Two months ago, it seemed that the Democratic Party was headed for a historic rout in this year’s midterm elections – but now, that assessment is being upended.
National Democrats recently achieved a string of significant legislative victories, protecting abortion rights is proving to be a motivating issue for voters across the country and gas prices are steadily on the decline.
As the general election campaign begins to take shape, it’s also becoming clear that Republicans are suffering from a deleterious candidate quality issue in key Senate races – among them, Blake Masters in Arizona, Herschel Walker in Georgia, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and J.D. Vance in Ohio. These candidates’ extreme positions, lack of experience or personal vulnerabilities make them far more susceptible to defeat in a statewide race than a more mainstream Republican would be.
FiveThirtyEight’s predictor now gives Democrats a 64 percent chance of keeping control of the Senate – up from 50 percent just a few weeks ago. Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) even admitted that there is “a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate, citing these “candidate quality” issues on the Republican side.
Taken together with the recent run of encouraging news for Democrats, the weaknesses of G.O.P. candidates in highly contested Senate races gives the Democratic Party a better-than-expected chance of retaining their Senate majority.
Further, Democrat Pat Ryan’s recent upset victory over Republican Marc Molinaro in the special election for New York’s 19th congressional district – in a race that many viewed as a national bellwether for Democrats’ performance in November – indicates that the Democratic Party’s prospects in the House are no longer as grim as they once were.
While a Democratic victory in the House is still a long shot, since the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, there has been a 3-point swing toward the Democrats in FiveThirtyEight’s generic ballot tracker – a strong indication that abortion is a motivating issue that could help Democrats outperform expectations in toss-up House races in November.
Indeed, last month, voters in Kansas – a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, and that elected Donald Trump by 15-points in 2020 – overwhelmingly rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed state legislators to restrict or ban abortion.
Turnout in Kansas surpassed turnout in previous general election years, demonstrating that the energy surrounding the abortion issue could help Democrats narrow Republicans’ voter enthusiasm advantage. Recent Politico/Morning Consult polling bears this out, as there is a 3-point enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats, down from 13-points in early June before the Supreme Court overturned Roe.
In addition to the growing importance of abortion rights, the Democratic Party’s latest legislative achievements are also playing a role in bolstering their political viability.
In a momentous win for the Democratic agenda, President Biden just signed into law a hallmark spending package – dubbed the “Inflation Reduction Act” – which is designed to combat climate change, address health care costs, and reduce the national deficit by imposing a 15 percent minimum tax on corporations, among other provisions.
While the law doesn’t address all Democratic priorities, the omnibus bill is a major victory for the Biden administration’s domestic agenda after the failure of the Build Back Better plan last year. Further, at least 1-in-2 voters support all but one of the main provisions in the package – including 76 percent of voters who support the cap on prescription drug prices – per a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll.
Notwithstanding the fact that this law passed on a party-line vote, vulnerable Democratic incumbents do also have several bipartisan legislative achievements to bring home to voters – including a historic gun safety law, the CHIPS+ package to boost American manufacturing and outcompete China, as well as the burn pits legislation to expand veterans’ benefits.
Moreover, even though only 1-in-4 voters believe the Inflation Reduction Act will actually live up to its name and lower inflation, there are signs that the high cost-of-living burden is subsiding, which could further improve Democrats’ prospects.
Gas prices have been steadily on the decline – for more than 70 days in a row – after reaching a record-high in mid-June. While prices are still higher compared to one year ago, this record drop is enormously helpful for Democrats, whose primary political vulnerability over the last year has been increased prices.
Yet, this is not to say that Democrats are not still vulnerable in November. Though President Biden’s job approval has ticked up slightly over the last month, just over 41 percent of the country approves of his job performance, while 53 percent disapproves, per FiveThirtyEight’s average.
And though Americans have a more positive outlook on the direction of the country compared to one month ago, recent polling still shows that 70 percent of the public still feels that the country is on the wrong track, while just 30 percent believe things are headed in the right direction.
High inflation and rising crime are also still among the top issues ahead of the midterms, and voters continue to trust Republicans over Democrats by double-digit margins to address both, per the latest Ipsos poll. Further, while most Americans support protecting abortion rights in a vacuum – as Kansas voters did – it’s not clear that voters necessarily want to elect Democrats who support protecting abortion rights over Republicans who promise to reduce inflation and improve public safety.
That being said, Democrats are clearly on a roll.
However, a lot can change in 70 days, and it’s not yet clear if this momentum will sustain itself through November.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to former President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.” Zoe Young is vice president of Schoen Cooperman Research.
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This story was originally published August 29, 2022 10:00 AM.