Democrats try to buck history in midterm elections as GOP decries inflation



WASHINGTON (October 13, 2022)—In an unusual midterm election, Democrats and Republicans both hold significant advantages and disadvantages, making the election so close many analysts are struggling to predict the outcome.

With less than four weeks to go until the Nov. 8 election—and with early voting already underway in some states—the political state of play reflects a dramatic change from where the country was at the beginning of this year when Republicans were gaining momentum as President Joe Biden's approval rating was consistently declining and inflation was rising.

Historically, the president's party usually loses seats in Congress (and sometimes the majority) as voters blame the party in power for any variety of real or perceived shortcomings.

This year, the dynamics have shifted significantly, as Charlie Cook, founder and contributor to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, noted in a recent column.

"…Neither party has the benefit of a real tailwind; each has serious political exposure on important issues," Cook said. "A midterm that normally would simply be a referendum on the president and governing party has now become more of a choice election."

The fate of the Democratic majority in the House and Senate will come down to the outcomes in races for a handful of seats this year.

In the House, there are 221 Democrats and 214 Republicans. In the Senate, there are 50 Republicans and 48 Democrats (plus two independents who caucus with them; Vice President Kamala Harris provides tie-breaking votes to give her party the thinnest majority control).

An updated FiveThirtyEight election forecast Thursday said that Republicans have a 70% chance of taking over the House and Democrats have a 66% chance of holding on to the Senate.

Biden's job approval numbers, while still low, are improving, and Democrats have a potent issue, courtesy of the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade. The threat to reproductive rights is galvanizing women voters.

The election also is being conducted against the backdrop of the omnipresent chaos of former President Donald Trump's legal problems and his persistent lies that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

Republicans are working to keep the public's attention on inflation, crime in urban areas, immigration and what they see as over-spending by the Democrats.

"If it turns out to be a very good year for the Democrats and they can hold on to the House, that would be by historical standards, a tremendous victory," David Karol, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, told Capital News Service.

Here is an assessment of the crosswinds that are producing tight polls and keeping analysts guessing.

REPUBLICANS

According to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, the top issue for Republican voters in November's election is inflation.

"Usually inflation is not a problem. We haven't had it this (extreme) for about a little bit over 40 years," Karol said.

Gas prices decreased by 4.9% over the last month, according to the Consumer Price Index, which is the largest price decrease of any commodity. Still, that decrease has been offset by the consistently spiking prices of other goods, like food and electricity. The CPI said food prices have increased 11.2% over the last year, and electricity prices rose 15.5%, which are slightly larger than August's numbers, which marked the largest 12-month increases since May 1979 and August 1981, respectively.

Gas prices are likely to rise again after last week's agreement among OPEC+ nations to cut oil production by 2 million barrels per day.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, who is eyeing the speaker's chair, has repeatedly criticized the Biden administration and Democratic congressional leadership for their handling of inflation.

"The Democrats continue to talk down to American families—no matter the increased cost of nearly everything," McCarthy said in July on the House floor. "Worse, Democrats have no plan to fight inflation and put our country back on track."

It's a potent theme for the GOP, said Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst for Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter.

"You don't need a reporter to tell you that your groceries are more expensive or that it takes more money to fill up your gas tank than it did six months ago," Rubashkin said.

Don Smith, a voter from Delaware, is a libertarian but typically votes for the Republican candidates in elections. He recently got laid off from his job, and he just had his first child, so he said inflation is the top concern on his mind.

"The things that affect my wallet tend to be the things that I think about the most," Smith said.

In Maryland, 68% of adults believe inflation has caused financial hardship in their households, a recent Goucher/Baltimore Banner/WYPR poll found.

Republicans also are trying to position themselves as "tough-on-crime." According to an NBC News poll, 45% of Republican voters view crime as an important issue, while only 22% of Democrats hold it as one of their top issues.

Republican candidates are attacking Democrats as soft on crime or even "pro-crime," as Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, charged at a Nevada rally last weekend. In various attack advertisements in the Pennsylvania Senate race, Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz has claimed Democrat Jon Fetterman is "dangerously liberal on crime."

Immigration is another major issue Republicans are focusing on to fire up their party's base. At a Trump rally over the weekend, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, claimed that "illegal aliens are on the verge of replacing you, replacing your jobs, and replacing your kids in school. And coming from all over the world, they're also replacing your culture."

Recently, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent thousands of illegal immigrants to Democratic jurisdictions in buses and planes. DeSantis said in a press conference that sending migrants to Martha's Vineyard would force communities nationwide to be "sharing in the burdens."

According to a poll from Politico/Morning Consult, "2 in 3 GOP voters said it's appropriate that some Republican governors have sent thousands of migrants to liberal states and cities."

