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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The 2022 Midterms: An oversimplified guide to why Democrats are (probably) screwed

Lucas Haskins describes the troubles the Democrats face.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an American politician in possession of a House or Senate seat must be perpetually engaged in campaigning. The United States is a nation forever embroiled in one election or another. Every two years, all members of the House of Representatives and around one third of Senators face the voters. On half of these occasions, a presidential race also takes place concordantly – for the sake of simplicity, this article is only concerned with these positions, the federal offices; to delve into statewide races or the fates of the other half a million (!) elected American office holders would be far too complicated. Besides, when people talk about the midterms, they mostly mean congressional elections. One might be forgiven for thinking that major elections every two years does not sound that bad; after all, the UK held general elections in 2015, 2017, and 2019. We (sort of) survived those. However, the core difference is that in America the campaign process is protracted to say the least. On 6th November 2019, Parliament dissolved in anticipation of an election held around a month later on the 12th of December. By contrast, the first major Democratic candidates for the 2020 Presidential race (Sanders, Warren, et al) announced their candidacies in February 2019; election day was the 3rd November the next year.

In addition to being long, American races are expensive. The 2020 cycle cost in the vicinity of $14 billion, a sum roughly equivalent to the GDP of Mongolia. In the modern era of nationalised, polarised politics, a prospective or incumbent office holder must never cease fundraising; one never knows when one might have to spend $140 million to win their seat. (the cost of Jon Ossoff’s senate race in Georgia). American elections therefore are the political equivalent of Titanic: interminable, costly, and frequently culminating in the metaphorical equivalent of a sinking cruise liner. Nevertheless, like Elizabeth Warren, they persist. On 8th November, America is once more going to the polls. The results of the day’s vote will determine which party controls Congress for the next two years with corresponding powers over legislation, oversight, and appointments to the federal judiciary. The question of who will win is essential. Will it be the incumbent Democrats, or the insurgent (in more ways than one) Republicans?

Mark Twain said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”, and there are certainly identifiable historical trends in midterm elections over the last twenty-five years. The last two Democratic Presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both entered office with larger mandates than Joe Biden. In 1992 and 2008, the two won by larger margins in the popular vote and significantly larger margins in the electoral college than the aforementioned  46th President of the United States. Democrats in Congress also had significantly larger majorities than they do at present; when Clinton entered office, he had 57 Democratic Senators and 258 members in the House, while Obama also began with 57 Senators (rising to 60 at one point) and 256 members. It is worth making abundantly clear that these numbers did not insulate Clinton or Obama from a midterm battering, or “shellacking” as Obama famously, and aptly, called it. By contrast, Biden has 222 members in the House and a Senate split 50/50. In short, the two current Democratic Caucuses are utterly incapable of absorbing the losses suffered in the past. Republicans require five seats (or will once a special election in June is conducted) to win the House and permit Kevin McCarthy to wrest the gavel away from Nancy Pelosi. In 1994 they won 54, and in 2010 they won 63. The outlook in the Senate is similarly bleak for Democrats. In an evenly divided chamber, the loss of a single seat is tantamount to Mitch McConnell reclaiming his job as Majority Leader; eight seats were lost in 1994 and six in 2010. 

Probably the Republicans. 

It is not just Democrats who have suffered in their first midterms; significant backlash against Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans led to Democrats regaining the House in 2018 after eight years in the minority. Of course, to some extent it is fatuous to simply quote historical election data. The occurrence of an event in the past is no guarantee of repetition or rhyme – these are elections after all, not Shakespearean sonnets. Furthermore, an eagle-eyed reader will have noted the absence of George W. Bush’s name. In his first midterms in 2002, Republicans in fact reversed the tides of history, picking up seats and padding their majorities in both the House and the Senate… but it would take a bold pundit to predict Democratic gains in the House this November, though the Senate is a slightly more complex beast. What must be examined then is what causes the party of the President to suffer in the midterms and how success is possible. 

Every single President from Bill Clinton onwards has entered office with government trifectas, meaning one party control of the presidency and both houses of Congress. Consequently, whilst they have not been able to legislate unimpeded (no one following the first year of the Biden administration could argue such a thing), they have been able to pass more of their agenda than an empowered opposition would have otherwise permitted. Before the 1994 elections, the Democrats passed major tax increases (without a single Republican vote), particularly on wealthy Americans, gun control legislation (as part of a larger Omnibus Crime Bill, now highly controversial for its contribution to mass incarceration), and failed in an attempt to pass universal health care. Putting aside Bush for the time being, Obama’s administration pushed through Congress an economic stimulus package, financial regulation in the form of Dodd-Frank, a repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”, the internal policy which had prohibited LGBTQ+ Americans from serving openly in the military, and, most famously, Obamacare. The Trump administration managed massive tax cuts and failed to repeal Obamacare (in a very dramatic fashion), but then again, Democrats are typically more prolific legislators and, frankly, are also better at governing. 

