Nov 3, 2022 - Politics & Policy

The contrarian case for Democratic optimism

Illustration of a magic eight ball revealing the word "YES!"

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Relentless media coverage, polling and election forecasts have solidified the narrative heading into Tuesday's midterms: Republicans are on pace for a "red wave" in the House, with fresh momentum giving them a serious shot to take the Senate as well.

Yes, but: Conventional wisdom isn't always correct. Every election carries surprises — it was just two years ago that Republicans defied expectations to gain seats in the House — and there are at least a few bright spots to consider before Democrats commit themselves to the political wilderness.

5 reasons for optimism

1. The Senate remains very much in play.

  • FiveThirtyEight's forecast has the battle for the Senate in a "dead heat" — a remarkable place to be for a party in power dealing with historical headwinds, an unpopular president and a 40-year high in inflation.
  • Democrats in key Senate battlegrounds are running ahead of Biden's approval rating, according to the latest New York Times/Siena poll, including: Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly (+15); Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock (+10); Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (+9); and Pennsylvania nominee John Fetterman (+7).
  • Republicans' nomination of flawed Senate candidates like Don Bolduc in New Hampshire and Herschel Walker in Georgia, meanwhile, threatens a 2012 redux for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

2. Governor's races are a surprise bright spot.

  • Critical issues like abortion and voting rights have come down to the states, making governors what Democrats like to call "the last line of defense for democracy."
  • Several Democratic strategists Axios spoke to cited Wes Moore in Maryland and Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania as two candidates with the potential for a national profile and bigger role in the party, with both set to cruise to victory on Tuesday.
  • And the dynamics in red states like Kansas and Oklahoma — where polls indicate Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt is facing a surprisingly close contest — have been heartening for Dems banking on abortion rights as a turnout motivator.

3. The growing gender gap.

  • In the month after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, women accounted for 55% of newly registered voters across Kansas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma, Florida, North Carolina, Idaho, Alabama, New Mexico and Maine, according to an analysis by the NYT's Upshot.
  • "A higher share of women than men have voted for Democrats in every midterm election since 1980, and in the past two midterm cycles the gap has been even bigger," according to FiveThirtyEight.

4. The bogeyman is still there.

  • Former President Trump likely cost Republicans the Senate in 2020 with his baseless claims that Georgia's election system was corrupt, dragging down GOP base turnout in the two January runoffs. His intra-party flame-throwing hasn't stopped.
  • Trump and his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack have given Democrats endless fodder to tie their opponents to extremism. The former president is holding a risky last-minute rally in Pennsylvania on Saturday with Republican Senate nominee Mehmet Oz.

5. Polling is never perfect.

  • Pre-election opinion polls for the 2020 election were the most inaccurate in 40 years, according to a Vanderbilt study cited in a Bloomberg analysis Thursday about the credibility of polling.
  • Liberal commentators and Democratic operatives have recently accused Republicans of "flooding the zone" with partisan polls that skew the average on the generic congressional ballot — and create a misleading "red wave" narrative.
  • As a result, several have started citing the upstart SplitTicket aggregator of nonpartisan polls, which shows Democrats and Republicans are virtually neck-and-neck.

The bottom line: "Broadly speaking, I think we’ll outperform any reasonable expectations for the party in power during 8.5% inflation. Republicans should be cleaning our clocks, not praying to eke out a Senate majority and pick up a handful of House seats," Third Way founder Matt Bennett told Axios.

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