With 50 days to go until the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats are riding a wave of enthusiasm, while Republicans are looking to rebound from a grueling primary season and recast the fight for control of Congress as a referendum on President Biden and his party.
The contours of the midterms were unthinkable just a few months ago, when Democrats were bracing for a potential electoral thrashing in November. But a series of developments — most notably the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade — have given the party powerful themes to run on, like abortion rights and the fate of American democracy.
“I’m from South Carolina, and the one thing we know is it’s never good to predict the weather five or six months out,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist and senior adviser to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“Every election is difficult because there are so many things you can and cannot control,” he added. “What I do know is we’ve been able to prioritize the priorities, focus on the focus and deliver the deliverables and I think that’s going to make the difference in the end.”
Republicans still appear poised to win back their House majority thanks to gains made in redistricting and lingering concerns among voters over inflation, the economy and perceived rising crime.
But control of the Senate is much less certain. While the GOP needs to net just one seat to recapture its majority in the upper chamber, a roster of untested — and in some cases controversial — candidates, combined with a series of early campaign trail stumbles, has made achieving that goal more difficult.
Top Republicans are aware of their obstacles. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) acknowledged last month that “there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” before taking a thinly veiled swipe at his party’s candidates in some of the most competitive Senate races: “Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”
The vulnerability of certain GOP candidates is just one aspect of the midterm dynamics that have buoyed Democrats’ hopes. Former President Trump, perhaps the ultimate Democratic boogeyman, has stayed front-and-center in headlines and has begun facing mounting legal threats.
His insistence on injecting himself into Republican primary contests has also bolstered Democrats’ ability to tie GOP candidates to the former president — something that has irked some Republicans.
“We let him run roughshod over the primaries and as a consequence, we ended up with some problematic candidates,” one Republican consultant said.
But perhaps no issue has shaken the political landscape as much as reproductive rights. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion rights case, over the summer, Democrats went on the offensive, warning that Republican control of Congress would almost certainly mean new restrictions on reproductive freedoms.
“We said this in the run-up to Roe and certainly in the aftermath that, if this goes through as we were warned it would, that it would scramble every assumption about the midterms,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist. “All of a sudden, people are basing their vote not on esoteric matters, but on the most personal and most life-impacting issue of all.”
Even Republicans acknowledge that the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling and its aftermath have given Democrats a crucial shot in the arm.
“I think the Democrats have done a very good job at playing up the most restrictive laws and ignoring the more permissive ones and making it an issue that has helped them,” said Saul Anuzis, a Republican strategist and former Michigan GOP chairman. “That is the competitive advantage.”
Anuzis said that the fight over abortion rights has put Republicans in the position of having to defend a policy achievement that they’ve worked toward for decades.
“If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” he said. “It’s a tough spot to be in.”
The Republican National Committee this week issued a memo telling GOP candidates to tighten up their messaging ahead of November, signaling an effort to refocus on topics like the cost of living, crime and the economy — issues that they see as their biggest assets this year.
But despite the massive shifts in the political environment over the past few months, Republicans are still on track to flip control of the House. The GOP needs to net just five seats to recapture its majority, and it appears likely to win three or four thanks to the redistricting process alone.
At the same time, there’s no denying that Democrats are running against history. The party in power almost always loses ground in Congress in midterm elections. And while President Biden’s approval ratings have bounced back from an all-time low in July, they still remain underwater.
“I’d be lying if I told you I was hopeful for the House,” one Democratic strategist said. “These things come down to the national environment, to the president’s approval, and neither of those things are great for us. Maybe if our majority was larger, it’d be a different story.”
The fight for control of the Senate, however, has emerged as a bright spot for Democrats, who now appear favored to hold onto their razor-thin majority.
Some of the party’s incumbents who once looked exceedingly vulnerable, like Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), have held their own in the face of aggressive Republican challenges. Polling out of Arizona routinely shows Kelly leading his GOP rival Blake Masters, while Warnock is statistically deadlocked with his opponent, former football star Herschel Walker.
Meanwhile, Democrats are also staring down opportunities to flip a handful of Republican-held seats. In Pennsylvania, Democratic Lt. Gov John Fetterman is seen as the favorite to win the seat of retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R), with polls showing him comfortably leading his Republican rival, celebrity physician Mehmet Oz.
Likewise, in Wisconsin, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has put up a formidable challenge to Sen. Ron Johnson (R), giving Democrats an opportunity to knock off one of their most-detested Republican targets.
Even in states that once appeared to be longshots for Democrats, the party’s candidates have shocked some political observers with strong performances. Democrats now say they have a chance to flip GOP-held seats in North Carolina, Florida and Ohio — three states that have proven elusive for the party in recent years.
Still, while polling in some of the most competitive Senate battlegrounds shows Democrats making critical gains, there are lingering concerns for the party. With nearly two months to go before Election Day, there’s still time for the political landscape to shift in the GOP’s favor. And strategists on both sides of the aisle caution against reading too far into the polls, noting that they’ve been wrong before.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the Democrats are in a better position on the Senate side,” Anuzis said. “But the numbers that have us behind are coming out of the same places where the polls were really wrong in 2020.”
In one sign that the fight for control of the Senate remains volatile, a Marquette University Law School survey — widely considered to be the gold standard for polling in Wisconsin — found Johnson mounting a comeback against Barnes. The same poll last month showed Barnes with a 7-point edge in the race.
Republicans also believe that they have a chance to bring into play the Senate race in Colorado, where GOP voters nominated a relative centrist, construction company CEO Joe O’Dea, to challenge Sen. Michael Bennet (D).
And with the Senate majority being as slim as it is, Democrats are acutely aware that there’s no room for error.
“[Republicans] don’t need to have a great night to have a good night,” one Democratic consultant, who is working on a hotly contested Senate race this year, said. “All it takes is one seat and everything changes.”
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