Passing bills is great and much of the work done under those trifectas, particularly at the beginning of the Obama years, has made America a tangibly better place. The political problem is that it gives your opponents something on which to run against you. In 1994 (a complex election cycle not to be oversimplified), Democrats were frequently attacked, in particular for the failed attempt at health care reform and the tax rises. In 2010, fiscal conservative rage towards Obamacare was a white-hot, potent motivating force, crystallised into the grassroots Tea Party movement. The ideology of this reactionary sect is reasonably easy to understand; Ian Hislop explains that the Republican Party is “very, very right wing” and the Tea Party “is mad”. Ironically, in 2019 almost every frontline Democrat running in a competitive House district put Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare at the centre of their campaign. It is an aphorism of life that has come more and more to dictate politics that people react far more strongly against what they perceive to be negative than in favour of what they perceive to be positive. There are moments when campaigns can sincerely motivate people, when calls for hope and change are a driving force – Obama in 2008; Bernie in 2016 and 2020 – but far more often, people get out to vote because of what they oppose and what they fear. Hence the problem for a party with trifecta: when you have had all the power for the last two years, your partisans have less to dread and loathe, whilst the opposition has spent two years preparing for midterms. 

Regrettably, for Biden and the Dems, this pattern appears to be holding going into 2022. The party has passed massively consequential legislation, most importantly the American Rescue Plan or ARP ($1.9 trillion of COVID relief and anti-poverty measures) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act  (bipartisan in the Senate at least) which instigates new spending worth $550 billion. These bills did and will do good things; the ARP’s yearlong expansion of the child tax credit clearly slashed the child poverty rate and reduced income volatility for millions (though the data is not yet quite clear on how much / many). Nevertheless, as with Obamacare, they give fiscal conservatives something to sink their teeth into and to run against.

However, this is not 2010 and the energy on the Republican side does not seem to be consolidated around opposition to government spending (any more than is ‘normal’) as it was then. Thus, the danger for Democrats, as it was to a lesser extent for Clinton, appears to be what did not get passed. The legislative wrangling during the Summer and Autumn over “Build Back Better” (BBB), Joe Biden’s signature policy proposal, is far too convoluted to get into here, but suffice to say Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia ultimately killed it, announcing his opposition to the bill unexpectedly after months of negotiations – oh, the joys of a 50/50 Senate! The other big miss was on voting rights, another very messy and far more predictable failure. The reason for that legislation’s collapse is complex in a way only American politics can be and I have done my best to explain it somewhere less prominent [See Appendix]. The problem with partisan legislation that crumbles in Congress is that it ends up as the worst of both worlds. Members in the House and Senate are forced to take tough positions and votes that can be used against them without the commensurate benefits derived from (a) the perception of competence that accompanies legislating and (b) the actual good conferred by progressive legislation. House Democrats in tough districts are already fending off entirely predictable attacks from challengers over the contents of BBB without any ability to respond by pointing to its benefits which remain entirely hypothetical. 

The inverse of this phenomenon is just as problematic (hence “worst of both worlds”): the voters of the party in power are not given an incentive to reelect their politicians. Many of those who supported Biden and other Democrats in 2018 and 2020 will not vote for the party in 2022. Some may vote Republican; many will not vote at all; and this will be in large part owing to an apparent inability to keep promises. One can debate the extent to which Biden is culpable (a little, but not much), but the numbers are reasonably clear that the President’s approval ratings began to fall consistently as the media narrative solidified into “Democrats in disarray” and bills did not get passed. Based on the lessons of legislative history taught by Clinton and Obama, and the realities of the first Congress under President Biden, one can make a compelling case based on one important facet of the election that Democrats will get hammered.

