Inflation. Abortion. An unpopular president. And yes, Donald Trump. The factors weighing on voters’ minds make the 2022 midterms among the most unique elections in American history
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With the midterm elections rushing down the calendar, Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters of Arizona decided to make a strategic move: He deleted from his campaign website claims that President Donald Trump should have won in 2020. Masters wasn’t alone: In Michigan, GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon has taken a similar tack, refusing to answer questions about whether Trump really won the state, a claim she made during the primaries. And in Pennsylvania, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity former heart surgeon who’s running for U.S. Senate, recently said he would have certified the state’s 2020 electoral results for Joe Biden.
All three candidates earned Donald Trump’s endorsement. Now, though, as the midterms approach, all three must calculate risk: A pivot away from the mercurial former president may appeal to general election voters. But risking Trump’s ire could also cost the candidates coveted political capital.
“It runs counter to decades of American political history,” said political strategist Matt Klink. “Midterm elections are almost always a referendum on the incumbent, and the party in power has to defend. But Donald Trump and his desire to remain in the news has many Republicans sync with him when it’s to their advantage and distance themselves when it’s not.”
In his 30 years working on political campaigns, Klink said he’s never seen anything like it: The 2022 midterms are shaping up to be “one of the most unique elections in American history.”
From the moment Trump left office, he became the biggest factor in this year’s midterm elections, political observers say. But the former president’s influence isn’t the only thing weighing on voters minds as they head to the polls in November. The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade, the lingering specter of election fraud, rising costs and the threat of recession, and questions about the current president’s capacity to continue running the country will all drive choices at the ballot box.
And as elections go, this one is particularly pivotal. At stake: Democrats’ ability to continue their leftward policy march versus Republicans’ chance to stop it cold.
The Trump factor
Posting on his online media platform Truth Social, Donald Trump touted his influence ahead of a September rally in Ohio: “ALL Republican candidates want Rallies. Without the Rallies and, even more importantly, the Endorsements, most would lose.”
Indeed, Trump endorsed 176 candidates in this year’s primary cycle, and the majority of them won. But that doesn’t necessarily make him the kingmaker he claims to be.
Analysts have noted Trump pads his ratio by endorsing candidates who would have won anyway. And roughly 60 percent of the candidates he supported ran unopposed. Others running for open seats won in Republican districts that were already safe.
Still, Trump’s endorsements have earned him political fealty—even among candidates who wanted his nod and didn’t get it.
Kathy Barnette, for example. These days, Barnette spends her time getting back to being a suburban mom in a neighborhood outside Philadelphia. Helping her two high schoolers get to sports practices. Taking care of the family’s chocolate Lab. It’s a much calmer schedule than the one she maintained just a few months ago, when she barnstormed 1,300 miles across Pennsylvania each week battling Mehmet Oz, along with former hedge fund CEO David McCormick, in the state primary.
Barnette’s home office is still headquarters for her political activity. Motivational pictures line the walls, along with posters of her books and campaign flyers. A mini Trump figurine sits on her desk. Barnette has described herself as the first “ultra-MAGA” candidate—someone who subscribes utterly to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” platform.
While campaigning this spring to become Pennsylvania’s first black female U.S. senator, Barnette ran on a MAGA-style slate of issues. But none of that seemed to matter to Trump. Despite Barnette’s conservative credentials and her appeal to the former president’s base, he bestowed his endorsement on Oz.
“Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats,” Trump said in a statement. “Dr. Oz is the only one who will be able to easily defeat the Crazed, Lunatic Democrat in Pennsylvania. A vote for anyone else in the Primary is a vote against Victory in the Fall!”
Barnette, who grew up in poverty and was the first person in her family to attend college, said Trump’s jab stunned her. She was further disappointed when other prominent Republicans piled on, casting doubts on her background and electability, noting in particular her reported history of anti-Islam tweets.
Both developments tanked Barnette’s campaign. In May she lost to megamillionaire Oz, who beat megamillionaire McCormick and will now face Democrat John Fetterman—who styles himself a “blue-collar tough guy”—in the general election.
Even so, Barnette remains a staunch conservative who says she supports Trump’s presidential policies. Other GOP candidates, such as New Hampshire U.S. Senate candidate Don Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general, also express public support for Trump. But some, like Arizona’s Blake Masters, seem unsure how to operate under the president’s long shadow.
The pro-life problem
Their approach to Trump isn’t the only thing Republican candidates are rethinking ahead of November. Two weeks after winning his Arizona primary, Masters began quietly shifting his approach to abortion. Until the third week of August, Masters called himself “100% pro-life” and supported a federal law establishing fetal personhood. But on Aug. 18, the sections of his campaign website referencing those positions disappeared. In their place, a new section targeted Masters’ opponent, the incumbent U.S. senator: “Mark Kelly believes in nationwide abortion on-demand up until the moment of birth, with zero limits. That is truly shocking.”
The media noticed. NBC News reported on the changes the same day Masters released an ad stating his support for a widely accepted “ban on very late-term and partial birth abortion.” According to a Washington Post article published the following week, Masters was one of several Republican candidates for Congress to recently remove or edit abortion-related language on their websites.
