Tom takes BTRTN’s first in-depth look at the midterms, with a call to action for Democrats who fear the worst. He’ll be back with Part II within a few weeks.
How many conversations have you had with morose Democrats recently, bemoaning the “near certain” debacle in the upcoming midterms? The mainstream media has bludgeoned the airwaves and digital highways with the bleak history of presidents in their first midterms, as well as the misfortunes of the stumbling, tumbling Biden Administration. Beyond that, there are the twin threats posed by redistricting and state voter suppression legislation, all supposedly controlled by the GOP, who are said to be unfairly tilting the field ever more strongly in their favor. And our last hope to counter all that, the despondent thinking goes, was just killed by the two-headed Manchima monster, when the duo refused to vote for a filibuster carve-out that would have allowed unipartisan passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act.You hear the anguished cries time and again: “We’re doomed...we're going to lose the Senate and get crushed in the House, and there goes our hopes and dreams for progressive legislation and liberal Supreme Court justices -- maybe for decades.”
We have another theory. It goes something like this. The Democrats should fight away in the courts, and embrace whatever electoral reform can pass the Senate, for sure. But they should also consider another strategy with respect to the midterms:
Wait, what? You don’t mean “win the midterms,” do you? As in, keeping control of both the Senate and the House? You can't possibly mean that!
Precisely. As cranky old James Carville put it just a few days ago: “Just win some goddamn elections.” He is echoing a theme we have been articulating for over a month now. Stop whining, start winning!
The midterms are not as hopeless as you think, not by a long shot. Now keep in mind, this is not a prediction. It’s still possible, of course, that the Democrats could get crushed. Much can and will happen in the next nine months. But there is a path to victory if events break right. It will take some skill by the Biden Administration, and some luck. And the factors that Democrats think are drastically tilting the electoral environment way toward the GOP are actually not so bad after all; the actual facts betray the headlines.
Let’s take you through our logic and guide you along the pathway that could lead to the Dems keeping their trifecta in November.
First, for sure, Biden has to perform…and he needs a little luck
Sure, Biden’s first year has been a bit mixed, but you have to remember, he inherited a COVID vaccine distribution nightmare, a weakened economy with rampant unemployment, and a divided democracy fueled by the biggest lie of them all by his predecessor, that Biden did not even win the election. Biden took office just 14 days after the January 6 insurrection, the first president who succeeded to the presidency without the benefits of a peaceful transition, left to pick up the pieces with little support from the remnants of the pathetically-governed predecessor’s administration.
Biden has already put some solid points on the board, far more than he is given full credit for: scoring the impressive $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the bi-partisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (a.k.a., the “hard” infrastructure bill); jumpstarting the vaccination effort and putting science back into COVID management; adding the most new federal judges by a new president since Reagan; restoring relationships with global allies scorned by Trump; and reintroducing dignity, empathy and professional decision processes to the White House. He has also presided over a strong economic recovery – to the tune of 6.6 million new jobs in his first year, unemployment under 4% and 5.9% annual GDP growth.
He has struggled at times, as well, with the messy Afghanistan exit, the premature COVID victory lap that preceded the Delta and Omicron surges, chronic miscommunication by his CDC, an inability to corral his beloved Senate to support the “soft” infrastructure bill, and, worst of all, soaring inflation brought on by a supply chain and labor market overwhelmed by stunningly strong consumer demand. His approval rating has tumbled, accordingly, to Trump territory, the low 40’s, from the 55% he enjoyed at the outset. That is an important number...what goes down can come back up.
But there is a clear path back for the Biden Administration, a comeback story to bookend the strong start with a strong pre-midterm finish. It is comprised of the following elements, all attainable – some have already occurred or are well on the way -- and if most or all of them happen by Labor Day or even October, the Democrats will have quite a story to run on. Biden can only manage so much of this; most depends on others or on a bit of luck.
