Has the course of this election reached an inflection point? Have President Biden and congressional Democrats effectively mitigated the excessive political baggage they’ve accumulated over the last 18 months? Have events and circumstances and last week’s strong jobs report changed enough over the last six weeks to save at least the Senate, if not the House?
The first five and a half months for Biden and Democrats actually went pretty well. Biden’s job approval in the Gallup poll averaged 56 percent, thanks in part to his crowning achievement, passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
Biden then sought to build on that with an ambitious and expansive policy agenda often described as “historic” and “transformational,” some comparing it to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Its two major components were the American Jobs Plan, which later morphed into the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act, a roughly $2 trillion infrastructure package; and a broad-ranging American Family Plan that proposed domestic-spending programs expanding the social-safety net as well as an aggressive approach to climate change. Over this period of almost six months, voters preferred Democrats over Republicans in the race for Congress by an average of 5 percentage points.
But when June of last year turned into July and then August, the wheels seemed to come off. An inauspicious exit from Afghanistan, the rise of the coronavirus Delta variant, and the earliest signs that the ambitious legislative agenda pushed by Biden and Democrats was hobbled by factionalism within the party began to take its toll on not only Biden, but his party at large. Democrats’ edge on the generic congressional ballot test shrank to just over a point during these two months.
From September of last year through July of this year, the coronavirus and Afghanistan receded from the news, but other challenges more than took their place. Inflation surged to the highest levels in 40 years, amid fears of an oncoming recession. Biden’s approval ratings plummeted and Americans turned increasingly pessimistic, with only one in five saying the country was headed in the right direction. Yet pollsters in both parties had begun privately remarking about how incongruous it was that all of these elements that looked so horrible for Democrats weren’t translating into the kind of GOP advantage that one might have expected—just two or three points on the generic ballot.
In the last six weeks though, we have started seeing more aberrational signs that may or may not signal a directional change in this campaign. First was the realization that several Republican Senate primary winners in key contests may be a bit too exotic and problematic to succeed in a broader November election pool of voters. Just using the betting markets as a benchmark, as recently as mid-June Senate Republicans had been favored to unseat Democratic incumbents Mark Kelly in Arizona and Raphael Warnock in Georgia as well as retaining the open seat in Pennsylvania. Republicans now have uphill climbs in the three states thanks to weak nominees.
While Republicans are still favored to hang onto their open seat in Ohio, some are a bit unnerved by signs of a metabolism problem with their candidate J.D. Vance. His energy levels for fundraising and campaigning is causing some angst, especially since Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee, has run an impressive campaign and is certainly working much harder.
The overall odds of Republicans winning a majority have dropped from over 70 percent in late June to 47 percent now.
The biggest question marks on the Senate map concern two other Democratic incumbents, Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada and Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire. The Nevada contest between Cortez Masto and Republican Adam Laxalt, a former state attorney general, is a straight-up coin-flip race without any problematic candidates. How the political winds are blowing come November will matter a lot; the race is less between two people than two dueling and evenly matched parties.
New Hampshire’s Sept. 13 primary will tell us whether Hassan’s reelection is in deep trouble or very lucky. If Republicans pick the more mainstream state Senate President Chuck Morse, the dynamics will resemble those in Nevada, red versus blue, with neither candidate horribly flawed or enormously advantaged. But if New Hampshire Republicans go with retired Gen. Don Bolduc, a highly decorated Army Special Forces commander with ten tours in Afghanistan but a less impressive political pedigree, then the GOP’s hopes would depend upon a gigantic wave.
The second sign was the surprise 19-point defeat in Kansas of a ballot initiative that would have allowed the state Legislature to ban abortion. That would seem to support Democrats’ hope that the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade could draw a surge in pro-choice voters to the polls in November. But whether a vote on a primary election day ballot that was about nothing but abortion really underscores the larger point is debatable.
Finally, are Democrats finally learning to get out of their own way and do something with the unified government voters have given them? Biden is expected to sign the CHIPS and Science Act on Tuesday. The House could send the Inflation Reduction Act (aka “Build Back Somewhat Better”) to his desk on Friday. Democrats argue that these two packages, when added to the coronavirus relief and infrastructure packages, add up to an impressive set of accomplishments for any president in the first half of a term.
So what’s it all add up to? I must echo keen political observer Doug Sosnik, who told The New York Times, “I can’t figure this one out.” In her newsletter, GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson writes, “I'd still rather be Republicans than Democrats heading into November [but] it might be time to sound some gentle alarms for Republicans.”
My own hunch is that Republicans will still take the House, but not by the margin they had hoped. In the Senate, look for another photo finish, maybe on Nov. 8 but maybe even in a Dec. 6 runoff in Georgia.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on August 8, 2022.
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