My friends who are Democrats, particularly those of the more progressive variety, don’t seem to understand how deep they are in the political hole this year—and just how hard it might be to get out of it in 2024, particularly in the Senate.
On a basic level, midterm elections are referenda on the sitting president and, if a president’s party has control of the Senate and the House, on that governing party as a whole. President Biden’s current Gallup job-approval rating of 40 percent is the second-lowest of any president in the era of modern polling at a comparable time, above only Donald Trump’s 36 percent. But consider that Biden’s approval is 9 points worse than Barack Obama’s 49 percent at this point, and 14 points below where Bill Clinton was. Democrats lost six Senate and 64 House seats in Obama’s first midterm in 2010, and gave up eight Senate and 54 seats House seats in Clinton’s first midterm in 1994.
The marking of Biden’s first full year in office brought a plethora of quality public polls. The RealClearPolitics average of polls conducted between Jan. 3 and Jan. 20 was 41 percent approve, 55 percent disapprove, while the FiveThirtyEight average pegs Biden’s approval at 42 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove. A new NBC News poll had 44 percent approving to 54 percent disapproving among registered voters. Biden got his highest approval rating in the Fox News poll of registered voters, at 47 percent (52 percent disapproved). At the risk of stating the obvious, this is a really bad place for Democrats to be, when they have no margins to speak of in Congress. Trends during midterm-election years rarely reverse.
Midterm elections also tend to be about turnout. Members of a president’s party are often complacent, mildly disappointed, or even disillusioned in midterm years. But they are rarely ecstatic, anxious to turn out and vote. Conversely, the party that lost the previous election tends to be angry, looking for revenge. In short, they’re hyper-motivated.
As NBC News senior political editor Mark Murray noted in the political unit’s First Read on Monday morning, Republicans now have a double-digit advantage in intensity, a sure sign of that disparity in enthusiasm that so often plagues a party in power. In the just-released NBC News poll, when registered voters were asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 their interest in the upcoming election, 61 percent of Republicans responded with either a 9 or 10, showing great interest, compared to just 47 percent of Democrats. Murray further noted that the biggest drops in interest were among key groups in the Democratic base—Black, young, and urban voters.
In the key Senate contests, every one of the six states that had the closest presidential margins in 2020 features a highly competitive Senate race this year. In fact, The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter has nine Senate seats in its three most competitive categories (Lean Democrat, Toss Up or Lean Republican). All nine were among the 12 closest states in the 2020 presidential.
Newly elected Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock is running for reelection in Georgia, where Biden won by less than a quarter of a percentage point, his narrowest margin. In the second-closest state, Arizona, Biden won by just three-tenths of a point. Just-elected Democrat Mark Kelly is running for a full term there. The third-closest state was Wisconsin, where Biden won by a bit over six-tenths of a point. Democrats hope to beat Sen. Ron Johnson, the most vulnerable Republican senator in the country. Pennsylvania hosts an open-seat Senate contest where Biden won by just over 1 percentage point. North Carolina, settled by less than a point-and-a-half, also has an open seat. The sixth-closest presidential state was Nevada, where Catherine Cortez Masto is seeking a second full term. The seventh closest, Michigan, doesn’t have a Senate race but the next closest does. There, in Florida, Democrats hope to unseat Marco Rubio in a state where Trump prevailed by a bit over 3 percentage points. States nine and 10, Texas and Minnesota, don’t have Senate races, but Democrat Maggie Hassan is seeking a second term in New Hampshire, the 11th closest, where Biden won by just over 7 points. New Hampshire has a well-earned reputation for being an extremely volatile political climate with House and Senate seats swinging with the national mood. The dozen is rounded out by Ohio, where Trump prevailed by 8 points.
Should Republicans net more than one seat this fall and retake the chamber, Democrats will have a tall order to get it back in 2024. They’ll be defending 23 seats to the GOP’s 10. Of the 23, three are in states Trump carried: Jon Tester in Montana, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, and Joe Manchin in West Virginia. Another five come from states that Biden won by 5 points or less. None of the 10 GOP seats up are in Biden states and only one, Rick Scott in Florida, is in a state that Trump won by 5 points or less.
If Republicans have majorities in the House and/or Senate, how would Biden do in years three and four? While both Clinton and Obama bounced back from horrible midterm elections to win second term, it’s questionable that Biden has the political dexterity to finesse what they did.
As this column noted three weeks ago, it might take either divine intervention or Republicans self-destructing to save the Democratic majority in the U.S House as that chamber reflects national trends much more than the more idiosyncratic Senate. But as we saw in the 1994, 2006, 2010, and 2014 midterms, the Senate can also reflect those same political fundamentals. While Democrats would certainly take divine intervention, they might ought to be praying for Republican self-destruction, whether in the form of Trump driving a wedge through his own party or that increasingly “Trumpy” Republicans replicate the behavior of the tea-party era GOP in 2010 and 2012, nominating unelectable candidates in key Senate races.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on January 25, 2022.
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