Where this election goes next is the question on many lips this week. Can Democrats sustain the newfound momentum that has brought their midterm-election chances back to life, or will this election snap back to the more typical pattern, a referendum on the incumbent president and governing party?
While developments in individual races will matter as they always have, on a more macro-political level, what this election is about will largely determine which party will control each of the two chambers for the 118th Congress. Some of the developments that fueled the Democratic comeback over the last two months may continue to benefit them through Nov. 8, but some are unlikely to be replicated or sustained.
Talking with Republicans reveals that the abortion issue is their foremost concern going into this midterm. The Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade in June has both turbocharged Democratic enthusiasm and depressed Republican support among some independents, particularly women. Every new story of the implementation of “trigger laws” breathes more life into this issue for Democrats. Americans rarely favor radical change, and many of these restrictions meet the definition of “radical” in the minds of plenty of voters. This issue will continue to plague Republicans for the next 50 days. If Republicans have a disappointing election, their decisions around abortion will bear the most responsibility. As President Kennedy argued in his inaugural address, “In the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” Republicans have ridden on the back of the antiabortion tiger for decades; the question is whether they will end up inside.
Former President Trump’s words and actions are also likely to continue to detract from the GOP’s efforts to keep the focus on President Biden and the economy. He’s the gift that keeps on giving for Democrats.
But some of the factors that boosted Democrats over the last two months may not continue to provide the lift they’ve come to enjoy. A flurry of legislative successes in the early summer after a long drought on Capitol Hill certainly helped Democrats bounce back. Democrats briefly set aside their natural instincts for infighting, allowing them to actually move some legislation. There is nothing like the sight of the gallows to focus the mind.
But legislative accomplishments for this Congress are now in the rearview mirror; at this point they need to keep the government’s lights on. With an Oct. 1 deadline looming to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government fully open and just a handful of legislative days remaining until then, keeping the government funded becomes a real lift, and few Republicans are inclined to lend a hand.
Providing help for Puerto Rico in the wake of this week’s hurricane, continued funding for support of embattled Ukraine, and money for coronavirus and monkeypox vaccines all put twists on this perennial challenge. In the end, Democrats are likely to get something done and avoid a government shutdown, but this is all downside risk with no real chance for upside benefit.
Another major development that benefited Democrats was an improved economic picture, particularly the price of gasoline, which dropped by about a dollar per gallon starting in mid-summer. Even for those without cars, the price of gasoline is the only product with a price that is posted out front wherever it’s sold, giving it outsized importance psychologically. It is doubtful that prices will decline much more than they already have. The upside is behind them, with only status-quo or negative developments ahead.
More broadly, the June data showed inflation at a 39-year high and growing at an annualized rate of 9.1 percent. The July numbers, however, suggested that inflation had stabilized, again fueling Democratic hopes. Since then, the numbers for August reported last week indicated that our unwelcome friend inflation was still here. Key new inflation reports will come out on Sept. 30 and Oct. 13, very likely influencing the narrative for this election one way or the other. Interest rates will take a bite out of anyone with a variable-rate mortgage, car loan, or credit card, probably for months or years to come.
Harold Macmillan, prime minister of the U.K. in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was asked by a reporter what worried him most. His reply: “Events, dear boy, events.” Whether other issues like violent crime, immigration, and border security that plagued Democrats prior to their late-summer bounce-back return front-and-center will be driven by events and could resurface as a top-tier factor as well.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on September 19, 2022.
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