For months, the prevailing assumption in American politics was that Joe Biden’s Democrats were lumbering on the conveyor belt straight to the electoral slaughterhouse.
That assumption is being upended now.
Democrats are suddenly on a bit of a roll. They’ve racked up a string of strong byelection performances and on Tuesday carried a swing district in New York State that’s historically served as a national bellwether.
That upset win in New York’s 19th congressional district defied the polls in a seat seen as a final litmus test before the November midterms and suggests the party’s better-than-expected recent performances in Nebraska, Minnesota and Kansas were no mirage.
Lately, the Democrats’ demise seems less certain. The midterm polls, like gas prices, suddenly seem less calamitous than a few weeks ago.
They’ve just snapped a nearly year-long streak of polls placing them behind on the so-called generic congressional preference and are now tied again with Republicans.
The most popular conservative TV host in the country, Tucker Carlson, was dumbfounded on Fox News recently by the likelihood that Republicans might even lose a Senate seat they currently hold in Pennsylvania.
“Dr. [Mehmet] Oz, [the Republican], is getting crushed by a stroke victim who was already crazy. It’s bizarre,” Carlson said. “The question is: Why is this happening?”
We’ll get to that in a minute.
Here, in the meantime, is the broad outlook as we approach Labour Day and enter the stretch run toward the Nov. 8 vote.
Emerging possibility: A split Congress
Until recently, Republicans were touted as likely to win both chambers: probably the Senate and certainly the House of Representatives.
Those projections have shifted. The Senate now stands a decent chance of remaining Democratic while the House is looking slightly more competitive.
In a sign of the shifting winds, Republican leader in the Senate Mitch McConnell last week acknowledged his party would have trouble winning that chamber.
That gloomier assessment aligns him with several independent elections forecasters, including those at Decision Desk HQ.
Analysts there now give Democrats a 60 per cent chance to keep the Senate (up from 36 per cent in June) and a 14 per cent chance to win the House (up from six per cent).
New York’s 19th district is seen as a bellwether and has voted for Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and narrowly for Joe Biden. Here, Democrat Pat Ryan appears on stage with New York Gov. Kathy Hochul. Ryan defeated Republican Marc Molinaro on Tuesday night. (Mary Altaffer/The Associated Press)
“Things seem to have gotten tighter,” said Drew McCoy, Decision Desk’s president.
Other election forecasters interviewed by CBC News at the Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia (UVA)’s Center for Politics now rate the Senate as a tossup.
Why winning the Senate matters
Controlling just half of Congress wouldn’t help Democrats pass bills, but it would matter in several other ways.
If they hold the Senate, Democrats could keep appointing judges and reshaping courts that have dealt them successive losses on abortion, gun control and climate regulations.
They’d get to control investigative committees in one chamber while the other chamber investigates Hunter Biden and Anthony Fauci.
They’d also get to play havoc with Donald Trump’s political comeback. McConnell and the ex-president have already begun blaming each other for the reversal of fortune.
Abortion and these others factors tighten race
So, to address Carlson’s question: What is happening?
Election analysts point to a few reasons for the slight brightening of Democrats’ prospects over the summer.
Abortion is one.
There’s been a jump in enthusiasm measured among young people for voting in the midterms since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
That decision interrupted the habitual pattern of U.S. politics. Usually, the opposition is angry, and fired up, and the governing party’s supporters are less enthused about voting in midterms.
Different pollsters now show that enthusiasm gap narrowing somewhat since the spring.
“Young people now have something that motivates them,” said Jessica Taylor, a Senate analyst with the Cook Political Report.
Then there’s the cost of living. It’s been a punishing year on that front with gas prices and inflation moving up, as approval of Democrats moved down.
This summer gas prices and inflation stalled. In fact, gas prices declined slightly while the rate of inflation growth hit zero in July.
That whiplash effect found itself reflected in a recent NBC News poll.
Suddenly, improbably, cost-of-living issues fell behind threats to democracy as a voter priority in that poll, while approval of Biden’s handling of the economy rose from a catastrophic 33 per cent to a simply-not-good 40 per cent.
A third factor: Democrats are getting bills passed.
Infrastructure, research funding, a modest gun bill, drug prices, deficit-reduction and the biggest climate-change program in U.S. history have passed Congress.
