Sep 18, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Democrats' midterm reality check

Illustration of a magic 8-ball that reads, "Check yourself."

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

After Democrats' surge in political momentum over the summer, signs indicate the midterm environment is tilting back in the GOP's direction.

Why it matters: Republicans aren't likely to ride a historic red wave to power. But they're well-positioned to comfortably win back the House, and are on surer footing than just weeks ago to net the one seat necessary to capture a narrow Senate majority.

What we're watching: Inflation isn't slowing down, according to this month's Consumer Price Index. Biden's celebration of the Inflation Reduction Act occurred on a day when the stock market plunged over 1,200 points, prompting ridicule from Republicans who see inflation as their top campaign issue.

  • Biden's student loan forgiveness plan is opposed by many Democrats, especially those in swing states and districts. The president didn't even mention it in his Philadelphia speech this month touting his accomplishments. A New York Times/Siena poll released Friday showed 49% of respondents favor the cancellation of up to $20,000 in student debt.
  • Republicans hold momentum in several key Senate races, most notably in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Georgia. GOP nominee in Pennsylvania Mehmet Oz is pressuring John Fetterman to debate (the Democrat agreed to one on Oct. 25) amid questions about Fetterman's health. Republicans are portraying Democrats as soft on crime in all these races, forcing challengers on the defensive.

By the numbers: RealClearPolitics polling averages in Georgia and Nevada now show the Democratic senators tied or trailing their GOP challengers. That's a precarious position for any incumbent to be in at this point.

  • Marquette Law School released polling in Wisconsin suggesting that the GOP's ad blitz painting Democrat Mandela Barnes as soft on crime is working — with Sen. Ron Johnson closing a seven-point deficit from last month.

But, but, but: Beyond running as the opposition, Republicans are still struggling to advance a winning message for their party.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-S.C.) 15-week federal abortion ban bill was introduced the same day as last week's ugly inflation reading, keeping the focus on the GOP's unpopular support for abortion restrictions and undermining the message that abortion policy should be left to the states.
  • Graham's proposal divided Republicans and has no chance of passing through Congress.

Reality check: The elevation of weak Senate candidates is the biggest political challenge for Republicans in the home stretch.

  • In New Hampshire, Republicans nominated a candidate — retired Gen. Don Bolduc — who's seen as too extreme to defeat Sen. Maggie Hassan in the purple swing state. An Emerson College poll conducted after the primary showed Hassan leading Bolduc by 11 points, 51%-40%. (Since winning the primary, Bolduc has moderated his views, rejecting Graham's 15-week abortion measure and accepting the legitimacy of the 2020 election results.)
  • In Arizona, Blake Masters is still viewed warily by Republican officials and is being badly outspent by Sen. Mark Kelly. Masters trails Kelly by 3.3 points in the RCP polling average.
  • And in Ohio, polls still show Democrat Tim Ryan narrowly ahead of Republican J.D. Vance, even as outside money starts to flow in for the first-time GOP candidate. Republicans still expect Vance to prevail in the Trump-friendly state, but his campaign is underachieving.

Be smart: Control of the Senate will likely come down to three races: Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania. The party that wins two of those three is poised to hold a narrow 51-seat Senate majority.

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