Critics said the move was a "soulless" political stunt to attract voters.

DEMOCRATS

For many Democrats, Trump is on the ballot in the midterms.

According to a September Quinnipiac poll, "29 percent (of people) say one reason for their vote for U.S. Senator will be to express opposition to Donald Trump."

Trump-backed candidates running for the House and Senate, such as Oz and Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance, may be partially responsible for this new shift, Karol said.

"(Trump) is actively involved in getting candidates nominated, with some success, and candidates feel compelled to take a stand about how the election was stolen and that there was fraud because of him and his supporters in the Republican Party," Karol said.

The former president has also been the subject of near-constant news coverage, from the Mar-a-Lago investigation to multiple civil lawsuits and criminal probes, as well as the Jan. 6 hearings. All of these ongoing stories may influence voters' decision-making on Election Day, according to Dave Wasserman, senior editor at the Cook Political Report.

"The House GOP continues to be remade in former President Donald Trump's image," Wasserman said.

Democrats have labeled the riot at the United States Capitol a "terrorist attack" and have made it a point to remind voters of this.

"The MAGA Republicans didn't side with law enforcement; they sided with the insurrectionists," Biden said in remarks to the Democratic National Committee last month. "And they still do. Don't tell me you support law enforcement if you can't condemn what happened on January the 6th."

The GOP's downplaying of the Jan. 6 assault and the party's fielding of dozens of candidates who deny Trump lost in 2020 and say they may refuse to abide by election results this year has persuaded about a third of Democratic voters that the need to protect democracy is their top concern, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Right behind that are reproductive rights—the top issue among 21 percent of Democrats, according to that poll.

After almost 50 years of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court stripped away federal protections for women's abortion rights in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision on June 24.

States now have the power to roll out trigger laws, which would determine the stage at which an abortion would no longer be considered legal, if at all.

For example, Texas has instituted a near-total abortion ban with only exceptions for medical emergencies. Randy Parsons, 71, and Rosie Parsons, 66, voters who live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said abortion is one of their top issues going into the midterms, and it is motivating them to vote for Democrats at the local and national level.

"We just don't have much pride in the way our state is being run right now," said Randy Parsons, a retired social worker.

The abortion decision prompted an uproar nationwide, causing a surge in registrations among women voters in many states and larger turnout by women voters in special elections.

In Alaska's special election on Aug. 16, Mary Peltola, a Democrat, defeated former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the GOP's vice presidential nominee in 2008. Just weeks earlier, a majority of Kansans voted not to change the state's constitution to make abortion illegal. Both were unexpected victories for Democrats.

Democrats are depicting the Supreme Court's abortion ruling as opening the door to state bans and assaults on other rights.

"Sadly, the Dobbs decision was not based on a change in the law, only a change in the members of the Supreme Court," Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, said in a recent letter to constituents. "This is the root cause of my trepidation. With an untethered conservative majority, what civil rights will be next to fall?"

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, along with many other Republicans, have not endorsed South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham's proposal to ban abortions after 15 weeks nationwide, exempting rape and incest victims as well as mothers suffering from at-risk pregnancies.

Some Republicans in competitive races are attempting to distance themselves from the abortion issue, going so far as to scrub their previous positions from campaign websites. Karol said it is still unclear whether the abortion ban proposal is going to appeal to Republican voters in the midterms.

"The question is: how many people are going to vote on the basis of that issue? And we don't know," Karol said. "If you're concerned about inflation—if you're a traditional Republican voter—but you also happen to be pro-choice, how much weight do you give that factor?"

POST-ELECTION

Biden has accomplished many of the goals he promised Americans during his presidential campaign, including securing a major infrastructure spending bill, reducing student loan debt, committing historic levels of spending to combat climate change, lowering prescription drug costs, addressing gun safety and taking steps aimed at cutting budget deficits.

"The mere act of appearing like you're doing something, appearing like you're legislating and governing, has restored some of the confidence in the president that his own party had lost previously," Rubashkin said.

But if Democrats lose their majorities in the House or Senate or both, future administration initiatives are likely to face a GOP roadblock. For example, if Democrats lose the Senate, they could not confirm more judges without bipartisan agreement from Republicans.

"If Republicans take back either chamber there will be no real legislative agenda beyond keeping the government open and raising the debt ceiling," Rubashkin said. "That's the fact of the matter."

Overall, the 2022 election will likely be atypical in many ways. While midterm turnout and interest are usually low, this year many voters seem to feel differently.

"I think it's important. I think, a lot of times, everybody's just focused on voting for the president," said Jordan Hobson, a New Jersey voter. "We kind of forget about the midterms and (that) they have a big impact on the House and the Senate. I think it's a building block to help support the president's agenda."

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