Historically, abortion has been a higher priority issue for pro-lifers than for abortion supporters. But a Gallup 2022 survey begun the same day of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health draft opinion leak shows a dramatic flip-flop: Pro-life voters who saw abortion as worth a single-issue vote dropped from 13 percent to 10 percent; but single-issue pro-abortion voters spiked from 10 percent to 17 percent.
Primary and special election results in the following months seemed to confirm the shift.
On Aug. 2, a pro-life amendment failed in the Kansas primary, 59 percent to 41 percent. An estimated 20 percent of voters went to the polls just to cast a vote on the amendment. State groups that opposed the amendment painted it as government interference that would be dangerous for women even though it simply clarified that the state constitution doesn’t guarantee a right to abortion. “We just never cut through that noise,” said Brittany Jones, a spokesperson for the pro-life coalition behind the amendment.
That same month in New York, Republican congressional candidate Marc Molinaro lost to Democrat Pat Ryan in a special election. From the early going, Ryan made his race about abortion. His campaign signs read, “Choice is on the ballot,” and his first political video ad—released within an hour of the Dobbs decision—decried the government’s attempts to “control women’s bodies.” Ryan framed Molinaro’s “anti-choice” position as extreme. Meanwhile, Molinaro largely avoided the topic except to emphasize his support for “thoughtful limitations” on abortion and spotlight Democrats’ support for late-term abortion.
Vacillating on the life issue represents a radical change for the GOP, since even non-Christian Republicans used to declare themselves pro-life almost as an article of faith.
Most leading pro-life organizations today support laws that completely protect unborn babies from elective abortions. But since Dobbs overturned Roe v. Wade, such unequivocal legislation hasn’t been successful in legislatures heavy with pro-life votes. For example, Republican legislators in West Virginia, Indiana, and South Carolina have sparred over what exceptions to allow in pro-life bills. In some cases, such waffling has stalled efforts to protect unborn babies—and shown that the party is locked in a brand-new, post-Dobbs struggle about what it means to be pro-life.
Mallory Carroll, a spokeswoman for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said pro-life lawmakers should be pragmatic, accounting for what their constituents will actually support and only being as “ambitious as consensus allows.” For example, in changing his website, Arizona candidate Blake Masters was “rightfully centering his position on what is possible when he gets to Washington,” Carroll said. Pro-life candidates, she added, should “define their opponents,” which involves pointing out Democrats’ extreme support for “abortion on demand up until the moment of birth, paid for by taxpayers.”
While Republicans contend with the Dobbs fallout, Democrats are struggling to overcome a popularity problem. President Joe Biden’s disapproval rating has hovered at a dismal 50 to 60 percent throughout this year. A president’s popularity—or lack thereof—is usually a good measure of Americans’ mood about the direction of the country. With Biden in the basement, voters are likely to express their current unhappiness at the polls, said Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Biden’s low approval ratings are the major thing Republicans have going for them,” Olsen said. “Historically, presidents who have job approval ratings below 45 percent see their parties lose significant numbers of seats in the House and often, but not always, in the Senate.”
Polling indicates that so-called “pocketbook issues” are top of mind for most voters. “People are extremely nervous,” said Paul Westcott, executive vice president of L2, a nonpartisan firm that provides voter data. “The most salient issues of the day are inflation and overall economic anxiety: How am I going to pay my bills?”
A Monmouth University poll conducted in early October asked voters to rank issues they considered most important. Inflation topped the list by a wide margin, followed by: crime, elections and voting, jobs and unemployment, immigration, infrastructure, abortion, racial inequality, gun control, climate change, and COVID. Student loan debt ranked dead last, but that’s one of the few policies voters identify with Biden.
In August, he proposed canceling up to $20,000 of student-loan debt for borrowers earning less than $125,000 a year. But recent polls show less than half of voters think that was a good idea. Biden might have hoped his plan would mobilize younger voters who are more likely to carry student-loan debt.
If so, his gamble isn’t paying off. “Looking at who turned out for the primaries, it looked pretty much like a regular primary group of voters,” Westcott said. “It didn’t look like 2020 when you had record turnout from young voters and people of color. It also didn’t seem like there were a ton of young people who jumped onto the voter rolls.”
This election cycle also marks the arrival of a new congressional map, after redistricting based on the results of the 2020 census. But experts who have scrutinized the new map agree it won’t be much help for either party.
If Democrats lose at least one chamber, as seems likely, the implications extend beyond passing legislation. Winning the House would give Republicans the power to hold hearings, and they intend to use it. GOP leaders have already indicated they will open inquiries on matters like inflation and the business dealings of Hunter Biden, the president’s son. “There has been somewhat of a weaponization of the hearing process,” Westcott said. “Both parties are guilty of this. I don’t see any sign of that slowing down.”
If Republicans take the Senate, they can also use their majority to block the president’s judicial nominees. Biden, who has worked hard to put liberal judges on the bench, has already appointed more judges to federal courts than Trump had by this point in his presidency. But the midterms may bring this momentum to a halt.