WATCH | U.S. Senate passes legacy-shaping bill for the Biden administration:
U.S. Senate passes Inflation Reduction Act
The U.S. Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act — a legacy-shaping bill for the administration of President Joe Biden, that includes $369 billion US in clean energy investments as well as provisions that will lower the cost of prescription drugs and increase taxes on large corporations.
“It’s been a surprisingly productive year,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor at the election forecasting unit at UVA’s Center for Politics.
“At least [Democratic] members have something to campaign on when they go back home.… There are definitely some signs of improvement in Democrats’ direction.”
Democrats recently passed a string of bills, snapping a legislative dry spell. The biggest was a climate, tax and drug-cost bill, which Joe Biden is seen signing here this month, when he handed the pen to Senate swing vote Joe Manchin. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Then there are the scars from Republican primaries.
For months, the single most important factor in Republican primaries was whether former U.S. president Donald Trump endorsed you.
That helped Dr. Oz become the party nominee in Pennsylvania, far-right favourite Blake Masters in Arizona, venture-capitalist and Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance in Ohio and retired football superstar Herschel Walker in Georgia.
Now, some of these candidates are struggling at the outset of the general election.
Trump-heavy primaries meet general election reality
They’re being out-fundraised by Democrats, and they have less cash on hand. Candidates such as Walker are facing attack ads about their past. The party is cancelling ad buys in a state that’s supposed to be competitive (Arizona) while pumping money into another state (Ohio) that’s supposed to be a sure thing.
That’s why McConnell alluded to Trump when he said it won’t be easy to win the Senate and seemed to blame the Trump-backed nominees.
“Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome,” McConnell said.
Republicans only need one additional seat to control the Senate; Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire seem like their best chances.
But that effort is being undermined by unexpectedly close challenges in holding seats their party already has in Pennsylvania, and to a lesser extent Ohio and Wisconsin.
Those concerns were further underscored in recent byelections where Democrats outperformed their 2020 result by nine points and six points in Republican strongholds in Nebraska and Minnesota.
In Kansas, the pro-choice side won a crushing victory in an abortion referendum.
That’s why so many eyes in the American political world were watching Tuesday’s vote in New York, which, unlike those other races, involved a bona-fide swing seat.
Trump helped certain candidates win their Republican primaries in recent months. Now, some, including Dr. Mehmet Oz, seen here, are struggling as they campaign for the general election in the fall. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)
Why Democrats still likely to lose the House
Make no mistake: Democrats are still distant underdogs in the House of Representatives, for reasons both historical and recent.
Democrats have almost no majority to spare. Democrats currently have a House majority of about four seats. That’s tiny. Since the 1970s, the president’s party has lost an average of 28 seats in its first midterm. Even in a normal year, McCoy said, you’d expect the president’s party to lose more than four seats.
“Historically speaking, that’s just going to be the case,” he said.
This is also a worse-than-average year for incumbents. Biden’s approval rating is historically low for a president in his second year, although it has recovered a bit lately.
Familiar faces are also gone. Thirty-five Democratic incumbents aren’t running again, compared to 27 Republicans. That’s a lot of vacant seats to reconquer.
Lastly, gerrymandering means Democrats are expected to lose a few seats in the once-a-decade redrawing of congressional boundaries. State legislatures and courts have handed Republicans more favourable maps in several states.
Presidents’ parties usually lose dozens of seats in midterms. One modern exception: George W. Bush, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (Reuters)
Then there’s the question of how accurate recent polls are.
If it’s like 2018, midterm polls were accurate and stayed stable by this point in the summer. The polls were less reliable in 2014, 2016, and 2020: either they were inaccurate, or were unstable, with Republicans surging after Labour Day.
McCoy said September is when the race dynamics settle, as more people return from holidays, answer pollsters’ calls and watch election ads.
“Labour Day,” he said. “That’s when things start to get serious.”
Taylor said we’ll see whether Democrats can keep defying a law of political gravity. It’s unusual for the party’s candidates to poll much higher than the president’s approval rating as they have been, she said.
“That’s not something we typically see,” she said. “Does that start to come back down as we enter the fall general election — after Labour Day?”
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