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Mixed-Term Elections

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Mixed-Term Elections

Republicans and Democrats can both point to signs of promise—and peril. September 5, 2022
Politics and law

Aviators on and ice cream cone in hand, Joe Biden has leapt into September with the political winds at his back. At least, that’s what his allies say. And even some Republicans fear that Democrats might be poised to dodge or minimize one of the great traditions of American politics: the incumbent president’s party losing seats in the midterms. Only two examples exist in living memory of the incumbent’s party gaining House seats in the midterms, and both involved popular incumbents. In 1998, Bill Clinton benefited from an anti-impeachment backlash, and the September 11 terrorist attacks sent George W. Bush’s approval rating to the moon prior to the 2002 midterms. While still rare, the president’s party gaining seats in the Senate during the midterms has happened a few times since World War II, including as recently as 2018.

On one hand, 2022 doesn’t seem to fit the pattern of 1998 or 2002. With an approval rating in the low forties in many polls, Biden lacks the popularity that helped other presidents avert midterm losses. George H. W. Bush had an approval rating north of 50 percent in the 1990 midterms, and Republicans still lost seats. Moreover, since 1992, every party that has entered the midterms with a trifecta (control of the House, Senate, and presidency) has lost at least one branch of Congress. Democratic majorities in the House are razor-thin, and the Senate is tied 50-50, so losing even a handful of House seats or a single Senate seat would change the balance of power.

On the other hand, Democrats can point to some favorable trends. Since late July, Biden’s approval rating has ticked up from its nadir in the thirties. The Republican advantage in the generic ballot has slipped in many polls. In many battleground Senate races, Democrats have taken small leads and are often running ahead of Biden’s approval rating. In potential majority-maker Senate races (such as in Arizona and New Hampshire), Democrats so far have a major financial advantage. Democratic candidates had stronger-than-expected performances in recent House special elections in New York and Minnesota. In a dramatic special-election upset, Mary Peltola broke a five-decade Republican hold on Alaska’s at-large House seat.

These trends have their limits, though. Especially in many statewide races, polling has become very unreliable. In 2020, nearly every public poll taken of the Maine Senate race had Republican Susan Collins trailing her Democratic opponent (sometimes by double digits). When November rolled around, Collins won by almost nine points. In numerous other 2020 Senate battlegrounds—including Arizona, Iowa, Montana, and South Carolina—Republican candidates outperformed their RealClearPolitics polling average, often by big margins. Polling often showed a Democratic lead in 2018 Senate races in Indiana and Missouri, but Republicans wound up winning both handily. So it might be a mistake to place blind faith in many of the polls showing Democratic leads in key 2022 races, and some pollsters, especially Trafalgar, show Republicans in much stronger position. In many states, Republican candidates are coming out of brutal primaries, and the hard feelings might recede as Election Day nears. The aforementioned special elections in Minnesota and New York were low-turnout affairs, and political analysts have warned against extrapolating from them to national trends. The Democratic victory in the Alaska special election depended upon both the idiosyncrasies of Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system and infighting among the Republican candidates.

Nevertheless, polling does not yet indicate the bottom dropping out for Democrats, who have taken a few strategic steps to position themselves in the midterms. Joe Biden has shifted to a post-pandemic presidency. In 2021, the Biden administration often used Covid policies as a political cudgel. In August 2021, for example, the Department of Education opened up a civil rights investigation of five states that banned mask mandates in public schools. In November of that year, Biden announced that he would impose an OSHA mandate requiring that many employers either vaccinate their workforce or test them for Covid weekly.

By August 2022, the Biden administration had reduced the public salience of Covid policies. The courts blocked many of the administration’s vaccine mandates, and many local vaccine and mask mandates have been dropped. In August, the CDC revised its Covid guidelines to eliminate many earlier recommendations for containment. Outside of a few progressive strongholds, few officials are pushing for a return to widespread indoor masking. Anthony Fauci, perhaps the figure most associated with the Covid pandemic, has announced his retirement from government service.

De-emphasizing Covid has clear political benefits. Despite Biden’s campaign pledge to “shut down” the coronavirus, the disease has circulated throughout his presidency, and the omicron variant rushed through the nation like a wildfire earlier this year. As more health-care experts accept Covid as endemic, the political price for maintaining pandemic interventions has grown. Outrage at the social and personal costs of containment efforts—especially in schools—sparked a furious backlash.