So, things are bad on the legislative front; another factor fundamental to determine success or failure in the midterms is public perception of the President. All elections are, at their core, either treated by voters as choices or referenda. In the former, voters compare two options and make their decision based on an affirmative preference. In the latter, voters make their decision whether to support a candidate / party based primarily on the actions of that one candidate / party; thus any vote for the opponent is primarily a vote against, not a vote for. Presidential elections are more likely than midterms to be perceived as a choice, yet even then, one campaign might seek to make the race more of an up or down vote on their opponent. The 2020 election is a very good example of this; whilst Joe Biden undoubtedly put forward a significant policy platform, the strategy pursued by Jen O’Malley Dillon, the campaign manager, and other senior figures was to run somewhat quietly – hence Trump’s “basement” jibes. This encouraged voters to reflect on Donald Trump, whose unpopularity, they judged, would decide the race. By contrast, Obama won reelection in 2012 in large part because his team shifted the perception of the race from a referendum on his first term to a choice between the President and former Governor Mitt Romney, someone they did a very good job of portraying as a ruthless, offshoring capitalist. 

Unlike Presidential races, midterms, before which one party tends to have spent two years making most of the decisions, are almost always taken by voters to be a kind of Presidential report card and thus a referendum. After all, the President is the single most visible and important representation of their Congressional party, setting the agenda and driving the legislation. As a result, generic presidential approval ratings are a reliable indicator of performance in the House and ratings in the Battleground states tie closely to Senate success. Looking at the data from Gallup, Bill Clinton’s ratings in the last poll before the 1994 elections were even, with 46% approval and 46% disapproval – a slight outlier given that every other result since July had shown his ratings and between -5 and – 15. Barack Obama was at -3 (45% approval, 48% disapproval) immediately prior to the midterms, numbers pretty consistent with opinion for the last few months which had skewed very slightly negative. Donald Trump was less popular than his Democratic predecessors with approval ratings of -14 (40% approval, 54% disapproval) in the last poll before Republicans lost the House, numbers once again reasonably consistent with the preceding months. 

Herein lies the key to George W. Bush’s midterm trend-busting. The vast spike in approval which he enjoyed following 9/11, one of the most striking examples of the “rally around the flag” effect in recent memory, proved rather robust. The 90% approval he was given at the end of September 2001 was significantly preserved through 2002. In the last Gallup poll before the midterms, his approval rating was + 34 (63% approval, 29% disapproval), numbers actually below earlier figures. In short, the Republican secret to success in 2002 was not really a secret; the President was immensely popular and voters rewarded his party. In 2006, Bush’s second midterms, by which point Iraq looked a disaster and his ratings were deep into their terminal decline, Democrats won both the House and the Senate. 

So, Joe Biden – is he liked? FiveThirtyEight, the polling aggregator, as of 8th February has him at – 11.7 with 41.2% approval, 52.9% disapproval – closer to Trump numbers than those of Obama or Clinton. No President in the modern era has significantly improved their approval ratings in a midterm year. If the November elections are perceived as a referendum on the President, as they have been since the days of Bill Clinton and, in fact, since far earlier, then Democrats look almost certain to lose the House and likely to fall short in the Senate. If you would rather see Democrats than Republicans empowered, which I imagine is true for most Oxford students, then it would seem that the situation looks bleak to the point of foretold. 

And yet, in the midst of all this sludge, there are the glimmers of something: a case not for Democratic optimism, not even close, but perhaps for hope. Going into 2010, Nancy Pelosi’s caucus contained over 250 members; now there are 222, and it remains true that anything below the magic number of 218 means the minority. However, twelve years ago, Democrats’ numbers had been padded by two very successful cycles immediately prior. 2006 had ultimately comprised the long overdue reckoning with the Bush administration which handed Democrats the House, and in 2008, the party had benefited from the coattails of an immensely popular presidential candidate who had won in red territory (Indiana, North Carolina, Virginia) and run John McCain ragged in crimson strongholds (Missouri and Montana). What this meant was that the Democratic caucus was filled with a lot of fresh members who had never fought a tough campaign, representing territory that had gone blue only in historically triumphant cycles. Indeed, this is a point which Pelosi has made several times in recent press conferences. The losses posted in 2010 were of course related to Obama’s approval ratings, the legislating done by Democrats, and the energised / fanatical Republican response these provoked, but the numbers were inflated by overextended members unable to fight and win a tough cycle. 

This will not be the case in 2022. In 2020, Democrats had expected to pick up somewhere between eight and 15 seats; instead they made a net loss of 13 with Republicans picking off 14 incumbents. The frontline Representatives who built the 2018 majority ended up fighting bruising campaigns in a cycle that was meant to be comparatively easy. The ones that have survived into the present Congress are hardened politicians in difficult but winnable territory, who know what it means to face a highly challenging reelection campaign, and, most importantly, labour under no delusions that 2022 will be anything but brutal. Even in a cycle which was as bad as 2010, it would be difficult for Democrats to lose more than 25-30 seats, and even this would appear less likely given the strength of the party’s remaining incumbents. 

