At a time when very little if anything is “normal” about American politics, we have come to expect the unexpected. While the House looks very, very likely to flip into Republican hands and the Senate more likely than not, what kind of event might keep at least one if not both chambers in Democratic control?
Democrats fervently hope that the reversal of Roe v. Wade, gun legislation, and the findings of the Jan. 6 committee (or some combination thereof) might galvanize their voters enough to retain at least one chamber. But data suggests that even a combination of all three is unlikely to be the antidote for their problems.
The public is exhibiting an incredibly high level of pessimism about the direction of the country thanks in part to a variety of economic indicators that are all flashing red. Inflation is running at its highest rate in more than 40 years, the National Association of Realtors reported in May that the ability of buyers to afford a home hit its lowest levels since 2006, and over half of Americans and a majority of economists are bracing for a recession in the next year or 18 months.
With those factors, along with the inability of President Biden and congressional Democrats to even remotely deliver on all they promised, there is plenty to be pessimistic about for Democrats. Midterm elections are basically report cards halfway through a president’s term, an opportunity for voters to choose between “stay the course” or “time for a change.” History shows their proclivity is to opt for a midcourse correction, if not a total reversal of what happened two years earlier. Setbacks from bad elections have enormous consequences. The composition of the U.S. Supreme Court is a prime example of that, but there are other potentially grave consequences—more on that later.
Yet there might be one silver lining for Democrats on the distant horizon. Should former President Trump decide, against the advice of nearly every Republican strategist alive, to announce his candidacy before the midterm elections in November, he might energize Democratic voters enough to minimize their losses at the margins. I am not sure it would save one or both majorities, but it certainly has the potential to have a greater impact than abortion, guns, and Jan. 6 combined.
As unpopular as Biden is currently, he still bests Trump in most head-to-head matchups. In fact, Trump is arguably the one Republican that Biden might have a decent chance of beating if he ultimately decides to run for reelection.
While it is certainly true that only a fraction of Republicans have turned on Trump and would definitely vote against him should he run again, another 30 percent appear to be shopping around and open to considering alternatives to Trump, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll.
If a single Republican were to take Trump on—let’s just say Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example—there is a decent chance that there are enough Republicans who say that they may agree with many or most of Trump’s policies and positions but would consider him damaged merchandise, a flawed vehicle for a message they like, and he might lose the primary. The challenge is that under the Republican delegate-selection system of winner-takes-all rather than proportional representation, delegates allocated in rough proportion with vote share, the more rivals Trump has, the more ways the anti-Trump or non-Trump vote is split. If that’s the case, then it is more likely for Trump to prevail. A fractured and competitive primary would not be a pleasant experience for Trump, but he would still come out on top.
But back to 2022. Clearly Democrats need to make this election about anything but Biden and the state and direction of the economy. Can Trump provide the change of venue that Democrats so desperately need?
He will need to for Democrats’ sake, because the stakes are far too high considering historic precedent when a party suffers an election wipeout like Democrats are looking at this year.
Consider the 2010 Republican wave. Going into that election, Republicans only had nine trifectas (states with Republican governors and entire control of both state legislative chambers) and Democrats had 16. After the 2010 election, Republicans had 21 and Democrats had 10. Today, Republicans have 23. Democrats have 14.
Democrats can little afford another disastrous midterm and yet, one looks quite likely to be on the horizon. You can’t blame them for looking for any way to escape this; the question is whether Donald Trump will provide them with one.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on July 19, 2022.
Our subscribers have first access to individual race pages for each House, Senate and Governors race, which will include race ratings (each race is rated on a seven-point scale) and a narrative analysis pertaining to that race.