Editor’s Note: Charlie Dent is a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who served as chair of the House Ethics Committee from 2015 until 2017 and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies from 2015 until 2018. He is a CNN political commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
President Joe Biden and the Democrats have been on a bit of a roll since August – beginning with the enactment of the misnamed Inflation Reduction Act.
The law’s impact on inflation will likely be minimal, although the climate change, pharmaceutical price controls and health care provisions are significant and consequential. Meanwhile, gasoline prices, while still high, have fallen, as Biden’s approval rating, while still perilously low, has risen.
Democratic victories in competitive special elections in the recent New York and Alaska House races have injected a shot of adrenaline into Democratic candidates across the country. The Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade, former President Donald Trump’s unhelpful meddling in the midterm scrum and GOP candidate stumbles – particularly in swing state Senate races – have lowered Republican expectations of a massive red wave.
Democrats now want to act as if they can defy history and mitigate expected midterm losses – possibly retaining control of both chambers of Congress. But all of that optimism should be tempered after the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) revealed on Tuesday that inflation ticked back up last month.
The news is even worse in cities in key swing states – including Phoenix, Atlanta and Miami, with inflation jumps year over year of 13%, 11.7%, and 10.7%, respectively, according to Axios analysis of BLS data. Meanwhile, as consumers are paying less for gasoline overall, gas prices remain stubbornly high, particularly in Arizona, Nevada and other critical states to the Democrats’ goal of maintaining congressional control.
So, what does this all mean for the GOP and its prospects of winning majorities in the House and Senate?
No doubt Republicans will continue to hammer Democrats on out-of-control spending, particularly the American Rescue Plan, and how that profligacy has helped to turbocharge inflation at a time when supply was already low and demand quite high. The GOP will also amplify attacks on Democrats over soaring crime rates in Democratic-run cities and states, and the ongoing crisis at the border. Combined with inflation, these are powerful issues to campaign on.
But GOP messaging does not occur in a vacuum – and Republicans need to contend with several major obstacles.
First, Democrats will relentlessly pound Republicans over abortion. The GOP never had a coherent plan for victory after the Dobbs decision. Several Republican-controlled states have enacted extreme abortion bans with few or no exceptions. Public reaction has been fierce to these measures, as witnessed by the recent referendum in ruby-red Kansas where abortion rights were affirmed by a wide margin – providing further evidence that these abortion bills are alienating significant numbers of Republican voters, as well as Democrats and independents.
Adding to the incoherence is Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina’s introduction of national abortion ban legislation after 15 weeks, placing congressional candidates in the uncomfortable position of answering unwanted questions on a highly controversial abortion bill. After the Dobbs ruling, GOP congressional candidates simply wanted to deflect these abortion questions to the states.
Second, extreme election-denying GOP candidates are making victory less likely in some critical swing states and districts. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tacitly acknowledged this problem when he recently spoke of candidate quality. At a Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce event he said, “I think there is a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate…Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.” In an era of extreme polarization, candidates may matter less, but candidates still matter.
Finally, the GOP must acknowledge the elephant in the room: Trump. Many Republican candidates in competitive races want Trump to go radio silent between now and the midterms.
After all, it’s hard to sell a strong anti-inflation or tough-on-crime message when Trump keeps bringing the story back to himself. Witness the recent Trump rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where he provided a gift to Democrats by relentlessly attacking the law enforcement agencies responsible for investigating his handling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.
Indeed, it’s difficult for the GOP to make the midterms a referendum on the Biden administration while Trump, unpopular with many Democrats and independents, is the public face of the GOP.
So, two questions remain: Will the GOP message on rising inflation, crime and historical midterm dynamics favoring the party out of power prevail? Or will Trump, abortion and GOP candidate quality mitigate expected Democrat losses?
The truth is we have never seen a defeated, unpopular former president play such an outsized role in a midterm election. But Republicans still have a fighting chance. While they cannot control Trump, they can try to ignore him as much as possible between now and November – focusing instead on their winning messages on the economy and crime.
It’s not an ideal situation, but if they succeed in doing so, I expect a very slender GOP House majority in the next Congress. The Senate is a jump ball, but Democrats in the upper chamber still have reason for optimism.