Axios Sneak Peek

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September 18, 2022

Josh Kraushaar here. Thanks for joining Sunday Sneak Peek, a weekly look ahead at the forces shaping American politics.

  • Smart Brevity™ count: 1,364 words ... 5 minutes.

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1 big thing: New warning signs for Democrats

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.
  • 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.

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.
  • 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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2. 💰 Play of the YEAR: Democratic meddling pays off

Illustration of a tic-tac-toe game with elephants and donkeys.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The final tally is in: Democrats succeeded in boosting right-wing candidates in six of the 13 Republican primaries they meddled in.

Why it matters: The six races in which Democrats spent money now look close to unwinnable for Republicans, after the GOP nominated fringe or flawed candidates expected to turn off general-election voters. That includes three governor's races, two House seats and one critical Senate battleground.

Details: All told, Democrats spent about $53 million boosting MAGA-aligned candidates in these races, according to the Washington Post.

  • The highlights include a clean sweep of MAGA-aligned candidates in New Hampshire, where Democrats meddled in two of the state's congressional primaries.

But, but, but: Republicans still believe Trump-endorsed John Gibbs, who defeated Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.) in an August GOP primary, has a chance to defeat Democrat Hillary Scholten. The Grand Rapids-based district backed President Biden by nine points.

  • And Republicans are hoping a favorable national environment still gives them a chance to win the New Hampshire races. The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund has already spent $2.3 million of its $23 million scheduled ad buy against Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), even though the preferred moderate candidate lost in the primary.

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3. 📺 Spot of the week: GOP's abortion message

Nevada ad
Screenshot: Stronger Nevada PAC

A new ad from a Nevada-based Republican PAC (Stronger Nevada PAC) attempts to inoculate Republicans from abortion-themed attacks by arguing Nevada's permissive abortion laws can't easily be changed.

  • "Politicians are trying to scare you about abortion. The truth? Nevada voters passed a law 30 years ago allowing abortions up to 24 weeks. No politician can change it," the ad, titled "Scare," says.
  • "Abortion law in Nevada can only be changed by a vote of the people. Even the U.S. Supreme Court decision doesn't change Nevada law."

Reality check: In Nevada, voters guaranteed a right to an abortion until 24 weeks of pregnancy in a 1990 referendum. But any federal restriction on abortion — like the 15-week ban measure Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) proposed — could supersede Nevada law.

Why it matters: Nevada is one of the GOP's most favorable battlegrounds in the midterms, but voters' support for abortion rights is complicating the Republican message.

  • Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak is using the issue to attack Republican Joe Lombardo, a moderate-minded Clark County sheriff who is running competitively against the governor. Lombardo's campaign says: "While Joe will always govern as a pro-life governor, he trusts the people of Nevada to make the important decision of what legislation to send to his desk."
  • In the state's Senate race, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto has pressed Republican Adam Laxalt to say whether he supports the federal 15-week abortion bill proposed by Graham. Laxalt spokesman Brian Freimuth told Axios: "This proposal has no chance to pass Congress and receive President Biden’s signature."

4. 🏃 N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper: "I expect Biden to run"

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper
Grant Baldwin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, sat down with Axios to discuss this year's governor's races.

Some highlights from the conversation:

  • On top issues in governors' races: "Midterms are often turnout elections, and intensity matters. Reproductive freedom is going to be an intense issue for people who vote. Protecting our democracy and voting rights is also going to be an intense issue."
  • On Republican Kari Lake's candidacy in Arizona: "It's critically important for Arizona to elect someone who believes in a democracy and unlike the Republican candidate, [who] has clearly said she prefers an autocracy in our country as long as her guy's in charge." (Cooper also named Arizona as the top pickup gubernatorial opportunity for Democrats, after Massachusetts and Maryland.)
  • On 2024 presidential ambitions: "Let me be clear about this. I support President Biden. I expect him to run. I will work for him. And I told him we are going to work hard to win North Carolina. ... I call us the fullback because Republicans have to win North Carolina to win the presidency."

5. 🗣️ Quote of the week: Cuellar's GOP booster

Rep. Tony Gonzales of Texas
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

In an interview with Axios, Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) offered some bipartisan praise for Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), his moderate Democratic colleague facing a tough re-election bid against Republican Cassy Garcia.

  • "He has delivered for his district for a long time. Any time you have that, it’s difficult to beat. He’s bucked his party," Gonzales said. "As an incumbent, working as hard as he has, he’s going to be tough to beat."

Why it matters: Republicans are aggressively targeting Cuellar, one of three Democratic targets in the Rio Grande Valley. It's rare for a Republican to boost an embattled Democratic colleague this close to the election (The Cook Political Report rates his race a toss-up).

  • Cuellar, who narrowly survived a primary this year against a progressive challenger, is the last remaining House Democrat opposed to abortion rights.
  • He's also joined Republicans in criticizing the Biden administration's border policy.

Notable quotable: Gonzales suggested Republican gains among Hispanics have more to do with Democrats drifting leftward than the GOP offering a positive agenda to win them over, pointing to a golden opportunity for a broader realignment "if we don't blow it."

📬 Thanks for starting your week with us. This newsletter was edited by Zachary Basu and copy edited by Kathie Bozanich.