There is a major caveat here though. Democrats have also been roiled by massive numbers of incumbents declining to seek reelection: 30 as of 15th February, compared to 13 Republicans. Many are doing so out of a desire to leave before suffering the indignities of the minority in a likely Republican, likely (even more) toxic House. The issue is that whilst Democrats have their experienced, successful members elected in 2018 and 2020, they are also losing long-time incumbency boosts in other tricky territory. Representative Cheri Bustos, for example, has represented a reddish district in rural Illinois since 2012 and has now chosen retirement. In 2016, she was the only Democratic member to win by over 20 points in a district carried by Trump the very same day. Trump won it again in 2020, even as Bustos retained the seat for House Democrats. Such politicians, skilled in winning where Democrats struggle more and more to win, are significant losses for the party and will imperil the majority. 

One area in which the Democrats are experiencing entirely unforeseen success is in the redistricting battle. Every ten years, the United States conducts its census, relevant in no small part because the data which it provides becomes the basis for the decennial redrawing of Congressional districts. Each state has undergone / is undergoing this process in order that the new map can be used for the midterms. In most states, the new map is conceived by the state legislature and consented to by the governor, a political route which can make the process highly partisan. The single most effective way to lock in an electoral advantage for the next ten years is by drawing a map conducive to the interests of your party – to dabble in what is called gerrymandering. To gerrymander is to strategically allocate voters to districts so as to win one party the most seats possible, either by grouping opposing voters together into one overwhelmingly safe district, allowing your party to pick up all surrounding districts by smaller margins, or by “cracking”, breaking up areas areas of opposing voters to prevent them voting together as a bloc in a single district. 

After the 2010 midterms, Republicans took control of vast numbers of state legislatures, picking up more seats in statehouses than any party ever had before. They then dominated the redistricting process, locking in the progress made in the previous cycle. In 2012, House Democrats won the popular vote by 1.1%, almost 1.4 million votes, but flipped a mere eight districts, ending up with 201 seats to the Republicans’ 234; this, for the record, is almost the precise inverse of the party composition after the 2018 midterms when Democrats had won 8.6% of the popular vote. As a result of Republican gerrymandering in 2011 and 2012, they held the House for eight years, losing it only in a “blue wave” cycle and once demographic change had already negated some of their map-given advantage. 

Following the 2020 races, when Democrats failed to make gains at the state level, and with their majority in the House hanging by a thread, there were fears of a similar “redistricting armageddon”. Now, however, strategists and party officials are cautiously optimistic. Republicans have moved aggressively in some states, Texas being a good example, but for the most part seem to have been content with securing the districts of the party’s incumbents. There have also been some favourable court decisions from the Democratic perspective. The provisions of the Voting Rights Act which still have teeth after various Supreme Court defangings do offer some protections for minority voters. Such communities still have a right to representation, and thus “cracking” when it prevents large numbers of marginalised voters from having their own representative remains frowned upon. That being said, a lower court ruling which demanded a more favourable map for Democrats in Alabama was recently overturned by the Supreme Court, demonstrating the potency of a conservative majority of six to three, since Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the three liberals did not prevent that coalition ending up in the minority. To sum up, there were fears that gerrymandering alone would doom the House Democratic majority, and it now does not appear that this will be the case. 

It is also worth saying, since it would be journalistic malpractice not to, that in the fewer states which Democrats control, the calculus has changed. Democrats in state legislatures are pursuing partisan gerrymandering as aggressively as Republicans ever have. In New York, whilst the process is technically controlled by a nonpartisan commission, at least one official has conceded that this was set up in the knowledge that failure would be inevitable. Now Democrats, with the quasi-cartography back largely at the purview of the state legislature, are looking roughly to halve the size of the state’s Republican delegation; a similar strategy is being pursued in Illinois – and elsewhere, but frankly in the biggest blue states it matters more; gerrymandering in, say, New England where every Representative is a Democrat would not really upset any balance. Given vocal Democratic opposition to gerrymandering in the past, this has provoked rather a few cries of hypocrisy from opinion writers and the more shameless elected Republicans. 

