Are Republicans losing their midterm edge?

·5 min read
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Democrats have been bracing for a potential drubbing in the November midterm elections. Republicans have been expecting to decisively win back control of the House, and take a narrow majority in the Senate. The party in control of the White House almost always loses ground in midterm elections, and Republicans only need slim gains to take control of the 50-50 Senate, or the House, where Democrats hold a 221-214 majority. With President Biden's approval rating at or near the lowest point of his presidency, and inflation at a 40-year high, Democrats appeared headed toward disaster.

But the party pulled ahead of Republicans last week in polls forecasting results on the generic ballot, according to an analysis by poll tracker FiveThirtyEight. Democrats had 43.9 percent support for control of Congress as of Aug. 15, edging ahead of Republicans, who had 43.4 percent. A month earlier, the GOP led with 44.7 percent support to the Democrats' 42.9 percent, but Democrats began catching up after the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that protected abortion rights nationwide. FiveThirtyEight now says Democrats have a 61 percent chance to keep or even increase their Senate majority, and a 21 percent chance to hold onto the House. Have Republicans lost their edge heading into the November general elections?

The future is suddenly brighter for Democrats

"Just a few short months ago, the Democratic Party was facing disaster," says the Chicago Tribune in an editorial. Gasoline prices were surging above $5 per gallon in many places, plunging stocks were "giving 401(k)s a painful 2022 haircut," and inflation was "cleaning out wallets and purses at grocery stores." Republicans appeared poised to pull off a "midterm rout" and take firm control of Congress. But "the Supreme Court's actions, and well-stoked fears of what might be to come in those extremist chambers, have re-energized the Democratic base. Then we had the drip, drip of the Jan. 6 hearings (Republicans having made a mistake when they chose not to participate and thus lost any control of the narrative)." Democrats still have to contend with President Biden's low approval ratings and widespread concerns about the state of the economy, but we're witnessing a "strikingly sudden recovery of Democratic fortunes."

Recent elections show the momentum has shifted

Two recent special House elections provided a "real-world field test of the national political climate," says Matthew Yglesias at Bloomberg. In Minnesota, the Democratic candidate lost, but "ran about 3 percentage points ahead of Joe Biden's 2020 margin in the district and about even with Democrats' 2020 candidate for the seat." A race in Nebraska had a similar result. Alone, these two elections wouldn't mean much, but they're consistent with the generic-ballot polling, which looks a lot like 2020 before the Democrats won. Three things account for the "turnaround." First, falling gas prices resulted in "0 percent total inflation in July." Then, Republicans failed to come up with a "convincing argument against Democrats' Inflation Reduction Act" — even though it delivers innovations to increase U.S. energy production "Republicans say they want." And "last but by no means least, the overturning of Roe v. Wade leaves Republicans playing with political dynamite."

Overturning Roe was the game-changer

"Time for a quick historical gut check," says Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight. In 19 midterm elections since World War II, the president's party has gained House seats just twice (1998 and 2002), and lost fewer than five seats once (1962). And there were special circumstances in all three of those cases. President John F. Kennedy's Democrats lost just four House seats and gained three Senate seats in 1962 following the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. George W. Bush's Republicans gained seats in 2002 thanks to a similar "rally-around-the-flag" boost after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bill Clinton's Democrats picked up seats in 1998 after he became the first president in 130 years to be impeached, which enough people saw as partisan overreach to provoke an electoral backlash. This year, the overturning of Roe v. Wade could be what makes this an "asterisk election," as we saw when voters in the deeply red state of Kansas this month overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative that would have allowed state lawmakers to ban abortion.

Republicans can regain control over the debate

Democrats did appear to get a turnout boost in Kansas due to "fervor to protect abortion rights," says The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. And they could get a similar "voter surge" in November from abortion referendums on ballots in California, Kentucky, Montana, and Vermont. They'll also do everything they can to keep former President Donald Trump "front and center in the campaign," with help from last week's FBI raid on his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida. "That could backfire if GOP voters spy a case of unequal and retributive justice," and Trump's handling of the matter will help determine how that plays out. "Democrats would prefer to talk until November — really, until the end of time — about Mr. Trump." Republicans can regain the advantage by "making the midterms a referendum" on President Biden's first two years in office. But the "lesson of recent primaries is that this election is far from won, even in the House," so the GOP can't take anything for granted.

The pendulum will swing back to the GOP

Don't read too much into the Democrats' "supposed 'vibe shift,'" says Erick Erickson in The Journal. Their party often enjoys a polling surge in late summer. In 2020, they had a 6.8 percent edge on the generic ballot, but it shrank to 3.1 percent by that November, as a "GOP wave" nearly swept the party into control of the House and Senate. Maybe Republicans, who tend to have more kids, are taking last-minute vacations before school starts, or just "not responding to pollsters." The polls will swing back as it dawns on people that even though Democrats are trumpeting flat prices in July, the annual inflation rate was actually 8.5 percent. The prices of gas and, well, just about everything, are up sharply since Biden took office. "Democrats can get their friends in the press to spin out tales of vibes and momentum, but the data tells the real story. Democrats' hopes will kill them like their policies have killed our economy."

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