Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
This week, a months-old video of Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate for the hotly contested US Senate seat in Pennsylvania, resurfaced and went viral. The video, shot at a supermarket, shows the TV personality trying to highlight the effects of inflation as he picks out vegetables, guacamole and salsa.
“That’s $20 for crudités, and this doesn’t include the tequila…That’s outrageous. We’ve got Joe Biden to thank for this,” Oz says in the video.
His Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, seized on the video and suggested Oz was out of touch with a tweet on Monday that said, “In PA we call this a…veggie tray.” His campaign later claimed it had raised more than $500,000 in one day as a result. “It’s a nice bump,” Fetterman’s communications director told CNBC.
The exchange between Oz and Fetterman is just one example that is giving Democrats hope that they have a realistic shot at retaining control of the Senate come November.
Several high-profile Republican Senate candidates are struggling. Most of them, endorsed by former President Donald Trump, have proven to be extremely problematic candidates. In addition to Oz, former football star Herschel Walker is struggling to pull ahead and maintain a solid lead in the race against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia. Meanwhile, a number of Republicans are privately worried about bestselling author JD Vance, who has run a weak campaign in the Ohio Senate race against Democratic nominee, Rep. Tim Ryan.
Although there is still sufficient time for Republicans to regain their strength in these races, there is evidence the Senate is up for grabs in what was previously thought to be a midterm from hell for the Democrats.
In other words, the Republican Party, in putting forward untested candidates and refusing to cut ties with the former president, might do for the Democrats what Biden himself has not been able to achieve even with his major legislative victories.
This is surprising since midterms rarely go well for the party in control of the White House. The electorate tends to see the vote as a referendum on the president and the inevitable frustration that sets in often translates into an opposition party that is more energized and motivated to go to the polls.
It’s also important to note that historically, legislative success rarely translates into electoral gains. Although White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain is hoping that the “season of substance” will boost Democrats, the fact of the matter is that presidents who have pushed huge, legacy-making bills on Capitol Hill often suffer through miserable midterms. Voters don’t often feel the benefits in the short term, and if the opposition frames the policies in an unflattering light, big bills can prompt a backlash.
After Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt enjoyed the rare success of the 1934 midterms and remade the federal government through the New Deal, a conservative coalition of southern Democrats and Republicans gained power in the 1938 midterms, creating a powerful check to the administration in the House and Senate.
This was also the case for President Lyndon Johnson, who saw that same conservative, bipartisan coalition gain strength in the 1966 midterms after a huge landslide in 1964 allowed Democrats to push the Great Society programs through Congress.
More recently, President Barack Obama faced a backlash for the economic stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, with the rise of the Tea Party in 2010.
Counteracting the political pendulum’s swing in the opposite direction is incredibly difficult and rare. In the 2002 midterms, President George W. Bush was able to do so by rallying voters around the theme of national security in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
More relevant for President Joe Biden are the midterm elections that took place during President Bill Clinton’s second term. Despite Clinton facing impeachment, Democrats picked up five seats in the House in 1998.
At a moment when it seemed that Clinton was as weak as could be, some Democrats focused on the extremism of the GOP, painting Speaker Newt Gingrich and his allies as extreme partisans more interested in investigation and scandal than governing. The strategy worked. Though Republicans retained control of Congress, Democrats dealt a blow to the GOP in the House, contributing in large part to the Republican caucus’ decision to pressure Gingrich to step down.
There might be a similar dynamic in 2022. The Trump-endorsed candidates are already causing problems for a Republican Party that might have previously thought they would glide into congressional power.
Several Republican candidates in key Senate races have made unforced errors, giving Democrats unexpected opportunities in states like Pennsylvania. The specter of the January 6 committee and the ongoing shock and awe from the multiple investigations dogging the former president might influence enough pockets of independent voters in decisive states. In the next few months, Democrats might be able to soften the blows or even retain power in the Senate if they are able to frame this election as the choice between a party that governs and a radicalized party primarily interested in burning down the house.
The outcome is still too difficult to see. Economic conditions and ongoing investigations will be crucial in dictating the outcome. But the best path forward for Democrats might be to keep the public eye trained on the dangers of having Trump-endorsed candidates wreaking havoc in Congress. And it might just be enough for voters to see the image of Trump instead of Biden in their minds.