the Supreme Court decision eliminating national access to abortion and some Republican candidates being extreme, said Molly Reynolds, who oversees the "Vital Statistics on Congress" data set at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

The June Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade "served as a backstop to the bigger structural forces that usually lead to movement away from the president’s party in the midterms," Reynolds said.

And GOP nominees such as Blake Masters in Arizona "were more extreme than the electorates in those states were willing to support," she said.

Rubashkin said Masters and other GOP nominees such as Walker, Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Don Bolduc in New Hampshire, were "flawed candidates with little or no electoral experience and lots of personal baggage." 

Masters and Bolduc lost to Democratic incumbents; Oz lost in a race for an open seat.

"Voters seem to have valued experience over outsider status, and rejected some of the more extreme positions on abortion and election denial taken by GOP candidates in tough races," Rubashkin said. 

Moreover, Rubashkin said, "voters did not necessarily hold their negative opinions on Biden against Democratic senators. Exit polling shows that voters who ‘somewhat disapproved’ of Biden actually voted for the Democrat more often than the Republican."

RELATED: Potential 2024 contenders, including Trump, keep the focus on 'freedom'
 

RELATED: Herschel Walker’s record on the Truth-O-Meter

RELATED: Raphael Warnock’s record on the Truth-O-Meter

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Our Sources

YouTube, MSNBC "Ron Klain On Democrats’ Historic Midterm Wins," Nov. 14, 2022

MSNBC, "Ron Klain on Democrats’ historic midterm wins," Nov. 14, 2022 

Email, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates, Nov. 18, 2022

Fox News, "Ron Klain wrongly claims Biden first president since JFK to pick up Senate seats in midterm," Nov. 15, 2022

Washington Examiner, "Biden could hit this midterm election milestone not seen since JFK, chief of staff says," Aug. 8, 2022

CNN, "The Lead with Jake Tapper" transcript, Aug. 8, 2022

CNN, "How Joe Biden and the Democratic Party defied midterm history," Nov. 13, 2022

Brookings Institution, "Losses by the President's Party in Midterm Elections, 1862 - 2014," accessed Nov. 17, 2022

University of California Santa Barbara The American Presidency Project, "Seats in Congress Gained/Lost by the President's Party in Mid-Term Elections," accessed Nov. 17, 2022

PolitiFact, "Midterm elections: What does history say? And what could make 2022 different?", Sept. 12, 2022

New York Times, "Despite Discontent, Midterm Voters Did Not Kick Out Incumbents," Nov. 11, 2022

NPR, "The midterms didn't produce a wave. Here's what that's meant historically," Nov. 13, 2022

Email, Jacob Rubashkin, congressional elections analyst with Inside Elections, Nov. 21, 2022

Email, Molly Reynolds, supervisor of the "Vital Statistics on Congress" dataset and senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, Nov. 21, 2022

Email, Barry Burden, professor, Department of Political Science and director, Elections Research Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Nov. 29, 2022

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With Georgia’s race still undecided, a look at whether Democrats’ midterm Senate wins are historic