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You Don't Need to Be a Fortune Teller: Signs Point to GOP Sweep This Year

The president's party always loses seats in midterms. This year, just about everything — fundraising, voter enthusiasm, demographic shifts, the issues mix — is going the right way for Republicans.

(Trevor Bexon/Shutterstock)
For Democrats this year, the only real question is whether the elections will be only moderately bad or completely terrible.

If you think like a weather forecaster, all kinds of data point to a major storm. By basically every metric you can think of — fundraising, candidate recruitment, voter enthusiasm, demographic shifts — a big wave is forming that will sweep hundreds of Democrats out of office, up and down the ticket.

The main reason isn’t hard to suss out. Every president can count on his party losing seats in midterms, but President Biden’s approval ratings are particularly bad. On average, 41 percent of Americans approve of the job he’s doing, compared with 54 percent who disapprove. “That is one of the lowest marks of any president since World War II,” says Henry Olsen, a conservative analyst at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Unless that changes, I would expect a solid Democratic defeat.”

Granted, President Donald Trump’s approval ratings were similarly bargain basement in 2018 — but then, Republicans lost control of the House that year, along with seven governorships. The more important comparison, at any rate, is not with Trump but with Biden himself. Biden won the presidency in 2020 by 4.5 points. If he’s down 13, that represents a huge drop in support, which seriously imperils his party.

Swing voters have swung hard against Biden. His net approval rating among independents is roughly minus 20. That’s a group he carried in 2020 by 13 points, according to exit polls.

We’ve already witnessed a demonstration of how the president’s numbers can drag down other Democrats. Last November, Biden’s net disapproval numbers were 12.5 percent points lower than his victory margin in 2020. Guess what? The swing from Biden’s share of the vote to that won in 2020 by the Democratic candidates for governor was 12 points. Gov. Phil Murphy managed barely to hold on in New Jersey, but Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost the governorship to Republican Glenn Youngkin in Virginia — a state Biden had carried a year earlier by 10 points.

Now, Biden’s numbers are even lower than they were back in November. This means any Democrat who won their last election by less than double-digit margins should be nervous. That certainly includes vulnerable governors such as Tony Evers of Wisconsin and Laura Kelly of Kansas.

“The president’s dismal ratings are what people care about the most,” says GOP consultant David Carney. “It could be a bloodbath up and down the ballot, from the school board to Congress."

There are several known unknowns that could shift the landscape between now and Nov. 8. Inflation might tick lower and the war in Ukraine may have played out in a way that helps Biden politically. Perhaps Tuesday’s school shooting in Texas will activate voters in a way that other mass shootings have failed to do. An NPR/Marist poll released last week found that the expected Supreme Court action to overturn Roe v. Wade should help energize Democrats. Sixty-six percent of Democrats said it would make them more likely to vote this fall, versus 40 percent of Republicans.

“There are two big things that we don’t know yet how they will play: The first one is the Jan. 6 committee and its hearings, and the second one is this abortion decision,” says Lara Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University. “Depending on how those capture the attention of the country and different demographics, I do think that can impact the magnitude of what ever wave the Republicans are looking at.”

But in the weeks since Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion on abortion law was leaked, there’s been no evidence of a surge in Democratic participation in primaries or early voting. Not even any real uptick.

“I’d be surprised if Roe v. Wade did not energize the marginal Democratic voter, the sort that would usually vote in the presidential race but not necessarily in the midterm, but that only gets you so far,” Olsen says. “The real game is the swing voter.”

Undoing Obama’s Coalition

Biden’s old boss, Barack Obama, put together a winning coalition during his presidency, combining college-educated whites with young, Black and Latino voters. The danger for Democrats is that Biden appears to be unraveling that coalition. About the only groups still solidly in his camp are dedicated members of the Democratic base, such as Black voters and college-educated women.

Biden carried close to two-thirds of Hispanic voters in 2020, but their shift toward Trump, compared to 2016, was notable, especially in states such as Florida and Texas. In the Texas primaries in March this year, participation in GOP primaries was up dramatically in heavily Hispanic portions of South Texas that traditionally have been overwhelmingly Democratic.