· COVID on the decline. The Omicron surge will likely be over in a month; the mask wars will be over; life, with prudent precautions, will come roaring back in a summer of fun. All Biden needs here is good luck: no new deadly variants.
· Continued robust economic growth. With the infrastructure bill beginning to find its way to local projects, the Biden Administration can take credit for the 4% GDP growth expected in 2022, well above that of the pre-pandemic Trump years, and the Obama years as well.
· Taming of inflation. With a new report showing inflation up to 7.5%, and gas prices at a peak, this may be the toughest at all, a classic “kitchen table” issue difficult for presidents to influence. But the Fed is expected to use fiscal instruments, in the form of interest rate hikes, to begin to put the brakes on the boom…that and the easing of the supply chain issues could at least show progress on managing inflation by November.
· Breyer and Roe: Biden will benefit greatly from being able to deliver on his promise to name a Black woman to the Supreme Court, and there will be a huge spotlight on the announcement and confirmation hearings. On top of what is clearly going to be some kind of adverse ruling by the Roberts Court on Roe v. Wade, and Biden’s strong federal judge appointment track record, these issues will energize Democrats to a voting frenzy in the midterms.
· Russia/Ukraine. Biden has been lauded – on a bipartisan basis by politicians, and, in surveys, by Americans of both parties as well – for his management of the Ukraine crisis thus far. He seems to have positioned himself into an unlikely “win/win” position. If the Russians invade Ukraine, he will be seen as leading a unified NATO in exacting demanding economic sanctions while supplying the Ukrainians with sophisticated weaponry and aid. And if Putin blinks, all the better. Either way, U.S. leadership has already been acknowledged, prestige restored, and Biden is benefitting greatly.
· ISIS. Knocking off the ISIS leader did not hurt on that front, either.
· Trump, January 6 and “reasonable political discourse.” The self-inflicted wound the RNC just dealt the GOP can hardly be underestimated, putting January 6 right smack back on the table, deflecting attention from Biden just when he was at this lowest. And that term – “reasonable political discourse” – when repeated over and over by Dem candidates atop insurrection footage, will be the gift that keeps on giving, defining today’s GOP much the way Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” defined the Trump White House. The January 6 Commission’s hearings and findings, plus the Trump court cases in Georgia and New York, will continue to keep Trump front and center for the GOP, and effectively once again “on the ballot” in November.
· Bonus #1: Inoculate the vulnerabilities: All that would go a long way toward setting the tables for success in the midterms, but it would sure help if Biden and the Democrats could find a way to talk about three issues that the GOP will try to force into all campaign conversations: crime, immigration and education (that is, Critical Race Theory). Biden has already disavowed “Defund the Police” and embraced new New York City Mayor (and former cop) Eric Adams, so he is making progress on crime. He needs reassuring talking points on the others as well.
· Bonus #2: Soft Infrastructure Bill. The soft bill may be too toxic, at this point, to take on in the middle of an election year. But if a scaled down bill – say $750 million – could be cobbled together with the most popular elements of the old bill that Manchin could support – say, the climate change provisions and the Childcare Tax Credit with some needs-based test (assuming they could be passed within reconciliation rules) – the passage of such a bill would be a winner.
This is a powerful set of conditions, and most, if not all, could easily happen. The key word that you will hear over and over again is “normal.” Biden essentially ran on the promise that he would end the daily onslaught, the crazed pitch and surreal-ness of the Trump years, that he would return America to normalcy. He would tame COVID, reignite our economy and manage foreign affairs with strength through diplomacy. It may have taken him two years – how could it have been otherwise, given what Trump handed him? – but “normalcy” on all fronts may very well be achieved by November.
The Midterm History for First Term Presidents
The chart below outlines the unforgiving history of first-term presidents’ parties in the House in the midterms. The facts are clear: Reagan, Clinton, Obama and Trump all got crushed in the midterms.
But what the chart also demonstrates is that this is not preordained. There are not stone tablets in Washington that decree that disastrous midterms are meant to be for new presidents, some rite of passage to be endured.
