This year’s midterms are the first chance for Americans to grade Joe Biden and congressional Democrats on how they've been running the country for the past two years.
Typically midterms don't go well for the party in power, and Democrats are defending razor-thin majorities in Congress, as one-third of the Senate and the entire House is up for grabs this fall amid a tumultuous time for the country.
Republicans were giddy at the start of 2022 given Biden’s shaky first year in office that was defined by legislative failures and economic woes caused by historic inflation squeezing people's wallets.
For much of this year, the president’s approval ratings were languishing with most voters saying the country was headed in the wrong direction and independents siding with Republicans.
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Many political observers were forecasting a massive red wave that would sweep the GOP into power.
But a relatively successful summer legislatively coupled with the conservative-leaning Supreme Court striking down abortion as a constitutional right has given Democrats and their voters an adrenaline rush as the last leg of the Nov. 8 relay approaches.
Progressive elected officials and activists were also delighted that former President Donald Trump gobbled up so much of the political narrative. During the primaries, Trump flexed his influence in a tussle with Republican rivals that helped polarizing candidates capture nominations and, with it, boosted the once-dismal electoral prospects of Capitol Hill Democrats.
What’s at stake in November is more than just control of Congress and the next presidential contest, however.
Across the country vital statewide elections are being held, including 36 gubernatorial contests that feature many incumbents seeking reelection who dealt with the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic and other topics Washington failed to handle.
Here is a guide to the 2022 elections
The latest midterm developments you need to know
Primary season is over, and six months of intraparty political battles revealed one basic conclusion: The Democrats are in better shape for the November elections than previously thought.
A midterm race once thought to be determined in favor of Republicans by the old adage "It's the economy, stupid" is being redefined in favor of Democrats with a cross-party rallying cry to save abortion rights.
The Supreme Court is already having a big impact on this year's midterm elections. And the court's docket for the term that begins in October is all but certain to have major repercussions for the 2024 presidential election.
Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced a national abortion ban that would prohibit the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy and provide a Republican response to a politically charged issue that could be galvanizing for Democrats this fall.
Who is running?
Democrats currently hold a 9-seat majority in the House.
It takes 218 seats to control the chamber. The vast majority of races are considered safe for both parties, which means about three-dozen districts rated as toss-ups are going to decide who runs things.
Among the most interesting will be in Colorado, which gained a brand new congressional seat following the 2020 Census count. The new district, which extends north from the Denver suburbs to Greeley, is competitive: President Joe Biden won the area in 2020, for instance, while Trump won it in 2016.
With the Senate at 50-50 (Democrats control the chamber thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote), the GOP needs a net gain of a single seat to regain the majority.
There are at least two toss-up races — Georgia and Nevada — where Democratic incumbents are on the defensive, but the map has tightened for Republicans too in places such as Wisconsin and Ohio.
One place where Democrats think they can stiff arm GOP gains is Pennsylvania, which opened up after Republican incumbent Pat Toomey announced his retirement.
Now voters must pick between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz in a race that has been defined by social media snipes as much as important policy differences.
Fetterman returned to the campaign trail after a three-month hiatus following a stroke, while Oz has had to defend himself from his ties to New Jersey (he has reportedly lived in the Garden State for decades) and accusations of carpetbagging.
At the state level, gubernatorial candidates are facing a series of different challenges that mirror the debates in Washington, including how they plan to handle violent crime, voting rights and abortion access in light of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.
The headline race is a Georgia rematch between Republican incumbent Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is struggling to gain traction this time around.
Summer polls show Kemp’s popularity remains strong after beating a Trump-backed challenger, but the Abrams campaign received some good news this week after a Quinnipiac University survey found the race "too close to call."
Kemp held 50% of likely voters compared to 48% for Abrams in a poll with a 2.7% margin of error.
Besides the candidates, voters in multiple states have other choices to consider in the form of ballot initiatives dealing with major public policy questions.
There will be least five states — California, Michigan, Montana, Kentucky and Vermont — are asking voters to weigh-in on abortion.
Another five — Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota — will give people the chance to legalize marijuana for residents age 21 or older; and Colorado is giving voters the opportunity to allow the use of certain psychedelics.
Believe it or not, voters in five states are going to be asked whether slavery and/or involuntary servitude should be abolished too. The issue is part of a larger criminal justice reform movement aimed at prison labor.
Polls show Biden's approval ratings inching up
Biden's approval rating has improved following a series of legislative wins like the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and the most significant gun control bill in decades, coupled with falling gas prices.
A Siena College/New York Times poll this week found 42% of respondents approved of how Biden is doing his job as president, compared to 53% who disapproved.
In the same poll, respondents said they were more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate than the Republican candidate in their district, 46%-44%. The poll surveyed 1,399 registered voters nationwide, with a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points.
In the most recent USA TODAY/Suffolk University polls, Democratic candidates led in two Senate battlegrounds.
In a poll of Ohio released Monday, GOP candidate J.D. Vance and Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan were virtually tied in the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman, with Ryan leading Vance 46.6%-45.6%.
