By Dan Sally

In the run up to the midterms, much of the focus was on battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Arizona which would have a heavy influence on the balance of power in the Senate. Many have been surprised by how close these races have been, expecting the party in power to be dragged down by inflation and talk of recession.

Looking at these races alone, it’s difficult to discern any national trend in voter sentiment. So far, each party has managed to flip only one seat, making their net gain zero. It would be easy to assume Americans are largely split on which party can point the country in the right direction.

The midterms also had a few less discussed races that were closer than they should have been. In examining these, it becomes clear that Americans aren’t divided on party lines, but are looking for more choices.

Utah’s Senate Race

The only way to find a political office safer than that of Utah’s seat in the US Senate would be to return to monarchy. Incumbent Republican Mike Lee of Utah hasn’t lived in a time when his home state sent a Democrat to the US Senate, and his state has swung Republican in presidential elections by margins of over 20 percent.

Unsurprisingly, he won re-election by a fairly safe margin. What was usual was his chief opponent, Evan McMullin. McMullin, a former republican advisor and CIA operative, launched an independent bid for US Senate, citing the “unmooring of truth” in American politics.

At times, McMullin appeared close to winning a plurality of the vote, with two other minor party candidates polling in the single digits. While Lee ultimately widened the gap and won reelection, McMullin outperformed any prior rival to the Republican incumbent by over 10 percent of the popular vote. 

Oregon’s Governor’s Race

Similar to Utah, Oregon’s governor’s mansion has a long history of being occupied by a single party. The last time Oregonians elected a Republican for governor was in 1987.

As with Utah, Democratic nominee Tina Kotek should have coasted to victory against her Republican rival, Christine Drazan. It wasn’t until 48 hours after polls closed in Oregon that Kotek was finally declared the winner.

Kotek’s bid for election was complicated by Betsy Johnson, a longtime Democratic legislator who entered the race as an Independent. Similar to McMullin, Johnson’s campaign was based on dissatisfaction with the state of party politics, citing the “excesses and nonsense of the extreme left and radical right.”

Polling showed all three candidates evenly matched until Johnson’s support began to wane as election day approached. That aside, she still managed to garner enough votes to keep the outcome of the election in question longer than normal.

What all this means

Both races show a sizable number of Americans aren’t happy with their choice of candidates. While a small percentage of voters could be seen as a protest vote in a reliably Red or Blue state, these margins are significant enough to threaten the party in power and should give those concerned with their party’s future pause.

This trend is backed up further in closer races across the country. In Nevada, which offers voters the option to vote for “none of the above,” the number of votes cast for no candidate was greater than the margin between the two major party candidates at the time of writing. The same goes for Georgia, where Libertarian Chase Oliver garnered 2.1 percent of the vote, while the margin between Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker is under 1 percent.

Both are elections where voters knew their vote could ultimately decide control of the Senate, and a meaningful number of those voters still chose a protest vote.

What’s clear is that the current nominating system isn’t delivering voters the types of choice they want in elections. Closed primaries are part of the problem, as candidates have to appeal to more extreme voters in order to win nominations. Running open primaries where any voter can participate or implementing a final five system of voting as is used in Alaska could help.

The major parties could also help themselves by implementing ranked choice voting, which would prevent Independent candidates from serving as spoilers. In such a system, candidates like Kotek and Lee could garner the second choice votes of candidates such as Johnson and McMullin, and not have to worry about being the candidate responsible for breaking their parties’ winning streak.

While much is made of the division in American politics, it seems the majority of Americans are feeling shut out of the process by systems that listen more to the parties than voters at large. Changing elections to better represent that majority would benefit both candidates and the voters they want to serve.

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Dan Sally serves on the Digital Strategy Council of Rank the Vote and is host of the podcast ‘You Don’t Have to Yell’, which discusses today’s most pressing issues without the partisan spin.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.