The sprint to the midterm elections is set to take place on political terrain that is much less settled than Republicans had hoped it would be, with improving economic news, a raging battle over abortion rights and former President Donald Trump’s return to the forefront raising Democrats’ hopes that the party can hold onto its narrow majority in the House or Senate.
Republicans entered the year riding strong historical trends, with President Joe Biden’s approval rating slipping as the first midterm elections of his presidency approached, and poised to benefit from an electorate eager to assign blame for soaring inflation.
But gas prices have dropped, and Biden’s approval rating has ticked upward. Republicans, meanwhile, have watched as their electorate followed Trump’s endorsements in a handful of key races for Senate seats and governorships. Those Trump-endorsed candidates – many of whom had built their campaigns around his lies about widespread election fraud – have struggled to broaden their appeal to moderates and independents who will decide November’s key races.
The FBI search of Mar-a-Lago has shifted the spotlight from Biden, whom Republicans want to run against, to Trump, who remains a galvanizing force for Democrats and suburban moderates who oppose him.
The most significant factor could be the Supreme Court’s decision to end federal abortion rights. Since the late June decision, Democrats have scored a string of surprising victories.
In deep-red Kansas, voters resoundingly rejected an effort to end the state’s constitutional protection of abortion rights. In a special election for a bellwether House seat in New York, in which abortion was a key issue, the Democratic candidate won. And in last week in Alaska, little-known Democratic former state lawmaker Mary Peltola defeated Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin in a ranked-choice special election for a House seat that had been in GOP hands for nearly half a century.
Republicans are expressing anxiety – not about any shift in the landscape so far but about the unknown issues that could crop up in the final weeks before Election Day and disrupt the perceptions of swing voters.
“It’s like you’re up in the beginning of the fourth quarter and you want to limit the variables,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist. “You’ve just got to run out the clock.”
While Republicans attempt to keep the focus on Biden, Democrats argue that, with the passage of their health care and climate bill, the party has more to sell to voters as a result of Biden’s first two years in office.
The day after the Inflation Reduction Act became law, House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, after ticking off nearly every notable piece of legislation signed by Biden – from the American Rescue Plan, to the bipartisan infrastructure, gun and manufacturing bills – heaped praise on Biden.
“If someone were to say that a president had a record of accomplishment that I just described, without putting a timeframe on it, the logical response would be that person had a successful two-term presidency,” the New York Democrat said.