The fact is – new presidents typically earn the distressing verdict of the midterms. Reagan struggled with a recession. Clinton’s unsuccessful effort in health care and the unintended flap over gays in the military (among other issues) resulted in the backlash and smashing victory by Newt Gingrich and his “Contract With America.” Obama’s Affordable Care Act made it into law, and has since become popular, but it was immediately demonized by the GOP and spawned the Tea Party movement. And Trump, well, he outraged Democrats from the start and never let up, losing not only the midterms but, unlike the others, his reelection effort as well.
You can see this in the numbers. Each of those four presidents has approval ratings in the low-to-mid 40’s at the time of the midterms, and each’s party trailed in the all-important “generic ballot” by 7-10 points.
The exception here is George W. Bush. Bush’s GOP actually picked up eight seats in the House in the first midterms, rewarding him for his successful rallying of America in the early post-9/11 era. Americans backed Bush, giving him a 63% approval rating, and favored the GOP in the generic ballot by six points. Bush proved that if you earn the support of the American people, you can prevail at the polls, midterms jinx notwithstanding. And his father did not do terribly either, losing only eight seats, helped by his own 58% approval rating (though a poor generic ballot doomed his chances for a pick-up).
Joe Biden currently has a 42-43% approval rating, in line with the presidents who lost massive House seats. But the generic ballot is much closer than you may have thought -–for the month of January, on average the GOP led by only a 44/43 margin, and in February thus far, with only five polls, the Dems have flipped that to their own 43/42 lead.
Biden and the Democrats need to lift both of those – and if they can execute the agenda outlined above, they will get there. Biden needs to get to the high 40’s at least, and probably the Democrats need to get to +4 on the generic ballot to have a chance to win. The good news is those numbers are achievable – Biden’s high mark was 55%, and the Dems were +5 as of last September. If you’ve been there once, there are persuadable voters out there who will come back.
The Voting Environment
You can’t blame the Democrats for thinking that the voting environment has been stacked against them by the GOP. It seems you can’t go a day without reading about restrictive GOP voter suppression laws, GOP redistricting wins, and off-year elections (see: Virginia and New Jersey’s governor races) that seem to indicate a seismic electoral shift to the right. But when you get beneath the headlines, nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s look at five “macro” electoral environment issues in enough detail to get at that truth.
Redistricting. With the 2020 census complete, many feared that, since the GOP controls so many state house and legislatures, further rampant gerrymandering would result in the de facto losses of Democratic seats. But according to analysis by both the Cook Report and fivethirtyeight.com, that has simply not come to pass. With most states having completed their redistricting processes, the GOP has picked up at most a handful of seats – and with challenges underway in some states, that advantage itself may disappear. The whole redistricting effort will likely end up being a wash.
GOP Voter Suppression Laws. Those same GOP legislators have indeed been passing restrictive laws; 19 states have passed laws that limit, for example, early voting and the use of absentee ballots. But did you know that 25 states have passed laws that expand access to voting? Many of these laws codify the changes that were made in 2020 to respond to COVID, institutionalizing the drive to make mail-in voting easier and expand early voting. Some GOP states – Michigan and Pennsylvania, to name two – had restrictive measures passed by GOP legislatures only to be vetoed by Democratic governors. The net effect of all this is that the voting environment for Democrats is likely no worse, and possibly better than in 2018, when the Democrats picked up 42 seats in the midterms.
Apart from all this, there is a body of academic research that indicates that voter suppression laws do not actually work – that is, when enacted, they do not actually suppress votes. Perhaps the best example of this is from Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, who runs the election firm Crystal Ball. Sabato analyzed the Biden victory in 2020 in detail and concluded that all those expansive laws did not really help Biden much at all – neither enabling his win nor affecting his margin. Turnout would have been overwhelming for both parties even under normal circumstances, and Biden would have won by roughly the same margin. If those ease-of-voting rules did not help Biden, then how can unwinding some of them hurt the Dems?
