When Democrats took over the presidency and scored razor-thin majorities in both houses of Congress in 2021, the general expectation was that their hold on Washington’s levers of power came with an expiration date.
Conventional wisdom and U.S. election history suggested that in the 2022 midterm elections, Republicans were likely to take over the House, the Senate, or both.
Now, though, it’s beginning to look like President Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats may have at least a chance to buck history and extend their control of the federal government for another two years.
To be clear, the odds are still in favor of Republicans taking over at least part of the federal legislative apparatus after the elections in November. Historically, the party of the sitting president tends to lose seats in Congress during midterms. The net loss of even one seat in the 50-50 Senate would flip it to Republican control, and in the House, the Democrats’ current nine-vote majority could easily disappear.
On top of that, the country is still adjusting to high price inflation, which has driven the cost of living up for most Americans. And Biden’s low job approval ratings in public opinion polls remain a drag on his party, though the approval numbers have ticked up in recent weeks.
However, a number of factors — some completely out of the Democrats’ control — have combined to boost the party’s public support, raise Biden’s abysmal poll numbers and create a sense of momentum for the party that was absent during much of the past year. Among them are a controversial Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights, a string of legislative and policy accomplishments, unexpectedly poor showings by some key Republican nominees and a decline in gasoline prices from high levels earlier in the year.
Democrats have even notched successes in special elections in recent months, including some in districts where Republicans were expected to perform well, leading experts to wonder if those elections presage a weaker-than-expected performance by Republican candidates in November.
“That sound you hear is the crash of expectations of big GOP [Republican] gains in the House this fall,” the Cook Political Report wrote last week, after a Democratic candidate unexpectedly won a House race in New York’s 19th Congressional District.
‘A decent summer for Democrats’
“It's been a decent summer for the Democrats,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told VOA. “It looks a little bit better for them than it did.”
“In the House, I still think the Republicans are in good shape,” he said. “In the Senate, a couple of months ago, I thought it was really close, but that it would break toward the Republicans. I'm less sure of that now. The Senate is more of a clear toss up.”
In a recent Fox News interview, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel downplayed talk of a “red wave” that would sweep Republicans into power in November.
“I’ve been saying forever that I hate the phrase ‘red wave,’” she said. “We have to earn every single seat in the House and the Senate to take it back.”
Roe v. Wade
One of the most significant factors at play in the midterm elections has nothing to do with the president or Congress. The decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the nearly 50-year-old ruling protecting a woman’s right to an abortion, appears to have energized Democrat-leaning voters and could motivate other voters to support Democrats over Republicans in upcoming elections.
The decision was highly controversial — a large majority of Americans support some form of abortion rights — and was handed down by a court that is currently dominated by six conservative justices, all of whom were appointed by Republican presidents. In the aftermath of the rulings, multiple states across the country have instituted total and near-total bans on the procedure, with others expected to take similar action in the future.
William A. Galston, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies program, told VOA that of all the factors affecting November election expectations right now, “The most important was the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and the public's reaction to that decision. It had the effect of mobilizing a lot of Democrats and independents and even Republicans who were not pleased with the decision.”
He added, “All of the survey evidence that I've examined suggests that it's an issue working in favor of the Democrats and against the Republicans in this cycle.”
The Democratic Party platform — an expansive policy document issued every four years — has long supported abortion rights. While some elected Republicans back a woman’s right to abortion, the Republican Party’s platform has consistently opposed abortion.
Legislative and policy victories
Another factor working in Democrats’ favor is a string of legislative victories notched this summer after months of stalemate in Congress. In recent months, Biden has signed a bipartisan gun control measure; a bipartisan bill expanding federal investment in semiconductors and other technology; and in August, a law making the largest federal commitment to fighting climate change in history.
Also in August, the president announced a major policy decision that forgave student loan debt owed by millions of Americans, worth up to $20,000 per borrower.
Neither the laws he signed nor the student debt relief he initiated went as far as many in his party wanted, but all of them constituted victories in policy areas very important to large swaths of the Democratic Party.
Particularly in the battle for control of the Senate, Republicans may have hurt their own cause by nominating candidates seen by many as radical, extremely inexperienced or both. This potential problem is especially obvious in a number of states where races were expected to be highly competitive.
In Pennsylvania, for example, Republicans nominated Mehmet Oz, a physician and television personality with no political experience to run against John Fetterman, the state’s popular lieutenant governor. Oz has never held elected office, and only moved to the state of Pennsylvania in late 2020, seemingly to make his Senate run possible.
In Ohio, Republicans nominated J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist and author, to run against Representative Tim Ryan. Among other controversial positions, Vance has advised former President Donald Trump that if he returns to the White House he should “Fire every single mid-level bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, [and] replace them with our people.” Acknowledging that such an action would be illegal, Vance called on Trump to do it anyway.
In Arizona, the Republican nominee Blake Masters is facing off against incumbent Senator Mark Kelly. Masters has a history of making highly controversial statements. He has endorsed the falsehood that Trump actually won the 2020 election, and he has appeared to endorse the “Great Replacement” theory, which holds that there is a conspiracy in place to dilute the voting power of white Americans through immigration.
All three Republican candidates have performed poorly and trail in polls.
Galston said that nominating weak candidates in Senate races is much more dangerous than in House contests, where gerrymandering has made the overwhelming majority of seats safe for one party or the other, almost regardless of the nominee.
“Candidate quality matters a lot more in the Senate than it does in the House,” Galston said. “In the House, individuals are less well known, and it's much more of a generic ballot, where if you're Republican, the chances are very, very strong that you'll vote for the Republican in the House race.”
However, he added, “Senators are a lot more visible. They're better known. And, especially if candidates are trying to win a Senate seat for the first time, how they present themselves to the public makes a big difference.”