How Hopeful Should Democrats Be About the Midterms?

Despite having held the two most prominent elective offices in the U.S. for half of this century, Joe Biden has done relatively little high-profile campaigning. He was understandably overshadowed by Barack Obama and then kept largely away from human audiences, in 2020, by the pandemic. But certain aspects of campaigning mesh well with Biden’s tendencies as a politician: the opportunity that it gives to draw high-stakes moral distinctions, and the simpler pleasure of being a person in a crowd among other people, often within reach of ice cream. But the turn in the Democrats’ political fortunes this summer has moved through the oft-sleepy White House like a current. Politico recently reported that Biden’s aides wanted him on the trail “two or three times a week” between Labor Day and the midterms, a daunting itinerary even for politicians who aren’t about to turn eighty. In Maryland last week, Biden bragged about the Inflation Reduction Act, the signature seven-hundred-billion-dollar package that he signed in August. “There are a lot more Republicans taking credit for that bill than actually voted for it,” the President said, then mimicked the Republicans: “ ‘And now we’re gonna build this new bridge here, we’re all for it, and by the way, this new road, and we’re gonna have Internet, it’s gonna be all. . . .” Was that pleasure on his face? “I love ’em, man, they ain’t got no shame.”

Biden is offering a straightforward account of what the midterm elections are about. “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic,” Biden said in a speech on September 1st at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where the stage design, unignorably, left the President backdropped by an ominous red light. By MAGA extremism, Biden meant two things: the challenge to the legitimacy of elections and a stringent social conservatism “determined to take this country backwards” with campaigns against abortion rights and gay rights. As a dramatic composition, Biden suggested, we were not in a new era but in a sort of second act of the 2020 election, with the same protagonists—Biden and Trump—and the same basic drama.

The speech didn’t operate especially well as a description of what was happening in the midterms themselves. Trump has been a fleeting and distracted presence, one that many Republican operatives and insiders are sure is damaging their chances and wish would just go away. On the campaign trail, especially in closely contested races, few Democratic candidates emphasize January 6th, choosing instead to talk about abortion rights and the Administration’s investments in health care, infrastructure, and clean energy. But, if the midterms are not about a second round of Trump versus Biden, and if threats to democracy define the stakes of these elections but not the debates, then what are the midterms about?

At the beginning of the summer, this election cycle looked like the stage for a Republican comeback. In June, gas prices were above five dollars a gallon, Biden’s approval rating was nosediving, and forecasters were projecting an electoral landslide. During the primaries, when I travelled with Republican candidates across the Midwest and South, the atmosphere was unique, in that many were at once saying extreme things—that the 2020 election had been stolen, that when they won power they would ban abortion with no exceptions, even for rape or incest—and, at the same time, very obviously measuring the drapes. By July, public opinion of President Biden was so bleak that some Democratic operatives in swing states were wondering exactly how far ahead of his approval rating their own candidates would have to run. The Party’s better candidates might be able to win the support of ten per cent more voters than approved of Biden’s performance in the White House. But what if, in some races, they needed to outrun the President by twenty per cent? Where was the bottom?

Then came the summer, and, with it, a turn away from the bottom. Several developments coincided, all of them favorable to Democrats. On June 14th, gas prices peaked, and began a decline that has now been steady for three months. Ten days later, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson, effectively removing the federal guarantee of abortion rights, and opening the door to a wave of state legislation seeking to ban abortion. The maneuvers that Donald Trump had made in the primaries (often intervening to support more loyal or telegenic candidates, even if they were extremists or were unproven) left the Republicans with several candidates in pivotal Senate races who were underperforming: Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia, Blake Masters in Arizona. On August 7th, the Senate finally passed the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s diminished but still signature omnibus bill, which raised taxes on corporations and stock buybacks and invested in clean energy and cheaper prescription drugs. A Republican Party pushing extremism. Democrats demonstrating that they could govern. Squint a little, and you could see the exact dynamic that Biden had long been rooting for.

Midterm voters are often understood to act in response to frustration at the way the country is being run—those whose party is out of power are more likely to register votes of outrage than those whose party is in power are to register votes of contentment. But which party was in power—the Democrats, who held the White House and Congress, or the Republicans, who held the Supreme Court? Which faction was more outraged? Charles Franklin, who directs the Marquette Law School poll of Wisconsin voters, pointed out to me that, after the Dobbs decision, just five per cent of registered voters in Wisconsin believed that abortion should be illegal in all cases. “And yet,” Franklin said, “that is the position of the Republican candidate for governor.”

Biden’s approval rating slowly rose. Conservatives in Kansas arranged a voter referendum to establish a constitutional ban on abortion in the state, and it failed spectacularly. In special elections held this summer in New York, Minnesota, Alaska, and Nebraska, Democrats performed well enough, wrote the election analyst Nate Cohn in the Times, that they pointed to a “fairly evenly divided national vote for the House.” Mitch McConnell told reporters, “When the Senate-race smoke clears, we’re likely to have a very, very close Senate still.” McConnell had privately expressed concerns with the “candidate quality” of Republicans—particularly those backed by Trump—running for the Senate. On that metric, the situation for the G.O.P. appeared to grow worse this week, when Donald Bolduc, an election-denying former brigadier general who has claimed that COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips, won the Senate primary in New Hampshire.

