August 5

By Susan Milligan

Republicans have spent much of the last 18 months planning for 2023 and beyond. They’re not just measuring the drapes in majority leaders’ offices, they’ve been plotting to eject certain Democrats from House committees, preparing to investigate President Joe Biden’s son and metaphorically rubbing their hands with glee at an anticipated ability to stop Biden’s agenda – including his judicial nominees – in its tracks.

That wasn’t hubris. Biden’s approval ratings have been in the cellar for some time. The party in power almost always loses seats in Congress in the midterms, and the Democrats’ majorities in the House and Senate are razor thin.

But with fewer than 100 days until Election Day, the big red wave predicted earlier this year has faded substantially, raising questions about how many pickups Republicans can accomplish this fall.

The GOP is still highly expected to retake control of the House – a feat that would take just a handful of seat-flips in a year when there are far more vulnerable Democratic incumbents than Republicans. But the size of the pickup may be lower than anticipated earlier this year. Several polls on the “generic ballot,” the question of whether voters want Democrats or Republicans running Congress next year – have the Democrats newly ahead.

A Monmouth University poll this week found that half of voters prefer Democrats in Congress, with 43% favoring Republicans. That’s a 14-point swing since January, when the numbers were reversed.

The poll’s author, Patrick Murray, cautions that a shift back toward Republicans “is almost certainly going to happen. It’s not a done deal.”

And veteran Democratic strategists, while cheered by the shift in numbers, are also cautious about how enduring that trend will be.

“It’s early yet,” says Matt Bennett, executive vice president of the centrist Democratic group Third Way, noting that in the last couple of election cycles, Democratic advantages in the summer did not pan out in the fall. Further, white, working class Americans who vote Republican often won’t talk to pollsters, skewing the numbers, he adds.

But while hanging onto the House is still a herculean challenge, Democrats have a plausible chance of maintaining control of the 50-50 Senate, analysts say, largely due to the lackluster list of GOP Senate recruits.

If the election were held today, according to polling averages, Democrats would narrowly keep their imperiled seats in Arizona, New Hampshire, Georgia and Nevada, pick up seats in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, and have a fighting chance in adding North Carolina as well. Many of the polls where Democrats are ahead are within the margin of error but have been consistently – if very narrowly – in favor of Democrats.

“The candidates that the Republicans have nominated in some of the marquee races are really bad, and our candidates are really strong,” Bennett says, citing politically inexperienced, celebrity GOP candidates in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

And when it comes to governors, Democrats are also looking politically healthy. If the election results reflect current polling, Democratic incumbents in Nevada, Michigan, Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin will keep their jobs, and a Democrat would keep the open gubernatorial seat in Pennsylvania. Further, Democrats are expected to pick up Maryland and Massachusetts and will be competitive in Arizona, where a popular GOP governor is term-limited and not running again. One seat Democrats could lose is in red-state Kansas, though a recent overwhelming defeat of an antiabortion referendum has encouraged Democrats there.

Experts caution that a lot can happen in the final months before the election, and that polling tends to tighten once the primary season is completed and voters start looking more closely at the major party nominees.

But signs do not point to a big GOP takeover or a mandate for a reversal of the policies Democrats have put forth in the first year and a half of Biden’s presidency.

“My sense is that any possibility of a red wave is dissipating, and it may look more like a red ripple or even still water at this point, if anything,” says Costas Panagopoulos, a Northeastern University political science professor who has been on NBC’s “Decision Desk” team since the 2006 election cycle.

“It wasn’t outlandish to predict a red wave early on,” given historical precedent, Biden’s unpopularity and economic factors such as high inflation, he says. But recent developments, such as the Supreme Court case undoing the right to an abortion and falling prices at the gas pump, may well mitigate those trends, he says.

“We have wave elections when one party is excited, one party is depressed, and independent voters swing in one direction,” says Nathan Gonzales, editor of the nonpartisan report Inside Elections. “In this case, if Democrats are enthusiastic and turn out to vote, it could mitigate the damage independent voters might inflict on the party in power.”

