Earlier this cycle, a seasoned Democratic strategist argued that his party's success in the midterms wouldn't be predicated on policy successes but by turning out the 2018/2020 coalition of anti-Trump voters. This strategy, however, of trying to turn the midterms from a referendum on the party in charge to the party out of power has rarely succeeded.
In 2018, for example, Republicans made Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi the centerpiece of their midterm strategy. They argued that despite suburban swing voters' deep misgivings about President Trump, the prospect of the liberal and polarizing San Francisco Democrat as Speaker would convince enough suburban swing voters to stick with the GOP. That, of course, wasn't the case. Then there's the 2021 Virginia governors race, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe's attempts to turn the contest into a referendum on former President Trump fell flat.
However, Pelosi and Youngkin made it hard for their opponents to flip the script on them. In 2017/2018, Pelosi refused to allow the progressive wing to dictate legislative priorities or talking points. There weren't 'show votes' on liberal priorities like Medicare for All or a Green New Deal. She didn't publicly attack more conservative Democratic candidates who outwardly criticized or distanced themselves from her. Her motto was "just win, baby."
In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin, the low-key, fleece-vest-wearing businessman, didn't look or act the part of a MAGA acolyte. And the political environment in November of 2021 was about as bad as it could get for the party in power. There was the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, rising inflation, and the resurgence of COVID that highlighted simmering frustrations among Virginia parents over pandemic-era education policy and procedures.
But, at this point, Democrats are getting help flipping the script thanks to the Supreme Court and Trump. For the first time in history, warnings by Democrats about a rollback of abortion rights aren't theoretical. Poll after poll continues to show that the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is widely unpopular. And, as my colleague David Wasserman has noted, Democratic engagement in the post-Dobbs era has jumped considerably. In the four special elections since the June 28th Supreme Court decision, Democrats have outperformed 2020 results by as many as 6 points
Then, there's Trump. While Youngkin was able to keep the polarizing former president at arm's length, most of the other high-profile Senate candidates are embracing him. For the last few weeks, Trump and his ungrounded claims of voter fraud have dominated the political and media discourse. July has been dominated by coverage of January 6th commission hearings, the primary defeat of the committee's GOP chairwoman Liz Cheney, the FBI discovery of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, and Trump's ongoing legal troubles in Fulton County, Georgia. The party out of power — rather than the in-party — is in the spotlight.
The more Trump is in the news, the more dangerous the political climate for the GOP.
While neither Biden nor Trump are popular, Trump is the more polarizing. New polling from NBC News finds Trump's net favorable ratings (-18) to be twice as bad as Biden's (-8). That same dynamic is showing up in swing states like Arizona, where a recent FOX News poll finds Trump's net favorable at -20 to Biden's -10, and Wisconsin, where the FOX poll showed Biden's net favorable ratings at (-6) compared with Trump's (-10).
The last time we saw the out-party become a focal point of a midterm election was in 1998 when Republican attempts to impeach President Clinton backfired. However, Clinton was much more popular than Biden is today. And the political and economic environment was much less volatile (and less polarized) than it is today.
But, Democrats, especially incumbent Senators in key swing states, have built up solid foundation for themselves. Polling in Senate races not only finds Democrats leading in the ballot test, but also holding strong favorable ratings, especially among independent voters.
A big reason for that bump in popularity is that Democratic incumbents have had the airwaves to themselves for most of the last two years. Since the beginning of 2021, significantly more money has been spent on positive ads for Democratic Senators in Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire and Nevada than on negative ads against them.
According to information provided to the Cook Political Report by AdImpact, every one of those Senators has had at least a two-to-one advantage on the airwaves.
In Arizona, there have been $12 million worth of positive ads run for Sen. Mark Kelly compared to just $6 million of negative ads.
Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock has had almost three times as much money spent on positive ads ($11.8 million) supporting him, than ads attacking him ($4.8 million).
The same goes for Nevada, where voters have seen $5.3 million worth of pro-Cortez Masto spots compared to just $2.7 million in attack ads.
And, in New Hampshire, where the GOP is still embroiled in a primary to pick their Senate nominee, voters there have seen $6.1 million of positive Sen. Maggie Hassan ads, compared to $3 million anti-Hassan ones.
Republicans can take some comfort in the fact that it is August, not October. With primaries behind them, GOP candidates are now aiming the Democrats' biggest liability — voter pessimism about the economy and inflation. This week alone, I counted at least five or six new GOP ads that linked their Democratic opponent to high inflation. Republicans' best hope for success this fall is predicated on getting significant numbers of those swing voters to be focused less on Trump and Roe and more on grocery carts and Biden.
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