Along with the dialing-back of pandemic interventions, the political landscape has changed. Throughout 2022, Republicans often seemed to pin their electoral hopes on inflation. But complaints about rising prices might not be enough to deliver a political majority. The recent dip in gas prices—perhaps the most visible indicator of inflation for many consumers—also hampers Republican messaging. For many consumer goods, supply-chain shortages do not seem as pressing as in the past; the baby-formula shortage, for instance, is not as acute as it was a few months ago.

The effects of the Dobbs v. Jackson Supreme Court decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade, remain hard to predict. Various polls and turnout numbers in some special elections suggest that Dobbs has helped energize progressive voters. In a post-Roe world, Republicans have at times struggled to articulate public positions on abortion or to counter allegations that some laws to restrict abortion would endanger the lives of women who have life-threatening pregnancies. And Republican efforts to duck the abortion issue have let Democrats set the terms for debates over abortion. In many states, Democrats have attempted to frame the political choice facing voters as one between Republicans who want to ban all abortions and Democrats who want to keep some abortions legal.

Polling indicates that blanket bans on all abortions are much less popular than more targeted restrictions (such as significant restrictions after the first trimester or early in the second trimester with exceptions for rape, incest, or the endangerment of the mother’s life). Popular support for some limitations on abortion could present a political opening to Republicans. Many key Democratic stakeholders increasingly oppose almost any restrictions on abortion. In a recent CNN interview, for example, Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, the Democratic Senate nominee in that state, struggled to articulate any legal restrictions that he would support on abortion. Supported almost unanimously by congressional Democrats, the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2022 would have obliterated many abortion regulations throughout nine months of pregnancy. This more maximalist approach to abortion—imposed on the federal level—seems outside the polled preferences of many American voters as well as the bounds of abortion policy in many other industrialized democracies.

More than Dobbs, though, the summer of 2022 has also been the Summer of Trump. President Biden’s shift to attacking Donald Trump and denouncing “MAGA Republicans” as a threat to democracy is the culmination of a summer-long effort by Democrats (and many in the press) to ensure that Trump looms over the midterms.

Always eager to be the star of the show, Trump himself has aided these efforts. He has made challenging the results of the 2020 election perhaps his central political litmus test, and he continues to float theories about how to overturn the results. The Trump revenge tour targeted many strong general-election Republicans and, in some cases, kept them from running for office. It also distorted the primaries by encouraging candidates to spend time catering to Trump rather than developing a message and substantive platform that could propel them to primary and general-election wins.

Elevating Trump helps Democrats in multiple ways. It further drives engagement among progressive voters and can help keep many independents who voted for Biden from switching to the GOP in November. A Trump-centric focus also harms Republicans by sucking up the oxygen to talk about other issues. Every minute spent talking about the latest Trump controversy is one not spent talking about education, crime, the economy, immigration, or inflation. The 2021 Georgia Senate runoffs offer an example of how dearly a campaign centered on Trump’s 2020 grievances can cost Republicans.

For both Republicans and Democrats, the electoral opportunities and dangers of the next two months reveal broader issues for their respective coalitions. While the Republican trifecta during the first two years of the Trump presidency was wracked by internal division, congressional Democrats have been much more unified and disciplined during Biden’s term. Their party-line reconciliation bills have achieved many long-sought progressive goals, and Democrats also collaborated with Republicans to pass significant bipartisan bills on infrastructure and tech policy, among other issues. If Democrats maintain the House and score two additional seats in the Senate, they could be in position to overturn regular order in the Senate by nuking the legislative filibuster—permanently removing a major moderating guardrail for legislation in the United States.

Yet deeper tensions roil the Democratic coalition. On health care, education, and a host of other issues, hardening progressive orthodoxies on identity may repel both blue-collar voters and white-collar suburbanites. This hard-edged politics of identity goes far beyond rhetoric—such as using “politically correct” terminology—to influence public policy. For instance, a belief in the “injustice” of enforcing much immigration law has led to a rolling back of enforcement and helped worsen a migration crisis on the southern border. Moreover, the dominance of “wokeness” in elite institutions likely makes it harder for progressive policymakers to see outside the assumptions of their own coalition.

Democratic overreach may represent an opportunity for Republicans. To take advantage, Republicans need to focus on key issues with more depth—both to point out the failures of the status quo and to present a forward-looking vision. As some on the right have recently observed, Republicans might also benefit from developing more of a positive policy platform. Empowering parents in education, strengthening tax benefits for families, and regaining control of the border could all be fruitful topics for the GOP. As it has for years, a policy vacuum hinders Republican efforts to build a governing coalition.

Photo: vesperstock/iStock

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