Democrats are feeling stirrings of optimism about November’s midterm elections.
It’s a remarkable shift of mood for a party that had been bracing for heavy defeats only a few weeks ago.
President Biden’s party colleagues believe they have a strong chance of holding onto control of the Senate, at least.
That’s partly because Republican candidates are struggling in key states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona.
It’s also because the Democratic Party’s poll ratings in general have ticked up, as have Biden’s. The president recently hit 44 percent approval, the highest point in a year, in a Gallup poll.
Some of the more optimistic Democrats now believe it might even be possible to hold on to the party’s majority in the House, which is wafer-thin at just five seats.
Holding the House still looks like an uphill climb to most independent experts. But here are five reasons why Democratic fortunes have improved.
Abortion has become a huge issue
The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade, announced in late June, was a crushing defeat for liberals.
But there has been an electoral silver lining, as voters react against what many of them appear to see as a conservative overreach into one of the most intimate areas of their lives.
Polling averages suggest that Democrats began to close the gap on Republicans from virtually the day the decision was announced, and have now all but eliminated the GOP’s edge.
An even louder warning shot was fired by voters in Kansas – an unlikely location for a backlash against conservatism. On Aug. 2, the pro-abortion side ran out the winner by almost 20 points on a ballot measure revolving around whether or not the state constitution should guarantee the right to abortion.
Then, last week, Democrat Pat Ryan defeated Republican Marc Molinaro in a special House election in New York’s 19th district.
Ryan campaigned hard on abortion rights and carried the district – a classic bellwether that went for former President Obama in 2012, former President Trump in 2016 and President Biden in 2020.
Republicans still hope that the economy, and particularly inflation, will dominate voters’ minds come November.
But the abortion issue has, at the very least, put that thesis into question.
The Trump Wars have resumed
The 45th president can dominate the news like few other people – but he often does so to the detriment of his party.
The FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate on Aug. 8 has opened yet another chapter in the tumultuous Book of Trump.
The Department of Justice is investigating possible violations of three laws – the Espionage Act, another statute regarding obstruction and a third focused on wrongful destruction of documents.
Much remains unknown despite the unsealing last week of a 32-page affidavit. The affidavit, which convinced a federal magistrate there was probable cause to believe a crime had been committed, was heavily redacted.
The former president has, characteristically, been venting that he is the victim of an unfair and politically driven injustice. That may be enough to intensify the ardor of his MAGA base, but it’s not persuasive to everyone.
In an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) stated outright that Trump should have turned over all the documents in his possession.
Blunt also lamented that “less than 100 days before the election, suddenly we’re talking about this rather than the economy or inflation.”
The Mar-a-Lago story is only the most dramatic element in the ongoing Trump drama.
The enmity between the former president and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has bubbled to the surface once again.
McConnell’s recent remarks on the importance of “candidate quality” in winning Senate races was widely interpreted as a jab at Trump endorsees who have run into difficulties, including Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia, Blake Masters in Arizona and J.D. Vance in Ohio.
Trump duly shot back that McConnell was a “broken down hack politician.”
Whatever the merits of the back-and-forth, it was another example of the kind of internal party feuding that tends to turn independent voters off.
Gas prices have dipped
For most of the first half of this year, gas prices moved up and Biden’s approval rating moved down.
Over the summer, that trend has largely reversed.
Gas prices hit their peak in mid-June when the national average price for a gallon of regular gas crested above $5. That spelled real pain for millions of Americans, especially those on the tightest budgets.
But prices have fallen consistently since then. On Tuesday, according to the AAA, the national average stood at $3.84.
The White House has sought to focus attention on the steady decline. Biden aides believe – with some justification – that the fall in fuel costs hasn’t got anywhere near the same media coverage as did the rise.
When the price fell below $4 per gallon earlier this month, the head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Cecilia Rouse, said the decline was giving “much needed breathing room for families across the country.”
However, there are several caveats worth nothing.
Gas prices are still significantly higher than they were a year ago. The decline in prices appears to be driven in part by the belief that a recession could be coming. And some of the claims made by the White House – like its seizing on a CNN article that claimed the recent fall in gas prices amounted to “a $100-a-month raise” for American families – are a stretch.
But the bottom line remains: Prices are down, and that’s good for the president and his party.
Biden has hit a hot streak
Turn the clock back three months, and one of the most common critiques of the Biden administration was that it simply had not done very much.
Things have changed.
The biggest example came with the passage of the $750 billion Inflation Reduction Act in mid-August. The bill enjoyed a Lazarus-like resurrection after it seemed at one point to have been sunk by Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) objections.
But Manchin eventually got back on board following behind-the-scenes negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The bill represents the nation’s most expansive effort yet to tackle climate change. It will also allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices.
Also in August, Biden signed legislation into law to expand health care for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits – an issue on which the GOP got itself into a politically damaging tangle.
August also saw the CHIPS Act become law, aimed at boosting the U.S. semiconductor industry.
Last week, the president also announced that he would wipe out up to $20,000 in student loan debt for some borrowers.
There are plausible doubts about the political efficacy of some of these moves – Biden himself was apparently in two minds for some time on the student loan issue, which Republicans have tried to portray as a giveaway at the expense of those Americans who have never attended college.
Still, in aggregate, Biden has seriously shifted the perception that he had a rudderless first two years in office.
His advocates contend it is one of the most substantive periods for any president since former President Johnson in the 1960s.
Earlier crises are easing
Biden and the Democrats got hit with a blizzard of bad news earlier this year, including supply chain issues that had left some grocery shelves bare, and an infant formula shortage.
The latter issue was especially traumatic. It’s hard to think of any economic issue in recent years that has packed such obvious emotional force.
But the crisis has gradually eased, partly thanks to the relaxing of rules allowing foreign formula to be sold in the United States. Biden’s “Operation Fly Formula” had, by late July, delivered enough formula for more than 60 million bottles, according to the administration.
Supply chain issues, which bedeviled the nation and the global economy as the COVID-19 pandemic faded, are also improving.
Two major indexes tracking the topic – The New York Fed’s Global Supply Chain Pressure Index and Oxford Economics’ U.S. Supply Chain Stress Tracker- have shown an easing for the last several months.
The nation is not out of the woods yet. But the trajectory is much better.
The idea that things are careening out of control – disastrous for any party in power – is receding, too.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
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This story was originally published August 30, 2022 12:42 PM.