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Biden’s low approval hasn’t sunk Democrats in midterms

The case of the curious 2022 midterm elections should be a straightforward affair.

President Joe Biden’s job approval numbers are lousy — better than they used to be, but still lousy. Inflation is still sky-high. Oh, sure, prices of household goods are climbing slower than earlier in the year. But they are still gracing the stratosphere. And lest it be forgotten, this is the issue that voters, especially the all-important independent voters, care most about. Add in rising crime and a porous Southern border and Nov. 8 should be an absolute disaster for the Democratic Party.

And, with these underlying political fundamentals bolstering the Republican Party’s position heading into Election Day on Nov. 8, it very well could be.

That’s especially the case given the fertile territory Republicans are both defending and targeting for a takeover in their bid to retake Congress. The battle for Senate control is underway in swing states with a habit of voting Republican: Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania — plus Ohio, essentially a red state at this point, and Nevada, light blue of late but highly competitive. The fight for the House majority is unfolding in 16 districts won by former President Donald Trump in 2020 and 28 seats Biden captured by 10% of the vote or less.

To quote the Old Milwaukee Beer television commercials from the 1980s and 1990s: “It just doesn’t get any better than this.”

“You have to give the Democrats credit for the way they have muddied the waters with fake polling,” mocked Curt Anderson, senior advisor to Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP campaign arm. Scott predicts Republicans will win the Senate majority and has laid down a specific marker: Republicans will pick up a net of two seats in the midterm elections and enter the 118th Congress with 52 seats — at the very least.

“All legitimate polling shows that the public is very sour on the direction of the country under Democrat control,” Anderson continued, explaining GOP optimism. “The voters are specifically outraged at the cost of living, the open border, the loss of energy independence, weird woke policies, and rampant crime. No amount of beltway spin can change any of that. Nov. 8 will be a great day to be a Republican.”


Yet as stated at the outset, this midterm election, Biden’s first, is a rather curious case.

There are a host of unusual, countervailing political forces at work that are providing the Democratic Party hope of avoiding what would be a historically typical shellacking (the party in residence at the White House loses, on average, two dozen or so seats in midterm elections). Chief among them, so it appears, is Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court decision rendered in late June that overturned Roe v. Wade and eliminated federal protections for abortion rights.

Voter enthusiasm is crucial in elections like these, and prior to Dobbs, the Republicans enjoyed a yawning advantage among those energized to pull the lever (or lick the stamp) in November. Democratic voters, down on Biden in their own way, didn’t appear all that interested in showing up. Post-Dobbs, Republicans still have an enthusiasm edge, but it is much narrower — indeed, significantly so. Additionally, a burst of newly registered voters inclined to support Democrats has emerged since Dobbs.

The potential for the abortion issue to temper big Republican gains was showcased in an August special election to fill a vacant swing district in upstate New York. Biden defeated Trump in the 19th Congressional District in 2020 49.8% to 48.3% — a margin of just 1.5 percentage points. Yet despite Republicans dominating Democrats on all of the important electoral fundamentals, now-Rep. Pat Ryan (D-NY) beat Republican Marc Molinaro in the special election 51.1% to 48.9%.

There is another underappreciated factor that might help Democrats transform what appeared at the beginning of the summer to be a red tsunami into a navigable red tide.

Since August, Democrats in the House and Senate, who for nearly a year had struggled to do almost anything, have enacted a flurry of legislation high on the to-do list of reliable liberal voters. True, the large social spending package that Democrats dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act might never lower inflation, at least not before Election Day. But the law included components addressing climate change long sought by the party’s progressive wing, especially younger voters.

As far as these voters are concerned, they finally received something of value from Washington under full Democratic control. That could impact their thoughts on voting this fall, and to the Democrats’ benefit. Meanwhile, to borrow a phrase from those annoying television commercials that sell merchandise not found in retail stores: “But wait, there’s more!”

Trump is back in the news in the aftermath of the FBI executing a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, his residence and private social club in Palm Beach, Florida, as part of an investigation into the former president’s alleged mishandling of classified documents. And in sharing top media billing with Biden, the actual president, Trump could remind Democrats why they flocked to the polls in 2020, motivating them to turn out in similarly supercharged numbers this year.

In other words, this midterm contest is not guaranteed to be as open-and-shut successful as it could be for the Republicans. It happens this way on occasion, with the in-party pulling off a surprise — most recently in 1998 for the Democrats, with President Bill Clinton in office, and in 2002 for the GOP, with President George W. Bush in office.

“We’re going to take our record of delivering to the American people. We’re confident that’ll lead to being rehired in November. Because here’s the deal,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Chris Taylor, echoing a favorite colloquialism of Biden’s, “Republicans want to pass a national abortion ban and rip away 50 years of women’s freedom.”

Taylor added about House Republicans’ policy plan for the 118th Congress, unveiled on Sept. 23, “They recently rolled out a so-called Commitment to America but couldn’t commit to protecting our democracy after the former president led an insurrection that resulted in police officers being beaten with American flags on the steps of our Capitol.”

Expounding on the Democrats’ theory of the case for avoiding a midterm election drubbing, Taylor said, “Democrats that are delivering or a Republican Party that will do anything — even attack our democracy and rip away women’s freedom — to gain power for themselves.”

Then again, Republicans don’t need some big wave to kick Democrats to the curb and win congressional majorities. All they need is for the historical average to kick in for the party out of power in the White House in midterm elections.

The Republicans are roughly a handful of seats shy of the majority in the House. And what’s the historical average for net gains in the House for the party out of power in the White House? That would be 25. Heck, even Ronald Reagan, who won two landslide presidential elections and influenced American politics for a generation, lost 26 House seats in his first midterm election in 1982.

In the Senate, the Republicans are just one single seat short of taking back the majority after two years in the minority. Democrats lord over the 50-50 chamber courtesy of the tiebreaking vote wielded by Vice President Kamala Harris (and she’s had to wield it quite a bit these last 20 months). And what’s the historical average for net gains in the Senate for the party out of power in the White House? That would be four.


Here are some other numbers to digest that would suggest all of that is exceedingly doable for the GOP:

Seven weeks before Election Day, with early voting poised to get underway, Biden’s job approval rating stood at 42.3% in the RealClearPolitics average; the generic ballot test, gauging which party voters would prefer to be in charge on Capitol Hill, had Democrats ahead by a hair, 45.1% to 44%; and 65.1% of voters believed the country was headed in the wrong direction.

“Republicans don’t need a wave to win back the House and Senate because the majorities are so narrow,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan political handicapper.

“Of course, Republicans want the political environment in their favor because it can compensate for deficiencies in candidate quality and fundraising, but it’s not necessary to win the majorities this cycle,” Gonzales added. “Biden’s mediocre job rating keeps Democrats on the defensive in most of the competitive districts and states.”

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