We’ve seen two major shifts in the political momentum already this year, something highly unusual in a midterm election. More importantly, there is no reason to be sure that all of that volatility is in our rearview mirror. That’s because so many voters feel cross-pressured: They are concerned about (if not mad at) one party for one or more reasons, but also have anxieties or alarm about the other party for entirely different reasons. The question is which set of trepidations will be top of mind when they make their final voting decision. The spotlight of anger that long focused primarily on Democrats has now become a floodlight illuminating shortcomings in each party, with several issues having the potential to be the Achilles' heel that cripples that party.

Some are disappointed or angry with President Biden and Democrats over the economy and soaring costs of living, triggering questions about stewardship over the economy. Other issues, most notably the border and rising rates of violent crime, also make cameo appearances on voters’ list of concerns. On the other side of the ledger, many are alarmed by extreme examples of abortion restrictions or even bans taking effect as a result of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision reversing Roe v. Wade, as well as the actions and behavior of former President Trump and many of his supporters challenging the validity of the last election and raising questions about whether we will continue to see peaceful transfers of power.

To be sure, nine out of 10 voters are locked in for one party or the other, with virtually no chance of supporting a candidate from the opposition party. That other 10 percent may not fundamentally trust either party. The question of which side they fear more is hardly an academic one—in a time when extreme partisanship effectively creates high floors and low ceilings for each party, it translates into trailing candidates remaining within striking distance of the front-runners, with several issues capable of flipping the dynamic on its head.

There are two Democratic senators in reelection fights that are too close to call—Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Raphael Warnock of Georgia—as well as one Republican, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. But Republicans have additional exposure when it comes to open seats, namely in the close races in North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Thus, four GOP seats are in extreme danger, compared with two for Democrats. That is a primary source of the conventional wisdom that Democrats are more likely to hang onto the Senate.

That was a much easier sell through the summer, when Cortez Masto had enjoyed a run of small yet consistent leads in polls. That advantage has dried up, though she’s still within the margin of error in most surveys. Her Republican opponent, former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, is not nearly as flawed as some of the GOP nominees that other Democratic incumbents are facing.

As Laxalt surged, Republicans Herschel Walker and Mehmet Oz were gaining ground in Georgia and Pennsylvania, respectively. Georgia, Wisconsin, and Nevada are all still considered Toss-Up races, while the Pennsylvania race leans toward the Democrat. But to the extent that the needle moved in the last month, it was toward Republicans. At the same time, the “Lean R” contests in North Carolina and Ohio continue to give Republicans heartburn. Arguably both should effectively be over by now, but they aren’t.

If this is making you a bit dizzy, it should. That’s why the perception that Democrats have gained a real advantage in the Senate is so premature—but so is the feeling that Republicans have the House wrapped up. The New York Times’s Nate Cohn caught the attention of many Monday morning when he wrote that it is not out of the question that Democrats could actually hold the House. The fact that every single House race rated as a Toss-Up going into Election Day 2020 broke for Republicans should serve as a reminder of how explosive things are and the importance of that last gust of wind, which could push very close races in either direction. In a year with so many conflicted voters, many not intent exclusively on punishing one party, volatility is the rule.

The article was originally published for the National Journal on October 3, 2022.

More from the Cook Political Report

Virginia House
User photo
First Person
Cook Politcal Logo