In my mind is an image of a weathervane atop a barn, twirling around like a top, making it impossible to say which way the wind is actually blowing. We are at a weird moment in this campaign, being not at all certain exactly which way the wind is blowing or for that matter, how strongly.

Complicated and layered, the contradictory signals make things even more confusing. The latest such signal: the FBI’s search of former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, yet another development that could boost Democrats.

The 2022 midterm cycle started out simply enough, behaving initially like midterm elections almost invariably do—the president’s party heading for a thumping. The fact that President Biden has had historically bad job approval ratings seemed to make the outcome even more certain: For about a year, his numbers have either been the lowest or second-lowest of any elected incumbent president at the relevant stage of his term.

Given the state and direction of the economy, with inflation running at a 40-year high, these approval numbers were as surprising as the answers to the telltale question, “Do you think the country is headed in the right direction or off on the wrong track?” This question almost invariably produces a pessimistic response—over the last 40 years, about the only time “right direction” exceeded “wrong track” was in the period of national unity immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. Over the last decade it has averaged about 30 percent “right direction” and 60 percent “wrong track.”

The one contravening signal was that given all of these circumstances, one might have expected Republicans to have a much bigger lead on the generic congressional ballot test than their modest low to mid-single-digit advantage. It suggested that the GOP had perhaps suffered some damage to their brand that would lessen their ability to capitalize on the problems of Biden and Democrats.

Things started getting interesting in early May when Politico obtained and reported a draft of the Supreme Court’s opinion in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, indicating that the high court was about to reverse the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision ensuring the right to an abortion. When the Court ultimately issued the opinion on June 24, Democratic hearts suddenly were aflutter that something had happened that might make the midterms about something other than a referendum on Biden, the Democratic Congress, and the economy. Increasing attention on gun violence and the revelations by the Jan. 6 committee offered other theoretical opportunities for the election to be about something else. Rumors began to swirl that Trump might announce a presidential bid before the midterm election, which could further muddy up the waters.

Mixed economic indicators made things even more opaque—signs that inflation might be settling down, even as job numbers remained excellent.

Next came a string of accomplishments: the drone strike killing al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, passage of the CHIPS and Science Act and the bill to aid veterans exposed to burn pits, and finally the reconciliation measure dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act but which could more accurately could be called “bbb,” a scaled-back version of last year’s BBB. Taken together, these items at least partially mitigate charges of a lack of competence that had plagued both Biden and congressional Democrats. As the saying goes, there is nothing that focuses the mind like the sight of the gallows. Democrats seemed to put aside, at least for now, their preference for in-fighting rather than legislating.

And now, Trump’s name is in the news again for all the wrong reasons since the search at Mar-a-Lago a week ago. Once again, the election is less about Biden, the state and direction of the economy, and how hapless Democrats seemed for the better part of the last 16 months.

While it was never likely that any single or even a combination of several issues would overshadow the referendum nature of a midterm election, this midterm has suddenly begun to look less typical.

It still seems doubtful that things have changed enough to save the Democratic majority in the House, but it is plausible that this could shave a half dozen or a dozen seats from the losses that they otherwise might have sustained.

In the Senate, things have gotten much more interesting. A trio of sub-optimal candidates have dimmed a bit GOP hopes in the three most visible Senate races—Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. None of these races are over, but each look like an uphill climb for Republicans, meaning that another trio has become even more important—Nevada, New Hampshire, and Colorado. In New Hampshire, there is a lot riding on the Sept. 13 Republican primary: Should state Senate President Chuck Morse prevail in the GOP primary, Sen. Maggie Hassan can be expected to have a very tight race, but if retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc wins, Republican odds of taking the seat go down a fair amount. Republicans did nominate their more conventional and centrist candidate in Colorado, Joe O’Dea, making their long shot bid to unseat Sen. Michael Bennet not quite as long as before.

Choose your metaphor: the spinning weathervane or the once seemingly clear water suddenly stirred and muddied.

 

This article was original published by nationaljournal.com on August 15, 2022.

More from the Cook Political Report

The Senate in mist
National Politics
Photo of Charlie Cook
October briefing
Events
Cook Politcal Logo
DW
First Person
Cook Politcal Logo