2021 Elections. The pundits went wild on the apparent sharp rightward shift of the electorate when Glenn Youngkin took the gubernatorial race in Virginia and incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy barely survived a GOP challenge in New Jersey. Both Democratic candidates ran well behind Biden’s winning margins in 2020, by 12 points in Virginia and 16 in New Jersey. The received wisdom was that every Democratic seat that was won by 10 points in 2020 – maybe even 15 points -- or less was thus going to be in play in 2022.
Of course, the pundits ignored two House special elections on that same election day, two districts in Ohio (the 11th and 15th) where the Democrats ran just about the same as Biden, and the same as the November 2020 election for the same seats. A special election in Florida (the 20th) just a month ago had the same outcome. But all you heard about was Virginia and New Jersey.
The lesson is not necessarily that the Democrats are in trouble – it could be simply that Glenn Youngkin was an exceptionally good candidate, a non-politician who was deft enough to distance himself from Trump without defying him. And perhaps Phil Murphy’s COVID policies and deeply progressive agenda policies enegized the right. The GOP is having trouble finding A-List candidates like Youngkin in 2022 (more on this in Part 2), and the COVID dynamics, and electoral issues, will likely be quite different a year later.
Demographics. One macro factor that is unmistakably moving in favor of the Democrats, and that is the demographic make-up of the electorate. The simple math is as follows: every two years, persons of color pick up another percentage point of the population (now at 39%, while whites comprise 61%). And persons of color tend to vote Democratic (they went 63/39 for Biden). Run those numbers and it means that every two years, the Democrats will pick-up roughly 0.5% percentage points overall – and this factor is far more likely to make a difference than voter suppression laws. In fact, the reason the GOP has engaged in voter suppression was, essentially, to dampen minority voting and offset the impact of demographic shifts in our country.
The Trump Factor. And, of course, Trump himself is an enormous factor in 2022 midterms, and not in a helpful way for the GOP. Trump’s personal priority – which means his only priority – is wreaking vengeance on those who have turned on him, the Liz Cheney’s and Pete Meijer’s who voted for impeachment. This makes both Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy absolutely livid, as they would much rather have him focus on swing states and swing districts where control of their respective houses is won or lost. But even more importantly than that, Trump has steadily turned The Big Lie into the dominant issue for GOP candidates – a litmus test. That means two things – he will endorse candidates that support The Big Lie, which will push the race further to the far right, and he will force every candidate to take a position on The Big Lie. This works fine in deep red districts, but is hardly the best strategy to win purple districts that are generally anti-insurrection. This is why the GOP is loath to talk about January 6 in general, and why the “legitimate political discourse” censure language has been such a disaster.
So, in general, the political landscape, while looking poor for Democratic midterm prospects now, can easily change if Biden executes and has a little luck. And the macro political environment is far more hospitable to Democrats than is generally being reported. It could very well be that the factors that typically decided races – the quality of the candidates, the resonance of their messages, the money they raise and, most importantly, their ability to get out their vote – will drive the 2022 midterms as well.
Part II: Soon To Come
We will be back shortly with Part II of our first look at the midterms, when we drill down on the Senate, House and Governor races. But there are a few headlines we can offer to whet your appetites:
· In the Senate, the GOP has four incumbents retiring in potential battleground states. In those races, and in the Democrat-held swing states races, the GOP is not putting forward many “A-List” candidates, several popular sitting Governors have declined to run for the Senate.
· In the House, the GOP leads the all-important “generic ballot” by only a single point. In the years when Reagan, Clinton, Obama and Trump got crushed in their first midterms, their party was down 7-10 points in the generic ballot.
· And in the governor races, the GOP is losing two popular governors in blue states to term limits, representing excellent flipping opportunities for the Democrats.
Look for us to go through these and all the races “in play” when we return for Part II.