The past two election cycles have left some lingering doubt about how much polls can be trusted at all. But the forecasters at FiveThirtyEight, tallying up the available evidence, put the chances that Republicans take the House in November at seventy-two per cent, and the chances that Democrats hold the Senate at seventy-one per cent. Part of each midterm election is about the past—what has happened in the prior two years. And, on that metric, the Democrats had been expected to lose. Now, two months out, Democrats have found themselves cautiously in pursuit of something like a draw.

Midterms are also about the future. A deep realignment is currently under way in American politics: the Democrats are becoming the party of voters with college degrees, and Republicans the party of those without, a change with the clunky name of “education polarization.” In the 2016 election, this was a discussion point for political scientists and polling analysts; by the end of the 2020 election, it had become something that operatives, consultants, and candidates for both parties worried and strategized over. Since Biden’s election, each party has advanced a post-education-polarization version of itself. The midterms are a test of whether those theories are working, or whether each party will need to change again.

The G.O.P.’s avatar of the Biden era is not Trump but Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. His argument has been that most institutions in the country (not just universities and the media but ordinary public schools and corporations) are controlled by progressives intent on ostracizing conservative ideas and individuals. His insight has been that the way to maintain a right-of-center party in this era, when less educated and more rural conservatives might otherwise challenge a pro-business party, has been to emphasize the sectarian aggressions of progressives in power. This sensibility has animated the Republican campaigns against critical race theory, against mask and vaccine mandates, against election officials and teachers’ unions, against the Walt Disney Corporation—battles that have, if not quite dominated politics, then provided the background noise for much of Biden’s Presidency.

This all-out culture war has helped Republicans to resolve an internal tension between the branch of the Party that backs Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and the branch that doesn’t. But it also asks the Party’s voters to back some extreme positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, and cultural traditionalism generally. The Dobbs decision has turned the 2022 elections, at least in part, into a test of whether a culture-war platform can convene a majority. “There is a big chunk of the Republican Party élite that wants social issues to go away—it’s maybe ten per cent of the primary electorate, but fifty per cent of the consultancy and pundit class,” Luke Thompson, the executive director of Protect Ohio Values, a Republican super PAC supporting J. D. Vance, said. “Their view is basically, ‘Don’t touch sex stuff. It’s all icky and it hurts us.’ And those people will lose the argument if there’s not a blowback to Dobbs.”

The Trump-era realignment poses a different challenge for Democrats. Their voting base and candidates mostly share political aims; the problem is that there simply may not be enough working-class Democratic voters to form a majority in key districts and battleground states. In response, Biden-era Democrats have mostly trusted that the threat of Trump will keep their educated base intact, while focussing on targeted material support for working-class voters: generous pandemic-relief checks and cheaper prescription drugs. This was, essentially, why Biden was picked as the nominee in the first place—he had support among voters without college degrees that the other candidates simply could not match.

But the Democrats have also got a bit lucky. In the most competitive Senate races, their candidates are especially adept. The list includes Mark Kelly, the former astronaut, in Arizona; Mandela Barnes, the first Black lieutenant governor in state history, in Wisconsin; and Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, who has won three statewide races in Nevada. But Democratic prospects hinge especially on their candidates in the two Senate seats most likely to flip: Senator Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s church, in Georgia, and Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, the cargo-shorts-wearing former mayor of the blue-collar city of Braddock, in Pennsylvania. Both Warnock’s and Fetterman’s biographies insulate them somewhat from the Republican line that Democrats are out-of-touch élitists. They have also been careful to emphasize populist ideas—in Warnock’s case, his work to lower the cost of insulin drugs; in Fetterman’s, blaming high gas prices on alleged profiteering at Exxon and Chevron. But the past few weeks have provided reminders of how much is being asked of these politicians. Warnock is running in a state that had been firmly Republican before the unusual circumstances of 2020. Fetterman is still struggling with “auditory processing,” four months after suffering a life-threatening stroke.

Much like the Republicans, the Democrats have responded to education polarization by following a path of least resistance, theorizing that they do not need to change their commitments on abortion, climate policy, student-debt relief, and L.G.B.T.Q. rights in order to maintain a majority. This strategy has put enormous pressure on their swing-state candidates, who, in order to win in November, will likely need to secure the support of many voters who disapprove of Biden’s performance as President—without being able to distinguish themselves from the White House ideologically. A recurring question in American politics, given the electoral map’s bias toward rural areas, is how Democrats will seek to win in moderate and conservative places. Liberals might be heartened by the approach of Warnock, Fetterman, and the class of 2022, who are more forthrightly progressive on both economic and social issues and rely on their personas and the extremism of the Trump-era Republicans to make a broader appeal. But, for their politics to stick, those politicians, running in states that are not especially progressive, need to win. ♦

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