President Joe Biden can’t avoid a bad midterm election. But with a boost last week from the US Supreme Court, he still might avoid the worst.
A bad election means losing the Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives, which his own party’s strategists now consider virtually certain. A Republican-controlled House would roadblock his legislative agenda, investigate his administration and family, and perhaps even impeach him – notwithstanding the absence of legitimate cause.
The worst means losing the Senate, too. Returned to the job of majority leader, Mitch McConnell could deny Biden the ability to fill top administration jobs and judicial vacancies – including any potential vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Both outcomes will be shaped by the same atmospheric conditions, which for months have strongly favored the GOP. But fortunately for the beleaguered Biden, critical House and Senate contests sometimes move in different ways.
Voters know less about individual House members and their challengers. That leaves competitive House races largely at the mercy of a national mood soured by inflation worries and disappointment with Biden.
Though gerrymandering of House districts leaves only a few truly competitive ones, that pool of targets appears plenty large enough to place the speaker’s gavel in GOP hands. Republicans need a net gain of only four seats – a fraction of the average historical gain for the party not holding the White House – to recapture the majority.
In a Senate now split 50-50, Republicans need a net gain of only one seat. But that won’t come as easily.
More than House members, higher-profile senators and their challengers have some ability to create their own political weather. In competitive races, they invariably have plenty of cash for campaign advertising to burnish their own images and tar their opponents’.
A higher profile can magnify the assets of strong candidates and the liabilities of weak ones. Republicans worry most about the latter, having watched inept nominees blow several winnable Senate races when their party was in the minority in 2010 and 2012.
Since only one-third of Senate seats are up in any single election, partisan outcomes hinge largely on which seats those are. In 2018, even as the unpopularity of then-President Donald Trump helped Democrats recapture the House, Republicans netted two Senate seats because that campaign included battleground races in reliably red states such as Missouri, North Dakota and Indiana.
In 2022, the political geography is decidedly blue. Democrats can hold the Senate merely by reelecting incumbents in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire – all states Biden won in 2020. If they can’t keep them all, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin provide chances to flip Republican seats in two more states Biden won.
“I’ve never seen a map this good” for an embattled majority party, observed Amy Walter, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
On that auspicious battlefield, Democrats have lately acquired fresh ammunition.
On Capitol Hill, the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, insurrection has laid out in riveting detail the lengths to which Trump and his allies went in their attempt to overturn the American people’s verdict in the 2020 election. And at the Supreme Court, new rulings have demonstrated the willingness of GOP-appointed conservative justices to defy majority opinion and its own precedents on the most volatile issues roiling the country.
First, the court expanded the constitutional right to bear arms by striking down a century-old New York law limiting residents’ right to carry concealed weapons. Then a 5-4 majority erased the constitutional right to abortion that women had for the last half-century as a result of its earlier Roe vs. Wade ruling.
Taken together, those developments highlight Biden’s warnings about the radicalism and extremism of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement. Democratic candidates crave the chance to shift the electorate’s attention from the economic concerns weighing down the White House to more fundamental questions about American democracy.
“Is the disappointment in Biden a more powerful force than fear of MAGA?” asked Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network, a think tank. “I just don’t know that’s the case.”
These lines of Democratic attack place particular pressure on untested GOP candidates who seem to match the portrait Democrats paint. In Georgia, a prime Senate Republican target, ex-football star Herschel Walker has favored a complete abortion ban that even bars exceptions for rape, incest or threats to the woman’s life. Walker has also struggled with personal controversies and odd public pronouncements in his bid to oust Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
GOP strategists acknowledge that the abortion issue, in particular, adds a wild card for mobilizing Democratic voters. But the specter of MAGA governance, they insist, will ultimately get swamped by discontent with the economy and the nation’s general direction.
“It’s not going to have nearly enough traction,” said veteran GOP pollster Neil Newhouse.
A few intraparty dissidents remain uncertain. Mike Madrid, a California-based Republican consultant who worked to defeat Trump in 2020, sees the outcome turning on the relative magnitude of two opposing trends: the drift of suburban White women toward Democrats and blue-collar Hispanic men toward Republicans.
By cooperating with Democrats on gun safety legislation, McConnell told reporters last week, he hopes to reverse enough of those suburban defections. But “to believe that’s a foregone conclusion,” Madrid said, “is silly.”