WASHINGTON — Last fall, Republicans held high hopes of a “red wave” in the 2022 elections after they stormed to power in blue-leaning Virginia and nearly won the governor’s race in New Jersey. While Democrats were demotivated, the GOP base was on fire.
But in recent weeks, numerous data points have indicated Republican prospects of a smashing victory are dimming. While the president’s party tends to perform poorly in midterm elections, there are signs it is shaping up to be an unusual year, potentially enabling Democrats to hold one or both chambers of Congress.
Election analysts attribute the shift to the conservative Supreme Court’s ruling to eliminate the constitutional right to legal abortion, declining gas prices and former President Donald Trump’s seizing the spotlight and reasserting his dominance over the GOP.
Here are the signs:
- A Democratic victory in a bellwether election. The starkest sign of a shifting landscape came last week in the Hudson Valley, a highly competitive district north of New York City that has mirrored the national landscape for years. It voted for Joe Biden in 2020, Trump in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2012. In a red wave climate, Democrats would have no business winning the special House election. Yet Democrat Pat Ryan defeated Republican Marc Molinaro in a test of each party’s preferred message. Ryan ran on protecting abortion rights, combating gun violence and battling corporate greed, while Molinaro sought to make the election a referendum on Biden, inflation and “one-party” rule in Washington.
- Persuadable voters are trending toward Democrats. The latest NBC News poll, conducted this month, included an unusual finding for midterm elections: Persuadable voters in the midterm election are tilting toward Democrats, the party in power. This group accounts for about 25% of respondents, who float between the parties and tend to be male, moderate, independent and exurban. They preferred Republicans by 6 points in the combined NBC News polls of January, March and May. But in the August poll, they leaned toward Democrats by 3 points.
- The GOP’s “enthusiasm” edge is shrinking. In March, the NBC News poll found that Republicans held a 17-point “enthusiasm” advantage over Democrats — that is, their voters were more likely to express high interest in voting this fall. In the August poll, the GOP advantage fell to 2 points.
- Mitch McConnell is downplaying expectations in the Senate. McConnell, the Republican leader, isn’t sounding too bullish about his prospects to capture control of the Senate, having predicted just two weeks ago, “There’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate.” That may be a product of the shifting environment, along with a phenomenon McConnell described as “candidate quality.” A series of first-time Republican contenders are struggling in competitive races against seasoned Democratic politicians. Recruitment failures in states like New Hampshire and Arizona have led GOP governors to decline to run.
- Republicans are cutting ad spending in battleground Arizona while pouring cash into safer Ohio. The Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-allied super PAC, is slashing $8 million in September spending in Arizona while pledging $28 million in Ohio to shore up Republican J.D. Vance, who is polling neck and neck in the Senate race with Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan. Senate Leadership Fund President Steven Law said in a statement that the party is shifting resources because of “an unexpected expense in Ohio.” In 2020, the state voted 12.5 points more Republican than the country as a whole — it should be a layup for the GOP, especially in a favorable year.
- Biden’s approval may be ticking up (although it’s still poor). One of the most troubling data points for Democrats has been the president’s approval rating, which historically correlates to midterm election outcomes. Biden’s job approval took a nosedive last summer. The NBC News poll finds Biden’s approval rating roughly flat at 42%. Other surveys show it edging up, including a new Gallup poll that shows his approval rising from 38% in July to 44% in August — his highest rating in a year. The main driver of the shift was that approval among independents jumped from 31% in July to 40% this month.
- Republicans appear spooked about abortion. GOP candidates are seeking to obscure their views on abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling and the New York special election, seemingly wary that their stance is a political loser. They include Blake Masters, the Arizona Senate nominee, who scrubbed anti-abortion language from his campaign website. They also include Tom Barrett, the Republican seeking to unseat Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., who removed part of his campaign website vowing to “protect life from conception,” the Detroit News reported.
Overall, given the slender Democratic margins, Republicans don’t need a red wave to capture control of Congress — a series of ripples in key races may be enough. And high discontent about the economy and the direction of the country means the mood can still shift against Democrats down the stretch.
But just 70 days from Election Day, Democrats see some hope of defying historical midterm trends against the party in power.