This is an approximation of a valid critique, but it is not made in anything approaching good faith. Democrats making decisions say that they oppose partisan gerrymandering, and they are telling the truth. Legislation which passed the House this Congress would have ended the practice, and Democrats in the House supported it, while Republicans opposed it. The same is true in the Senate; the bill failed because it was the subject of a Republican filibuster which, for reasons explained in this article’s appendix, could not be broken. One party wishes to end gerrymandering, one wishes to perpetuate it. Both use it, but only because from a Democratic, frankly a democratic, perspective, it is ludicrous to suggest that in order to prove their sincerity, Democrats should unilaterally disarm, ceding all advantage to the unchecked minoritarian fantasies of Republicans. Sincerity has been proven; Democrats sought to pass the legislation. At any rate, successes in the redistricting process are unlikely to save Democrats in the House, but they may make it easier than in the 2010s to return from the oblivion to which 2022 is likely to consign them. 

I alluded earlier to the Senate being a much trickier beast to judge than the House. The House of Representatives is far more responsive to prevailing political winds since all its members are elected simultaneously whilst only about a third of Senators are up at any one time. Additionally, it has 435 seats rather than 100, so individual races and the contingencies of these are less likely to decide overall control, and candidate strength, whilst important, matters less than in Senate races. As a result, the Senate can occasionally produce rather anomalous results. 

In 2018, even as Democrats won the popular vote in the House by 8.6%, Republicans added two seats to their Senate majority, largely on account of Democrats facing an almost laughably unfavourable map, perhaps the most challenging in history. Republicans were defending nine seats, only one of which was in a state carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 (Nevada), whilst Democrats were defending 26 seats, ten of which were in Trump states (many of which had not even been close two years earlier). Of these 10 incumbents, Democrats defended six, picked up the Nevada seat and won with Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona, ending up with strong results given the context, despite the loss of four incumbents (Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, and Florida). Still, despite Republican success in their own bad midterms, Democrats lost several seats in 1994 and 2010, evincing the fact that the Senate is by no means immune from the wider climate. 

Nevertheless, looking at the map from cycle to cycle is immensely important, and the 2022 map is… alright. Republicans are defending more seats this time, and several of these present tentative pickup opportunities for Democrats. Republicans have two seats up in territory won by Biden: incumbent Senator Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, and an opening in Pennsylvania. Quite honestly, both of these could go either way. Johnson is a loose cannon, unpragmatically so for a Senator representing a swing state, and yet he won in both 2010 and 2016, neither of which were especially razor-thin elections. Moreover, the Democratic candidate with a commanding lead in polling for the primary, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, is unabashedly progressive, supporting Sanders in both 2016 and 2020, also potentially unpragmatic in a state with distinct red and blue streaks. The very limited hypothetical polling between Barnes and Johnson is unpromising if inconclusive. Pennsylvania is similarly difficult to read, Democrats have two good candidates, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman and Representative Conor Lamb, both of whom perform reasonably well in hypothetical polling, though Lamb is a moderate whose positions are slightly more relaxing for Democratic strategists. On the other side, Republicans lack an incumbent (because Senator Pat Toomey has eschewed a reelection bid to a third term), as well as any other top tier candidate. On balance, the better chance for a Democratic pickup appears to be in Pennsylvania, though both races look like they are going to be tight, unpredictable, and expensive. The opinion both humorously and morbidly being voiced by some Democratic strategists is that the Senate map looks much bluer if Joe Biden’s approval ratings climb by 5-8%.

These seats are perhaps the two likeliest to flip, but Republicans and Democrats could both struggle elsewhere. Part of the danger for Republicans, in more ways than one, is Trump. In his bizarre, psychologically revealing vindictiveness, he has been wading into Senate primaries, seeking to promote loyal candidates (essentially those concurring that the 2020 election was stolen) and to dislodge the disloyal. This has the capacity to produce primary winners who struggle in general elections given that their positions are unpalatable to most who are not MAGA partisans. As it happens, this phenomenon has been one of the more consistent patterns in Senate races in the last decade or so. To choose one from a litany of examples, Democrat Chris Coons defeated Tea Party-backed Christine “I’m not a witch” O’Donnell by almost 17 points in Delaware’s 2010 Senate race. The upsetting part from Republican perspectives was less that O’Donnell had been forced to declare that she had never joined a coven, and more that she had won an upset primary victory over Mike Castle, a Representative and former Governor, who polling showed defeating Chris Coons in the general election. In almost every competitive state, there is a Republican candidate who might well be a liability in a general election. 

Though perhaps this is wishful thinking; in an era of partisanship which seems categorically different to anything since the American Civil War, a world in which Marjorie Taylor Greene is a United States Representative, it seems hard to imagine a Senate candidacy derailed by derangement the way Todd Akin’s 2012 Missouri Senate Campaign was after his “legitimate rape” comments. Impressively, Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill later admitted to having helped Akin win the primary, believing him to be the easier lift in the general election. (The cited extract in which McCaskill admits the boosting of Akin is a great example of an utterly brilliant political gambit. The Senator faced likely defeat before the race, and ultimately won by 16 points.)

