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How Democrats were able to perform better than expected in midterm elections

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Despite most projections, Democrats will go into the next Congress in control of the Senate. Their candidates won in pivotal races in Arizona and Nevada over the weekend.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Control of the House remains in the balance. Though, Republicans are on track to win a narrow majority.

FADEL: NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro joins us now. Good morning, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning.

FADEL: So the Senate was always expected to be close. But Democrats have held onto it despite historic trends where the party in power does badly. And now they could even end up with a narrow majority if they win the runoff in Georgia next month. How did this happen?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, a few things. And I think they're intertwined, you know, abortion rights, extreme, Trump-endorsed Republican candidates who lost in big numbers across the country, in swing states and districts, and good candidates from Democrats who held up. Clearly, abortion rights were a huge motivator for voters on not just the left, but also in the center and on the center-right.

FADEL: Yeah.

MONTANARO: It showed up big time in exit polls. It was even the top issue for voters in Pennsylvania overall. More than 60% of voters in key battleground states said they think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. And in Arizona, 40% of voters said they were angry about the overturning of Roe. And anger, we know, really motivates voters to get to the polls.

FADEL: Yeah.

MONTANARO: What the Supreme Court did was clearly seen among voters as too far. And the message overall with abortion and these more hard-right candidates is that people just don't want extremes.

FADEL: What about young voters? There have been assessments that suggest it was young voters that made the difference for the Democrats. Is that what happened?

MONTANARO: I think a lot of groups can make that claim. That was based on, really, one early assessment by Tufts University that found that young voters turned out at about a 27% rate. And if that holds, it would be the second-largest share that we've seen for young voters in quite some time and just short of their record in 2018. But that's only 27%. And it's lower than the share for almost every other generational group.

FADEL: OK.

MONTANARO: And it meant that because so many more groups did turnout at high levels that younger voters' share of the electorate was still only about 12%, which is what it's been in past elections. And when it comes to the margins, they actually voted less for Democrats now than in 2018. And when looking at a couple of key counties where young voters make up a big percentage - say, Dane County in Wisconsin, where the University of Wisconsin is, and Center County in Pennsylvania, where Penn State is - those counties went for Democrats, actually, by smaller margins than they did in 2018. You know, that said, I think that we can at least say that younger voters did not fall off and turnout in lower numbers, as Democrats had feared before the election. And they certainly were part of a coalition that helped Democrats stave off a red wave.

FADEL: What does Democrats holding the Senate mean for the next two years of Biden's agenda?

MONTANARO: I mean, it's hugely important for Biden, you know? Biden can now continue to reshape the federal courts, which would have been completely stopped. You know, and if a Supreme Court vacancy comes up, Biden would still have the power to appoint one. Although, one isn't expected in the next two years. But in light of the Dobbs decision, that's a pretty key presidential power to hold on to. You know, and Biden can likely keep the cap on his veto pen, maintaining the majority will certainly constrain Republicans' ability to pass unified legislation that they would send to Biden.

FADEL: Now, control of the House still up for grabs. Where do things stand there?

MONTANARO: It is. Republicans are on track for a narrow majority at this hour, just six seats away from taking the majority, 19 races uncalled. But that would be a really small majority, looking like only a few seats that Republicans could lose to pass legislation. And we know there's a hard-right faction in the House who's going to want a lot from a potential speaker Kevin McCarthy or whoever winds up being speaker.

FADEL: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thank you so much.

MONTANARO: Hey, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.