On paper, the November midterm elections should be a disaster of epic proportions for Democrats. Midterms are bad enough for any party holding the White House. When a party controls both chambers in Congress, it can be particularly treacherous. There’s no effective way to point a finger or shift the blame.
The power of that trend, and Democrats’ experience with it over the last 50 years, comes through loud and clear on page 5 of GOP consultant Bruce Mehlman’s latest slide deck. Mehlman’s presentation shows that the last three times that Democrats went into an election holding a federal trifecta, the outcome wasn’t pretty. In 1980, when President Carter was seeking reelection and Democrats had it all, they lost both the presidency and the Senate (which they had won in every election since 1954). In 1994, Democrats lost two legs as well, both the Senate and House, the latter for the first time in 40 years. In 2010, Democrats lost their House majority. Their Senate majority fell four years later in President Obama’s second-term midterm.
This year, considering President Biden’s historically low job-approval ratings, 40-year-high inflation rates, and the widespread expectation of a recession in the next 12-18 months, it should add up to an unspeakable challenge for any similarly situated party.
But is disaster for Democrats inevitable? In the House it is hard to come to any different conclusion. In the Senate, however, a few exposed threads are dangling that could unravel such an outcome. One nagging loose end is that given these dire circumstances for Democrats, shouldn’t Republicans have a wider lead than just 1 to 3 points in the public preference for Congress? The GOP advantage in the FiveThirtyEight average of generic congressional ballot test polls is just 1.1 percentage points. RealClearPolitics gives them a 2.5-point average lead.
Clearly, voters are not happy with Biden and Democrats. But are there other things at work? Former President Trump’s brand has been under a lot of pressure from the Jan. 6 hearings, and signs of Trump fatigue abound. An announcement of a presidential campaign before the midterm election has the potential to highlight, bold, and underscore any reservations the public may have about him and distract from a focus on Biden as well as the state of the national economy.
Similarly, or maybe inferentially, the Republican Party’s brand has taken a bit of a beating in recent months. A very aggressive cultural agenda pursued by Republican officials in many states seems a bit discordant with where the electorate is on those issues.
Another potential loose end is Republican primaries have nominated more than a few relatively exotic candidates, who will really test the proposition that our elections are getting more and more parliamentary. History has shown that a candidate’s brand can become so toxic that even with hurricane-force tailwinds, they still cannot get across the finish line first.
In Georgia, newly minted Sen. Raphael Warnock is seeking a full term in what is, on paper anyway, the toughest state for any Democratic Senate incumbent. But Herschel Walker has proven to be one of the more underwhelming Senate candidates in modern history. He brings more baggage than Samsonite to a race that Republicans should—but may well not—win.
At least in my mind, Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman is nowhere near as able and impressive as Warnock. He may or may not play well in the suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. But again, Republican nominee Mehmet Oz could run a competing luggage store in the same mall as Walker. The brutal web ad produced by MeidasTouch.com gives a sampling of the opposition-research opportunities afforded by the Harvard- and University of Pennsylvania-educated Oz.
Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008 and subsequent ambitious agenda evoked an incendiary response that effectively created the tea-party movement. It was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the GOP benefitted from skyrocketing voter enthusiasm. On the other, the movement elevated not-ready-for-prime-time candidates in Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada in 2010, and again in Indiana and Missouri in 2012. Those races effectively delayed Republicans’ takeover of the Senate until 2014. Similarly, Biden and the Democratic agenda of 2021, while hurting the party in so many ways, may have unleashed an exuberance of certain extreme elements of the GOP, which is nominating candidates who may not be able to win under otherwise optimal conditions.
In all likelihood, this will still be an awful election for Democrats. But keep in mind that while the record of midterm-election outcomes in the House is horrific for the party holding the White House (losses in 36 out of 39 since the Civil War), the Senate record is more mixed (losses in 19 out of the 26 midterms since senators began to be directly elected).
Democrats are rooting hard that this year is another one of those exceptions.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on July 25, 2022.
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