So, the competitive seats in 2022 beyond Wisconsin and Pennsylvania on the Republican side are likely to be those with a retiring incumbent. In North Carolina, a state only a light shade of red, a nasty and inconclusive Republican primary is underway, whilst Democrats appear to be consolidating early around former State Supreme Court Chief Justice, Cheri Beasley; a unity always advantageous going into a competitive race. Ohio is a slightly redder state than North Carolina, yet its current senior Senator is a Democrat, so strange things can happen. Moreover, leading Republican candidates in the Buckeye State are conducting what appears to be the country’s most bruising primary. However, both these two states are undoubtedly more likely to be retained by the Republican Senate Caucus than they are to be lost. 

The Democrats, unlike in 2018, are defending no Senators in states carried by Donald Trump in 2022. Their two most vulnerable incumbents are both 2020 special election winners who are required to run again for a full term, Raphael Warnock in Georgia, and Mark Kelly in Arizona. Both men fought tough campaigns in the knowledge that they would soon be back before voters and have thus posted strong fundraising figures. Kelly appears slightly more secure than Warnock given the marginally more favourable character of Arizona than Georgia for Democrats, alongside the failure of the Republicans to find a field-clearing candidate. Part of the peril for Warnock is Republican enthusiasm for the candidacy of Herschel Walker, a Heisman Trophy winner and successful former American football player – though the American obsession with athletes-celebrities-turned-politicians remains mysterious to me. In short, control of the Senate turns on a knife’s edge; even Ted Cruz, the most partisan of all partisans, puts the odds at around 50-50. The chamber’s majority will be decided by narrow margins in a few key states, none of which have predictable races, and whichever party carries the day looks highly unlikely to hold any more than 51 or 52 seats; indeed a continuation of the 50/50 split is far from implausible. 

This article, up until this point, has largely looked at a macroscopic politics, examining history, strategy, and the broad currents and trends in Congressional elections. To wrap up, however, it is worth outlining one or two of the specific issues upon which these elections are likely to turn, and, in keeping with the ‘horse-racey’ tone of the piece, outlining which party is up and which is down. 

Democrats are rather down. 

A year or so ago this was not widely imagined, but the issue coming to dictate Republican attack strategies is inflation. Inflation in the US is up to around seven or seven and a half per cent, its highest level in decades, and sustained price rises is one of the few issues which really does motivate votes. It was central to British politics for years, and comprised the very raison d’être of the Thatcher government, because, to understate the issue somewhat, inflation makes people poorer in such a way that they are viscerally aware of it occurring. So much of the economy moves out of sight of day to day life – not inflation. A lot of American economists thought the inflationary pressures were a transitory by-product of exiting from COVID; consequently, the Biden administration largely dismissed the issue. Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary, and Obama administration spending hawk, argued otherwise, believing in large part that the output gap being plugged by the American Rescue Plan was smaller than the legislation was designed to fill. 

This is not an article about economics. All that is immediately obvious is that Summers was right on the immediately pertinent point; inflation did not quickly get flushed out of the system. All due credit from a political perspective should go to a handful of Republicans, particularly Elise Stefanik, the number three Republican in the House, who anticipated well before it was on the radar of mainstream Democrats that inflation would become a potent attack-line. Republicans have been laser-focussed on the issue for months and have successfully repositioned themselves as the party of economic responsibility, another remarkable turnaround for the party actually of tax cuts and deregulation. If inflation has fallen somewhat and is trending down come November, then Democrats on the frontlines may have some room to breathe and to discuss other issues. If it remains at seven per cent or higher then that will be the election and Democrats will be swept aside. 

Another matter of concern is one that has been on everyone’s brain for a while now, COVID. Broadly speaking, Democrats have been the party of restrictions and Republicans have not. This, obviously, obscures a huge amount of nuance. It appears true that Democrats incorrectly assessed the risks at points, placing excessive burdens on children and parents, an issue which Republicans have well exploited. It is also certainly true that the abdication of responsibility by double or triple-jabbed elected Republicans who have obfuscated and danced around vaccination to play to a certain segment of their base is nauseating and reprehensible. You know things are bad when even Donald Trump criticises Ron DeSantis for refusing to clarify his (definitely triple-jabbed) vaccination status. 