In Nevada, incumbent Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto faces Republican Adam Laxalt in what is expected to be one of the most competitive Senate races in the country. An August survey conducted by Suffolk University and the Reno Gazette-Journal found Cortez Masto leading Laxalt, 45%-38%.
What are the key issues?
The Supreme Court’s landmark decision rolling back Roe cracked open one of the fiercest debates in U.S. history months before the election.
Now Democrats are hoping that it will energize their base in swing districts and battleground states as dozens of anti-abortion laws are being triggered in multiple states.
Conservatives have argued the high court’s ruling tossed abortion back to the states where it belongs, but Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, introduced a bill that would prohibit abortion nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Progressive-leaning candidates and activist say that is further evidence of the importance of keeping Democrats in power to codify reproductive rights.
But Republicans are banking on other concerns being at the forefront of voters' minds: namely a 40-year inflation high that has only slightly eased in the past year as wages remain flat.
August’s inflation levels were up 8.3% from the year prior, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
A USA TODAY/Suffolk Poll released this summer found one out of five voters said the economy in general was the top concern. Another 11% inflation cited inflation as the most important issue.
Conservative leaders also are hoping that they can make the fall elections about crime and immigration as well, which was been thrust to the forefront as Republicans governors have been sending planes carrying undocumented migrants to Democratic states.
In many ads, GOP candidates put a spotlight on a spike in crime rates for major U.S. cities and have tried to connect those increases to the 2020 protests against police brutality.
Democrats in some districts and states, such as Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke, however, have not shied away from focusing on violence.
The May 24 shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and the fight over a national gun control policy could be a decisive factor in several races.
What could also define many of these races is what candidates have said about the last election. There are hundreds of Republican candidates, including some running to oversee election rules as secretaries of state, on the ballot this year who echo Trump's groundless claims of a stolen election in 2020.
The 2024 implications
The result of the midterms will set the table for the 2024 presidential race.
If Democrats suffer significant loses, it will intensify the party's debate about whether the 79-year-old Biden is fit to run for reelection.
Democrats divided: 'We need a change maker': Dems want more from Biden on abortion and climate
On the Republican side there is a different type of conversation, chiefly on what Trump will do and if the GOP should move past the controversial former president.
The same USA TODAY/Ipsos survey, for instance, showed GOP voters want a fighter who will battle for "the freedom and dignity of all Americans."
Many point to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is up for reelection this year, as the most likely heir apparent, which is why Democrats are salivating at the idea of defeating him this fall – a long-shot according to most analysts.
Are midterm campaigns in the debate avoidance era?
One feature of the 2022 cycle is the increasing resistance of Democratic and Republican candidates to face their rivals on the debate stage.
It took weeks of back-and-forth negotiations for Georgia Senate candidates Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock to agree to one debate on Oct. 14.
In Pennsylvania, Fetterman and Oz finally agreed to a single face-off on Oct. 25 after much strife and haggling.
North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Cheri Beasley and Republican Rep. Ted Budd also agreed to a sole debate on Oct. 7.
Democrat Katie Hobbs, Arizona's secretary of state, declined to debate Republican Kari Lake in their gubernatorial race.
In Ohio, Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance has not agreed to debate Democrat Tim Ryan, despite Ryan agreeing to three debates. And Nevada voters may not get one at all after Cortez Masto agreed to three debates but Laxalt has not made it clear if he will do any.
But there are still important debates happening for voters to contrast the candidates.
Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott will debate Democrat Beto O’Rourke on Sept. 30. DeSantis and Democratic challenger Charlie Crist both agreed to debate on Oct. 12. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio debates Democratic Rep. Val Demings on Oct. 18 – in one of the most closely-watched Senate races this year.
Another competitive race to watch: Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly and Republican Blake Masters face off on Oct. 6
When does early voting start?
Americans will get to cast their ballots as soon as next week in some places with early or in-person absentee voting options.
The first states to cast ballots this election cycle are Minnesota, South Dakota, Virginia and Wyoming, who allow early voting beginning Sept. 23.
On Sept. 29, Illinois and Michigan allow votes too.
Most states allow early voting beginning in October:
Oct. 9: Maine
Oct. 10: California
Oct. 11: Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico
Oct. 12: Arizona, Indiana, Ohio
Oct. 17: Georgia
Oct. 19: Iowa, Kansas, Rhode Island, Tennessee
Oct. 20: North Carolina
Oct. 21: Washington
Oct. 22: Massachusetts, Nevada
Oct. 24: Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, South Carolina, Texas
Oct. 25: Hawaii, Missouri, Louisiana, Utah
Oct. 26: West Virginia
Oct. 27: Maryland
Oct. 28: Delaware
Oct. 29: Florida, New Jersey, New York
Oklahoma and Kentucky don’t allow for ballots to be cast early until Nov. 2 and 3, respectively. However, in Kentucky, excused early voters can cast ballots beginning Oct. 26.
In six states – Alaska, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin – early voting dates vary by county and location. And in four others – Alabama, Connecticut, Mississippi and New Hampshire – in-person early voting is not allowed.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2022 midterm election guide: More at stake than control of Congress