Is the red wave receding?
Analysts reevaluate midterm projections after a New York special election and a slew of administration wins
In a typical midterm election, the party that holds the White House and Congress takes a hit, while the minority party gains power. This year, that’s good news for the GOP, which hopes to accomplish a “red wave” in November and retake the House and the Senate.
But former lawmakers such as Rick Santorum, R-Pa., are watching the races with skepticism. Speaking to Newsmax last week, he called out his own party for complacency ahead of the midterms: “Republicans have to start paying attention. If you look at the national polls, if you look at a lot of these races like in my home state of Pennsylvania—if this is a red wave year, the polls are not showing it right now.”
Sure enough, new polling, a special election in New York, a landmark Supreme Court case, and candidate hiccups are worrying Republicans and inspiring Democrats.
Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania is holding its most significant open-seat Senate election yet. Celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz beat out a crowded primary field, partially thanks to an endorsement from former President Donald Trump. But his bid in the politically purple state isn’t guaranteed.
Oz’s opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, has pummeled him with attack ads. While Oz has tried to attack woke agendas and rising costs of living, an ad he sent out last week backfired when it showed him mixing up the name and prices at a grocery store where he was shopping for “crudités”—also known as a veggie tray. Opponents have used this and other jabs at his lavish lifestyle, along with the fact that he only recently moved from New Jersey, to argue he’s out of touch with voters. Last week, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report adjusted its analysis of the race from “toss-up” to “leans Democrat.”
Pennsylvania is one example of many. With the midterms still 75 days away, polls are simply asking which party voters want to win a majority in Congress. Since last November, Republicans have come out on top, but that changed in mid-August. Polls from NBC, RealClearPolitics, and FiveThirtyEight all showed Democrats pulling ahead with a 0.5 percent lead.
How did this happen? Analysts point to a number of factors on the partisan seesaw. On the one hand, it’s easier for Republican candidates to criticize the current administration’s policy failures like the Afghanistan withdrawal and inflation. But Democratic candidates are using the Supreme Court’s pro-life decision in Dobbs v. Jackson to energize pro-abortion voters, turning the midterms into a referendum on healthcare.
Democrat Pat Ryan outperformed Republican Marc Molinaro by only 2 percentage points last Tuesday in the state’s special election for New York’s 19th Congressional District in the Catskills. Even though this was not a regular primary, political strategists viewed the race as a bellwether in a swing district with high voter turnout. Biden won the district in 2020, but Trump claimed it in 2016 and Obama in 2012.
Even so, University of Georgia political science professor Jamie Carson said he was not convinced the midterm forecast was any clearer based on Ryan’s win.
“A special election basically predicts what’s going to happen in a special election,” Carson told me. “Anytime there’s an election in an off year, people will look at it to predict what’s going to happen months from now. But honestly, a lot can change.”
Ryan ran his race largely on abortion, saying that Republicans’ pro-life stances threaten democracy. This has been a common campaign position since the Dobbs decision in June, which is roughly when Democrats started outperforming Republicans, according to FiveThirtyEight.
“Correlation isn’t causation, but given the precise timing, it seems quite likely that the Dobbs decision is responsible for the shift in the political environment,” elections analyst Nathaniel Rakich wrote. “In other words, it could be akin to other major news events that turned midterm elections on their heads: former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 and the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent war on terror in 2002.”
A recent NBC News poll found that “threats to democracy” now ties with “cost of living” as the top issue for voters. “Abortion” ranked seventh. The same poll also found that Democrats nearly match Republicans in enthusiasm to vote in November. Pundits say Republicans have been slow to adapt to these changes.
“Each week that goes by, more and more people see the GOP as increasingly focused on the wrong things,” Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson told Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report. “They’re focused on what ignites right-wing social media and what pleases the former president, not on what matters to the American people. It’s like a CEO promising to rehab a company by focusing on renovating the executives’ parking spaces.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the problem isn’t so much with Republican strategy as it is with “the quality of candidates,” and he’s started to hedge his bets: “There’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate. … When all is said and done this fall, we’re likely to have an extremely close Senate, either our side up slightly or their side up slightly.”
Most of the GOP candidates who won their primaries were endorsed by Trump. But campaigning for the general election has proven more difficult for candidates with the former president’s backing. U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance of Ohio leads in polls by less than 5 percent, and the Georgia race between incumbent Raphael Warnock and former football star Herschel Walker is neck and neck. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters of Arizona has fallen behind Democratic opponent Sen. Mark Kelly, and last week Masters started scrubbing his “100% pro-life” message from his campaign website.
But it’s not all bad news for the Republicans. Biden’s announcement of a massive student loan forgiveness plan is poised to erase any economic gains from the Inflation Reduction Act. A lot of political action happens in two months, and lawmakers often spend portions of the August recess stumping for midterm candidates. RealClearPolitics aggregate polling still estimates Republicans can get their majority, but their lead is shrinking.
“If the midterms were held this week, I would expect probably Republicans would take control of the House, and in the Senate it would be probably a narrow Democratic majority or a 50/50 split,” Carson predicted. “But most candidates are already locked in now, so it’s up to whoever shows up at the polls. Democrats need high turnout if they want to offset the traditional presidential party decline, and Republicans need to keep their voters from getting complacent.”
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