In September 2021, California held its first recall election in almost 20 years. Frustrations with Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, who had notoriously attended an event at The French Laundry, a three Michelin Star, Napa Valley restaurant, boiled over, and Republicans launched an ill-judged attempt to remove him from office. Newsom stomped it into the dirt. He won by an almost identical margin to his landslide 2018 election, about 24 points, winning more votes than in that race in the process. The problem was that some of the wrong lessons were learned. Newsom’s team took from this, and exported, that COVID responsibility was a winning issue (Newsom had run as a vaccine-mandating, COVID-managing governor). Yes, perhaps, in true blue California. However the far more pressing point for Democratic voters ended up being that Newsom’s leading Republican opponent, Larry Elder, was a Republican made in the Trumpy, conspiratorial, election-denying mould; the kind of Republican that gets Democratic base voters scared. 

Two months later, New Jersey and Virginia held their slightly quaint off-year gubernatorial races. Phil Murphy, an incumbent Democrat seeking a second term in New Jersey, leaned in to his apparently high marks from voters for handling the virus. He was almost universally expected to win; New Jersey had gone for Biden by just shy of 16 points in 2020, and Murphy had won by 14 points in 2017. This time he won by about three. The race was far, far, closer than it had any right to be. Still, ultimately all people remember about elections is who won, and Murphy won. The shock came in Virginia. Terry McAuliffe had been the governor from 2014 to 2018, but the state is one of the few that prevents its leaders from serving consecutive terms, so McAuliffe sought a non-consecutive second term after four years under Ralph Northam. The gubernatorial race has in the past been considered something of a microcosm. It tends to swing against the party of the president, but the Commonwealth had, in recent years, come to be more and more aligned with the Democratic column; as indicated above, McAuliffe won his first term when Obama still sat in the Oval Office. Moreover, Biden had won Virginia by 10 points. Whilst the polling by the end of the race did point to a narrow Glenn Youngkin (Republican) victory, the actual manifestation of the numbers, a Democratic loss by 2 points, was genuinely devastating. 

Of course, all close elections are to some extent contingent. McAuliffe made a lot of errors, particularly around education, an issue becoming more divisive and politically salient as Republican school boards seek to ban books and resist COVID restrictions. Youngkin ran a very good campaign (adequately Trumpy for the base but palatable for suburban women) and the race was overshadowed by the terrible Democratic House and Senate infighting. Therefore, there are dangers of reading too much into narrow defeats. However, it is worth making perfectly clear that one Democrat was defeated in a blue-tinted state whilst running a campaign focussed in large part on COVID measures and vaccine mandates, while the other only just scraped by in deep blue territory whilst doing the same. 

One rather interesting data point which Virginia produced might reveal something about the midterms or, frankly, might not. Northam won the governor’s mansion in 2017 by nine points, with 53.9% of the vote, and just over 1.4 million ballots in his favour. McAuliffe lost in 2021 by two points, with 48.6% of the vote, but with 1.6 million ballots cast for him. Democrats turned out enough voters; it is just that Republicans turned out more. There is a possibility come November that even if Democrats mobilise an awful lot of their voters, which would not surprise me, the Republican party is easily identifiable as profoundly dangerous, and millions more people are more engaged in politics post-Trump, it may be that nothing they can do will withstand the wave that appears to be building.

Whether that is true or not, in recent days Democrats have pivoted aggressively on their COVID messaging. A spate of governors, Murphy among them, ironically, have announced plans to loosen mask mandates, and House Democrats are shifting on masks as well. A critical mass appears to have developed of people who believe that being seen as the party of continued COVID malaise is now more damaging and more likely than being seen as responsible leaders; the elections in 2021 have been a large part of this shift. As with a lot of things in this cycle, minds on COVID might already be made up; it is hard to see anyone who intends to vote based on desiring fewer restrictions deciding to vote Democrat.  

To be blunt, very few people not paid to say it think that Democrats will win in November. Even Democratic strategists or members in the House talk to reporters with the shared assumption that the House is doomed and the Senate can maybe be held if inflation drops, COVID recedes, the Republicans nominate candidates on the nuttier end of nutty, and good campaigns are run. In their less optimistic moments, Democrats fear being wiped out. It might not happen, but all the ingredients are there. A Republican backlash of significant proportions is evidently mounting and a taste was given in Virginia and New Jersey. The President’s approval ratings are underwater in every state where they need to be inverted, whilst the White House does not appear to see a clear path to get them back up to the high 40s. For all that is good in the economy -indeed much has been achieved during the Biden administration – inflation has become the headline issue, and Republicans have done a very good job of drawing the battlelines there early. Also Democrats are now worrying that they might have put themselves on the wrong side of the shifting COVID fence, as well as fearing that legislative missteps with BBB and Voting Rights will cost them in terms of base turnout and undercut attempts to present themselves as competent. If Republicans do take back the House, and perhaps the Senate too, it will be in part because of self-inflicted Democratic wounds and in part because of trends and circumstances outside of their immediate control. It will also be a profound victory for a deranged, toxic party, devoid of any policy beyond cruelty. It will also be a profound victory for stupidity – I refer you to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s latest faux-pas, mixing up the Gestapo with Gazpacho. The wheel turns; hundreds of millions are raised and spent; we watch with horrified anticipation.
 