Beyond partisan politics, a potential curveball for both Republicans and Democrats: the energy crisis expected to hit Europe this winter due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Olsen warns the related fallout could spill across the Atlantic. “It’s a supply-and-demand question. We will be insulated more than the Europeans because we produce a lot of natural gas, but some of that supply will be diverted to Europe. So prices of natural gas will skyrocket.” Olsen said that presents a looming political crisis.
Meanwhile, losing even one chamber would derail Biden’s legislative agenda. But his loss may come with a silver lining. It was already hard for him to enact legislation with the slim Democratic majority he’s labored under since taking office. At least with Republicans in power, he’d have someone to blame.
In this, Biden could take inspiration from former President Bill Clinton, whose low approval ratings allowed Republicans to take both the House and Senate in 1994. Clinton, the consummate politician, eventually won reelection in 1996 by successfully blaming Republicans for everything that went wrong—while managing to work with the GOP on popular policies like welfare reform at the same time.
But will Biden, who is 79 years old, seek reelection in 2024? The midterms may determine the answer. “If this is an election where Republicans gain 15 seats in the House, and maybe have a majority of one seat in the Senate, I think Biden will claim that as a huge win in light of the headwinds he was facing,” Olsen said. “And I think most Democrats will give him a lot of slack.”
If Democrats lose big, calls for Biden to step aside will grow. The Democratic Party would prefer him to do it quickly so that the next presidential candidate has time to get established. But Biden will likely delay any announcement for as long as possible.
If, after the midterms, the president declares himself a lame duck, “then nothing will get done,” Westcott said. Most second-term presidents don’t do anything after the midterms. Biden would be rolling back that clock, “basically giving up any power he has” after less than two years in office.
One issue that looms over both parties regardless of platform: concern that the election will be both free and fair.
Deborah Erikson is the administrative services director for Crow Wing County, Minn. Nearly two years after the 2020 election, she continues to field questions about ballot integrity at public meetings. She told local media that residents are suspicious because of rumors they see online, so a big part of her job this year is explaining that scan machines are not connected to the internet and that paper ballots help her office double-check the results.
“What we’ve been trying to do is explain our processes and show what all the safeguards are that are in place, hopefully to instill some confidence in folks,” she said.
It’s not just technology in which many voters have lost confidence, but also the people running it. Some midterm candidates, along with Donald Trump, continue to insist the last presidential election was “stolen.” That position has in fact become a litmus test for some conservative candidates. Some Trump supporters have taken matters into their own hands in the last two years by scrutinizing, and sometimes threatening violence against, people administering elections: poll workers, election directors, and secretaries of state.
Clerks and directors across the country say their offices have been bombarded with telephonic demands that election officials comb through voter rolls and purge them of the dead. Other calls simply contain threats. In August, the Justice Department’s Election Threats Task Force indicted a Missouri man for threatening a Maricopa County Recorder’s Office staffer over the phone. According to the indictment, the caller left a voicemail on a personal cell phone during the 2021 audit, saying the official “will never make it to your next little board meeting.”
Such threats and other pressures have thinned the field of elections administrators. In Gillespie County, Texas, all three election officials quit in August. According to a March survey conducted by the Brennan Center, 1 in 5 local election officials said he or she is likely to resign by 2024. Most cited ongoing pressure from politicians, along with stress and previous retirement plans.
Pat Christmas, policy director for the Philadelphia-based Committee of Seventy, said candidates campaigning on election fraud claims make it harder to teach the public about preexisting ballot safeguards.
“There have been efforts to re-audit the 2020 election, to prevent drop boxes from being used anywhere, or to prevent counties from using tabulating equipment to process ballots and count the votes,” he said. “But if we were to hand count our ballots across the state, there are going to be human error mistakes. It’s ironic that the folks advocating to not use this equipment are concerned about election integrity.”
Even states Trump won in 2020 have been inundated with challenges from voters or organizations alleging fraud. In Iowa, an organization spearheaded by a former math teacher who claims he can prove fraud in the 2020 elections has submitted a flood of voter registration challenges. The group claims voter rolls are not up to date and that ballots are being submitted under the names of people who have died, moved out of state, or are otherwise ineligible to vote. In response, the secretary of state’s office created videos, fact sheets, and a misinformation webpage to explain its processes.
Georgia, a hot spot for election fraud claims in 2020, started a multiweek testing phase on its 34,000 voting machines in September. Officials insist the testing will ensure machines are secure and reliable on Election Day in November.
Dominion Voting Systems sells the software used in many machines across the country. Since 2020, the company has been implicated in several lawsuits that claim hackers tampered with votes. So far, judges have ruled that no evidence proves those claims, and the company has sued Fox News’ Tucker Carlson for defamation over statements about Dominion made on his show.
Still, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in June issued an advisory noting it found some “vulnerabilities” in the software that need to be addressed. It also confirmed: “CISA has no evidence that these vulnerabilities have been exploited in any elections.”