The Good, the Bad, and the 2022 Midterms
When voters who haven’t already voted go to the polls Tuesday to cast their ballots it will be with the Senate very much in play and Democrats needing a miracle to prevent a Republican takeover of the House.
Midterms having historically provided rebukes to even reasonably successful first-term Presidents, with the party of the sitting President losing an average of twenty-eight and four House and Senate seats respectively, Democrats should consider themselves lucky: in the face of record-high inflation, skyrocketing mortgage rates, geopolitical chaos, and political witch hunts at home they stand an unlikely chance of retaining de facto control of the Senate.
In the House, things are setting up to just be terrible for the Democrats Tuesday, with FiveThirtyEight giving the party just a seventeen percent chance of holding on to the lower chamber. Particularly in the usually blue New England, Democrats find themselves trailing a host of self-described moderate or centrist Republicans. Indeed, having spent years fumbling the ball on basic issues like crime, Democrats are now having to allocate precious dollars down the homestretch to districts in places like suburban Portland, which have long been reliable strongholds.
Needing to flip just five seats, polls suggest Republicans have been gaining ground in the closing weeks in the northeast and northwest, in places like New Hampshire and Washington, at the same time Democrats appear on the cusp of setting a new low in their appeal to rural and middle American voters. With suburban white women, a key demographic for the Democrats in 2018 and 2020, reportedly increasingly focused on bread-and-butter issues, the Democrats’ strategy of focusing on abortion rights looks like it may turn out to have been a mistake. The exception may be in Michigan, where a pro-life ballot proposal is on the ballot as well.
With the Senate currently split, for the Democrats to retain their de facto control they must defend all fourteen seats their party has up for reelection, a tall order given that the Cook Political Report projects they can count on just eleven. However, as Mitch McConnell hinted in August, “candidate quality” may just allow the Democrats to manage narrow wins in the few true toss-ups on the map. But while Dr. Oz, Herschel Walker, and Blake Masters have their deficiencies, in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona, the Democrats have seen their own deficient candidates’ large leads in polls evaporate over the past month. Due to a combination of poor debate performances, worsening inflation, and increased Republican ad spending, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona are all too close to call, with Nevada and increasingly New Hampshire in play for Republicans as well.
In Pennsylvania, sitting Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman (D) looked far from recovered from his midsummer stroke in the only debate; contrasted with a polished television performer in Dr. Oz (R), the fact that the political newcomer said little of substance but said it well beat the low bar set for him and helped put Pennsylvania in play.
Meanwhile, in Georgia the incumbent Raphael Warnock (D) has had difficulty generating any separation from the scandal-plagued football star and political novice Herschel Walker (R). Warnock, who likely only won his seat in the 2021 runoff special election against Kelly Loeffler because Trump sabotaged Republican turnout in the wake of his own defeat, has further been unable to distance himself from the Biden administration – a problem many fellow Democrats are encountering.
Burdened with the Democrats’ record over Biden’s first two years and a worsening economic outlook, Warnock has turned to the same playbook embraced by many Democrats facing tough races tomorrow: Doing what they can to distance themselves from the Biden administration where desirable, as on crime or the border, while drawing as much attention as possible to abortion rights and the “threat to democracy” posed by their GOP opponents.
Of course, many of these so-called threats to the survival of the state were helped through their GOP primaries by funding from Democratic groups seeking what they believed would be a more advantageous matchup in the eventual general election several months from then. The strategy, either entirely hypocritical, in that Democrats are purposefully stoking and amplifying what they know not to be an actual threat, or so cynical, in that Democrats really believe no Republican, even ones who voted to impeach Trump, can be trusted not to "destroy democracy," as to make the question of how that still much talked about "common ground" might be found moot.
...Except, of course, when it comes to foreign policy, where both Republicans and Democrats consider courting conflict with either China, Russia, or both a given.
The Arizona Senate race, featuring incumbent Russia-hawk Mark Kelly (D) and his China-hawk challenger Blake Masters (R), is representative of the general problem. Like the others, Arizona remains too close to call.
Having gotten the races he wanted, Trump will be watching along with everyone else Tuesday to see whether his anointed candidates are able to pull off what just a few months ago, seemed an improbable sweep.
With thirty-six governor’s mansions up for grabs, the races to watch may be in Florida, California, and Michigan where the question isn’t so much whether the incumbents will win but by how much. All three, Ron DeSantis (R), Gavin Newsom (D), and Gretchen Whitmer (D) have raised massive amounts of cash, built national profiles, have D.C. connections, and at this point look to be top names for their respective parties in 2028. A longer shot in her race, but nonetheless likely trying to position herself for another White House run, it will be interesting to see whether Stacey Abrams (D) will this time acknowledge the outcome of her projected loss to incumbent Brian Kemp (R).
An amalgam of top polls unsurprisingly shows bread and butter issues dominating the preoccupations of voters, with geopolitics given particularly low priority. Also of note, but difficult to interpret, is the high percentage of voters who say they are concerned about threats to democracy: for both Democrats and Republicans, for their own reasons, claim democracy is under threat.
For Republicans, their midterm message has been consistent and straightforward: from crime to the economy, inflation and the border, the relationship between parents and schools, Joe Biden and the Democrats are screwing it all up.
While the New York Times reported that, as early as late August, some Democrats privately favored moving to confront Republicans directly over these issues rather than skirting them with continued emphasis on abortion access and attacks on their rivals’ candidacies rather than policies, to try and make the case to voters that Republicans will be unable to seriously slow inflation any faster than their Democratic colleagues, and further that hypothetical future cuts by Republicans to health care or entitlements would hurt the average American, the shift in messaging never materialized.
One note of caution for GOP optimists remains. For despite the polls showing Republicans making gains in the weeks and days leading up to the election, a reported record number of mail in and early votes will need to be added to the tallies. Considering prior mail-in voting patterns favored Democrats, as did polls in some critical battleground states until just a few weeks ago, a repeat of the late whipsaw swings in vote totals seen in 2020 might be again on display and may leave us waiting until Wednesday to know whether the Republicans have captured both chambers of Congress.