Appendix

The attempt by Democrats to pass voting rights legislation reflected one of the party’s long-term goals, properly imbued with a particular sense of urgency by the Republican party’s accelerated pivot towards authoritarianism. Every Democratic Senator supports the principle of much of the legislation and Senator Lisa Murkowski (an Alaska Republican) also backed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act (one of the possible bills). However, owing to unintended consequences and arcane procedural rules, the United States Senate is held hostage by the filibuster. The filibuster is a quirk of the chamber which means that whilst any bill can technically be passed on a simple majority vote, opposing Senators have the opportunity to to prolong the period of debate on a bill indefinitely, effectively ‘killing’ it. Invoking cloture (the procedure to end debate and vote on the bill) requires sixty votes. And any and every bill can be filibustered, save for certain types of legislation pertaining to federal taxation or spending. The rule has technically existed since the 19th century, though for much of its history it went unused, in part because of reduced partisanship, and in part because it was not initially clear that a monster had been created. In 2022, it is an absurd relic; neither party is likely to get anywhere near 60 senators in the foreseeable future and there are very rarely sufficient willing opposition lawmakers to invoke cloture on major legislation. What this subsequently produces is a lot of gridlock and very little lawmaking. 

Chuck Schumer, the current Democratic majority leader, sought to evade the filibuster by changing the rules of the chamber to permit voting rights legislation to pass with 51 votes (all Democrats plus Kamala Harris). Amusingly, Senate rules can be changed by a majority and in the last ten years, this so-called “nuclear option” has been used twice. The first was in 2013 when Harry Reid (the recently deceased Democratic majority leader from 2007-2015) killed the filibuster on all presidential nominations, executive and judicial, save for to the Supreme Court. In 2017, Mitch McConnell (current Republican minority leader and majority leader from 2015-2021) finished the job, ending the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations. Both leaders and senate caucuses did so in the face of perceived intransigence by their opponents. In 2013, Republicans were making it hell for Obama to confirm federal judges and his desired second-term cabinet. In 2017, the overwhelming majority of Democrats were utterly unwilling to confirm Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, after believing the seat to have been stolen from Obama by McConnell. No party had attempted to touch the legislative filibuster in recent memory until Schumer attempted to create a voting rights carveout. 

The move failed because two Democratic Senators, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of previously mentioned fame, opposed the measure, causing it to fail 48-52. Both made a decision I believe to be incorrect, citing traditional, and clearly erroneous, arguments that the filibuster helps to preserve the Senate as an institution, protect the minority, and encourage bipartisan compromise. They both received massive flak for their votes, with swirling talk of primary challenges and being cut off from big donors. Sinema is in more danger than Manchin because she represents a state that Joe Biden won in 2020 and consequently Democrats feel that they could win again, even without her incumbency. Manchin represents West Virginia, a state which Joe Biden lost by around 40 points. Any Democratic strategist who is not an utter moron has dismissed the idea of challenging Manchin, knowing full well that that seat is either held by him, or by a Republican.  

Chuck Schumer, just like anyone paying even slight attention, knew that he would be defeated and that the vote would be 48-52. Both Manchin and Sinema had been very clear that they intended to vote no. The justification from Schumer’s perspective is that 48 Democratic Senators are now on record as holding some level of actionable opposition to the legislative filibuster, an achievement considering that many of these publicly advocated the opposite position as recently as 2017 or demurred whilst campaigning. The groundwork, therefore, is undoubtedly laid for a future push which might actually succeed. This is all fair and true. That being said, the criticisms of Schumer are also fair and true, whilst incidentally being more compelling. A floor leader should avoid splitting their caucus and isolating certain members; his responsibility is to lead them all. Certainly his failure to rule out backing primary challenges to Sinema and Manchin is unusual, irresponsible, and verges on a betrayal. The other big critique of his gambit is that during an election year, it has played into two of the narratives most harmful to his President and his party, both of which are examined in the article’s main body.

Artwork by Ben Beechener

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