Republicans decided months ago to run their midterm campaigns around crime and inflation messaging months ago. Polls suggest it probably is going to work out. We obviously won’t know for a few more days. If the Republicans win at least one house of Congress, we can say it did.
Democrats, particularly activists, are annoyed. How can voters prioritize crime and inflation over saving democracy and Roe? How can they give power back to a seditious political party? How can they reward this party for this message when they have no plan? How?
We’re learning a couple of old truths over, in this case. Some things are just self evident.
1. Voters don’t really like “us” more than “them.” This should be clear by now, but it’s not. Donald Trump is deeply under water in every internal poll I’ve seen this year. Joe Biden is unpopular too. Hillary Clinton is unpopular. So are Ted Cruz and most other national Republicans. Voters don’t see a “good guy” vs. “bad guy” narrative in politics. They know Republicans are bad. They just have a really low view of Democrats too.
2. Voters care more about things directly impacting them than changing the world. If milk, or gas, or heating oil, or chicken, or whatever you buy weekly costs a lot more now than it did before, you care about that. To you, the economy is entering a recession. To you, that is what matters. If people are getting killed in your neighborhood, crime is what matters. Meeting basic needs, like safety, is more important to voters than “systemic change.” We can lecture everyone why that’s wrong, but the public is looking for the government to fix their lives, not change the world.
One more thing to add to this- if there is a “red wave” on Tuesday, we will see some erosion among non-white voters for Democrats, because of the two points I made above. Everyone wants their basic needs met.
Throughout this election cycle, I have maintained in private conversations that Democrats are in trouble. The simple reality, to hear me tell it, is this is a tough environment, and they have a brand that isn’t very lovable to a lot of the country right now. What I guess was entirely foreseeable, but perhaps seemed insane to me, was that the GOP would sell their lot in with some of their worst possible faces. Election denial, embracing extremists, and ending Roe v. Wade were all messages that made little sense, and yet they pursued them anyway. So where does that leave us a week out?
Let’s start in the United States Senate, because it’s probably the most clear playing field out there. The Republicans started the cycle with four serious Democratic targets (GA, AZ, NV, and NH) and two “wish list” states (CO and WA). Democrats started with serious aspirations in three states (PA, WI, and NC) and hopes to put three other states (OH, FL, and IA) on the board. Both parties had roughly equal opportunity, and roughly equal success shaping the playing field. Democrats have certainly put Ohio onto the playing field, at least equal with Wisconsin and North Carolina at this point, and if you believe the gold standard in Iowa polling (The Iowa Poll/Des Moines Register Poll), may have stumbled into competing there. Add in the weird quirks of the Utah race and Democrats may be able to not only hold their majority, but expand it. On the other side, Republicans have had quite an interesting cycle. Their candidates defending Ohio and Pennsylvania have been costly to defend. Their nominees to flip Georgia and Arizona have been pretty embarrassing at times too. Their New Hampshire nominee hasn’t really made much progress. With all of that said, they definitely have Nevada at no worse than even money, and polls suggest Washington is in play. They got the guy they wanted in Colorado, and he may just be competitive too. In other words, if they can just pull a couple of hard defense races across the line, they have enough offensive seats that they can pull off a majority with the crew they have.
Then there is the House of Representatives, which has basically been assumed to go to the GOP by most professionals for a while. As one would expect in a midterm after a Presidential loss, the GOP is playing more offense, and that seems to be augmented by redistricting, a President with mediocre to low approvals, and economic anxiety. If we apportion the three vacancies to the party that last held them, the current House is 222-213 for the Democrats, meaning 5 seats flipping would flip the chamber. Redistricting alone is expected to hand the GOP about a dozen seats, while Democrats will receive an easy pair. Depending on which ratings you use (Cook and Sabato’s Crystal Ball being two popular ones), you can find forecasts that basically put the GOP up anywhere from +7 to +11 at the outset. Then you see somewhere between 35-42 Democratic seats in play, and about 18 GOP seats. In other words, the Republicans are structurally playing more offense to start this year.
History, redistricting, President Biden’s poll numbers, inflation, and crime suggest that Republicans should end up winning both chambers. The question marks are pretty simple- have we ever had a party like the GOP of 2022? Their allegiance to the defeated former President is certainly a questionable strategy. Their unorthodox Senate candidates are questionable choices. Their Supreme Court nominees overruling Roe v. Wade definitely breathed new life into the Democrats. January 6th is not a memory the GOP wants most of the electorate to be thinking about as they vote. This is all a lot to process for what will happen.
The real question is whether any of these GOP blunders is on par with the boost the incumbent President’s party received from an unpopular impeachment (1998) or the 9/11 terrorist attacks (2002). The answer is complicated. I think the Dobbs decision did wonders for breathing life into the Democratic Party this year, but Joe Biden is not as popular right now as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush were at those times. The other factor here is that Dobbs was an event that particularly motivated voters who were already likely to be voting for Democratic candidates. Perhaps even more rudimentary here is the simple math- the Senate is even right now and both parties have a fairly similar number of opportunities to pick up more seats, while the House is extremely narrowly divided coming in and the GOP seems to have already put enough seats in their back pocket to probably flip the chamber as is.
Right now the real question on the Senate is whether Democrats feel better about Nevada, Georgia, New Hampshire, and Arizona, or Republicans feel better about Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. Perhaps the less polite way of putting this is, do you believe Trafalgar, Rasmussen, and Insider Advantage are real polls, or Republican noise? It’s a 2-3 point difference in most states, and sometimes more. My general sense in Nevada is that the race is a jump ball tie right now, and perhaps that’s an advantage to the Democratic machine in Clark County, but maybe it’s not. I expect Georgia to go to a runoff, but I think Warnock has the slimmest of advantages in reality. New Hampshire seems like a hold for Democrats. Arizona is probably heading the same way, though it’s still Arizona. I think North Carolina and Wisconsin are trending out of the Democrats reach right now, but might stay close all the way through. Every non-partisan pollster has Ohio dead close, and I think it remains there, but Ryan will need one more major push that I don’t think happens. Pennsylvania is frankly too weird this year, but I’d give Fetterman a slim, slim edge over Oz. Right now I’d put Nevada and Pennsylvania as the most likely seats to flip. Hence, I’m thinking right now the Senate stays 50-50, under Democratic control. The high-water mark for the Democrats in my mind is 52, my low-water mark is 48.
Then there’s the House. Again, I’m saying the Democrats are swimming uphill. They’re probably starting out behind 220-215. I see another 53 seats in play at the moment, and I see them splitting pretty even. I’d predict the GOP to win about 229 seats in the House at the moment, with the Democrats suffering losses of 16 seats and falling to 206. Given where Democrats felt as late as the Spring, I’d actually call this a decent outcome. It means they need 12 seats next cycle to win back the chamber, and in a Presidential re-election year that’s more likely. I realistically thought they would lose 40 seats in May. For those of you who think the Dobbs Ruling is bringing in a “blue wave,” I tell you that you got your wave in this election not being a lot worse.
I’ll close with a brief look at the Governor races around the country. Democrats are primed for pick-ups in Massachusetts and Maryland, and have an honest chance in Arizona as well. I think they’re slight underdogs in Georgia, and slightly bigger underdogs in Florida and Texas. Meanwhile the GOP has themselves serious shots in Kansas, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Nevada. Their odds are a little lower in New Mexico, a bit lower yet in Michigan, and not looking great without weirdness in Maine. They seem to have blown any shot in Pennsylvania, don’t have so much buzz in Minnesota, and I don’t believe the hype in New York. I’m saying Democrats actually pick up one Governor’s mansion in the end.