Working for the Republicans is the Democratic president, whose approval rating is hovering around a dismal 40%. That’s particularly damaging to Democrats in the House, since voters tend to have less personal knowledge of their congressman and associate those lawmakers with the president, says Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster.

When the president’s job approval rating is at 50%, his party’s typical loss of seats in the House is 14, he says. “Joe Biden is in disaster territory as far as his own party’s prospects in the midterms,” Ayres says.

Republicans are also tapping voters’ frustration with inflation and crime to peel away votes in the suburbs, where many swing districts are located.

Democrats, however, have had some political fortunes of late. Biden – while still unpopular – has joined with Democrats to rack up some key legislative victories, gotten Senate approval to add Finland and Sweden to NATO and ordered the successful killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Meanwhile, Democrats have outfoxed Republicans on issues the GOP had hoped would go its way. Senate Democrats forged an unexpected deal on climate change, a minimum corporate tax and expanded health care, including a provision meant to lower prescription drug prices. The measure is not yet law but would be an enormous accomplishment for the Democrats.

That infuriated Republicans, who voted for a measure to fund domestic production of semiconductors only because they thought the bigger bill was dead. When the GOP then blocked a measure to fund health care for veterans exposed to toxic “burn pits,” it was a public relations disaster. Veterans camped out on the Capitol steps, and the GOP ultimately relented.

On the investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection, the Republicans again miscalculated. They refused to join the inquiry (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California herself named two Republican lawmakers, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois), dismissing the panel as partisan and illegitimate. But the deftly run hearings have exposed America to a parade of former Trump White House staffers and others who have provided damning evidence of what happened that day – and it was not flattering to former President Donald Trump or the GOP.

Those developments might not sway voters, but they have given new confidence to a dispirited Democratic Party, some of whose rank and file were not motivated to go to the polls this fall.

But perhaps the most galvanizing issue for Democrats is the Supreme Court ruling, Dobbs vs Jackson Women’s Health Organization, reversing the Roe v Wade decision legalizing abortion. Not only has the matter unified feuding factions in the Democratic Party, but it has helped Democrats paint an image of the GOP as extremist on social policy.

Much as Republicans successfully tied Democrats to socialism in 2020 – a tactic that didn’t defeat Biden but helped them pick up seats in the House – an election narrative casting Republicans as too extreme on abortion, birth control, same-sex marriage and gun safety could put the GOP on the defensive, Democratic advocates say.

“It’s the radicalization of the Republican Party,” says Simon Rosenberg, president of the centrist Democratic group NDN and a rare Democrat who is predicting his party will actually retain control of the House. Voters are “being reminded how scary Republicans are.”

The resounding vote in Kansas this week to defeat a referendum that would have removed the right to abortion from the state Constitution and handed it the newly GOP-controlled legislature has further emboldened Democrats. Democratic candidates from Nevada to Arizona and New Hampshire this week flooded email inboxes with warnings that their GOP opponents for governor and senator would vote to ban abortion.

That may energize Democrats and get them to the polls – and even thousands of votes in a close race could determine the winner. But it’s not clear that a pro-abortion rights voter will automatically cast a ballot for a Democrat.

In Arizona, a YouGov poll found that voters prefer Republicans to Democrats by a 5-point margin, 48% to 43%. But when voters are asked if they would prefer a Democrat who support abortion rights with some restrictions – or a Republican who wants to ban the procedure outright – the generic Democrat prevails, 60% to 27%, the survey found.

In Kansas, the results indicate that Republicans voted against the anti-abortion measure – but still voted in the Republican primary. So they may favor abortion rights, but “when it comes down to it, will these voters say in November that the Democratic candidate deserves my vote? It’s still an open question,” Murray says.

But with three months to go before Election Day, the midterms are shaping up as an unexpectedly competitive set of races.