In the spirit of the upcoming Super Bowl and the retirement of legendary quarterback Tom Brady, this column will rely on some football metaphors to help explain the opportunities and risks for the GOP in the battle for control of the Senate in 2022.
Thanks to several factors, including Pres. Biden's sagging job approval rating numbers, the nagging presence of COVID and rising inflation, Republicans have a strong field position. Democrats control all the levers of power in DC, which means they also take all the blame when things aren't going well. Meanwhile, GOP voters are fired up, while Democratic voters are more 'meh.'
But, like any team holding the ball in the 'red zone,' the biggest threat to the GOP right now is a fumble or a turnover.
One of the easiest ways to turn over the ball is by over-reaching. Or, to torture this football analogy a bit more, by trying some fancy trick play instead of just running the ball 2 yards to the end zone.
One clear 'over-reach' risk is the upcoming hearings for a new Supreme Court Justice. Many Republicans, especially those looking at a potential 2024 presidential run, will want to use the hearings to establish their conservative bona-fides, raise their profile, and raise money. A clip of a particularly aggressive line of questioning makes for good viral video material.
But, there's also the possibility that their tactics end up backfiring. The contentious Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh hearings did as much — if not more — to motivate the proponents of those justices. Over-aggressive attacks on a female, Black Supreme Court nominee could be just the thing to help energize Democratic voters and donors.
And according to recent reporting, the Senate GOP leadership is concerned about the hearings needless derailing Republicans' focus. "During Senate Republicans' private lunch Tuesday," POLITICO Playbook reported, "GOP leaders encouraged members to keep focusing on the pocketbook problems plaguing Democrats. Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said that waging a high-profile battle against a SCOTUS nominee they don't have the votes to block could be counterproductive to their messaging and also set unreasonable expectations for the base. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — who knows a thing or two about court fights — argued that the GOP has already had a lot of success with the courts. He suggested one liberal jurist replacing another wasn't a big deal since it wouldn't change the balance of the court."
Primary contests are also prime "fumble" opportunities. Primaries force candidates to focus exclusively on winning over their base; a base that is increasingly more isolated and insulated from the opinions and concerns of swing voters. For Republicans, the most direct path to winning credibility with primary voters is to get the seal of approval from Donald Trump. But, winning that endorsement comes with tremendous risk. A candidate who isn't supportive of Trump's false claims about the 2020 campaign or who won't downplay the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 is unlikely to gain Trump's favor. In Nevada, for example, Trump has endorsed Adam Laxalt, who, as co-chair of Trump's 2020 campaign in the state, "helped spearhead numerous pre- and post-presidential election challenges that courts rejected, mostly because of a lack of evidence."
By closely aligning themselves with Trump, a Republican candidate gives the Democrats an opportunity to move the race off more troublesome topics like COVID or the economy, and onto the former president's controversial and unpopular positions and statements. Democrats don't need to win any state that Trump carried in 2022. And, while Biden has gotten less popular since 2020, Trump hasn't gotten any more popular.
The other risk for Republican candidates is not simply that they seek his endorsement but that they try to emulate his slash-and-burn and 'take no prisoners' style. Remember, what many voters — especially swing suburban voters — disliked about Trump wasn't his policies but his personality.
That hasn't stopped some GOP candidates from mimicking the Trump aesthetic in their T.V. advertising. In Arizona, GOP businessman Jim Lamon warns that "we stop the politicians here or we lose America forever." His GOP primary opponent, Blake Masters talks not just of winning control of the U.S. Senate, but of "tak[ing] back this country." In Pennsylvania, GOP candidate David McCormick tells viewers that his campaign is "about saving our country from the un-American left."
But, when I listen to focus groups of swing voters, I don't hear a desire for more fighting or a worry about 'losing' America. They are exhausted and frustrated about the last few years of division and tension. They've turned off the news. They no longer post on Facebook for fear of getting into dust-ups with family and friends over vaccines. "You can't talk about anything with anyone if you want to keep a relationship," said one exasperated woman in a recent focus group of white female voters.
When asked how things are going today, they use words like "nervous," "concerned, "uncertain," and "discouraged." They are looking for stability, not more chaos. They are looking for fixes, not fights.
We are still many months away from the election. And, smart candidates and campaigns can effectively pivot from primary to general election mode. A fumble can be recovered. Many strategists I've talked with also admit that if the political environment is as bleak for Democrats in the fall as it is today, even incredibly flawed candidates with mediocre campaigns can still win.
Bottom line: Many swing voters are disappointed that Biden hasn't delivered on "return to normal," but that doesn't mean they want a return to the divisiveness and chaos that came with Trump-ism.
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.