An NPR/Marist poll released last month found that 52 percent of Latinos say they’re more likely to support Republican candidates for Congress; just 39 percent favor Democrats.

Young voters have been a particular problem for Biden. Voters under 30 favored Biden over Trump, 60 percent to 39 percent, in 2020, but they’ve soured on him since. Biden’s approval rating among young voters has dropped by 18 points over the past year, according to a Harvard Institute of Politics poll – which is in line with what other pollsters are finding.

Even as Democrats shed support among Latinos, young voters and parents, the party’s longstanding problem with working-class white voters continues to worsen. The April NPR/Marist poll found Democrats are only favored by a third of white voters without college degrees, compared to 55 percent who say they are likely to support Republicans.

“The people who are left backing Biden are the people who would back any Democrat under anything except extreme circumstances,” Olsen says. “That’s a terrible place to be in for an election. You’ve lost America’s middle.”

Generically Bad

The NPR/Marist poll asked what is known as a generic ballot question — are you more likely to favor a Republican or a Democrat — rather than asking about any individual candidates who might be on the ballot.

Candidates do matter. Republicans were notably unhappy that Pennsylvania voters decided to nominate conspiracy-minded state Sen. Doug Mastriano for governor last week, viewing him as more likely to lose in November than other potential picks. Similarly, Republican officials in Missouri are hoping another candidate can coalesce enough support to stop Eric Greitens, who resigned as governor in disgrace in 2018 amid multiple scandals, from winning nomination to the Senate.

Republicans left winnable seats on the table in 2010 and 2012 by nominating “unacceptable” candidates unable to win in the general election, as Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky himself said last month. “From an atmospheric point of view, it’s a perfect storm of problems for the Democrats,” McConnell said. “How could you screw this up? It’s actually possible. And we’ve had some experience with that in the past.”

McConnell was referring to the 100-seat Senate, which is currently tied. There are relatively few Democratic seats in play this year, meaning each race will count enormously. Still, Republicans have enough opportunities not only to win the majority but come away with a total of perhaps 53 or 54 seats.

The GOP needs only five seats to take control of the 435-member House. Redistricting has turned out to be more or less a wash, but on net Republicans gained a slight advantage. A lot of GOP-tilted seats have been fortified against all but the worst-case scenarios, while Democrats hold more seats that are marginal.

They’ll have little protection in a wave year. There’s hardly any ticket-splitting, with voters favoring candidates of one party or the other up and down the ballot. There are only 16 seats in the House where the district voted one way for president in 2020 and the other for Congress.

The players matter, but sometimes the playing field matters more. In the most competitive House districts, generic Republicans are leading generic Democrats by 47 percent to 39 percent. That’s according to internal polling by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Even bad candidates can win in the right environment, which this is shaping up to be for Republicans. “We’re going to have a lot of people winning that no one ever heard of,” Carney says.

Messaging and Money

The abortion issue may help Democrats politically in a couple of ways. It could help inspire young voters who don’t like the GOP but aren’t Biden stans. It also gives the party something to talk about. Since the Alito leak, Democrats have been much more full-throated in support of abortion rights than Republicans have been about its demise.

Democrats would like to think they can easily convince voters that Republicans can’t be trusted since they support the election lies of a twice-impeached coup leader. But if tying Republicans to Trump were a winning strategy, it would have paid off for McAuliffe in Virginia, who certainly tried it.

Republicans aren’t made of Teflon. The very term “culture war” suggests there are two sides battling, so efforts to ban books or restrict the teaching of racial history and gender identity won’t play well with everyone. “The more the party focused on these culture war issues, I actually believe the less it will help them in the suburbs,” says Brown, the George Washington University professor.

But culture war issues motivate the party’s base. And, to appeal to swing voters, Republicans have plenty of other clubs with which to beat Biden and the Democrats. Maybe you’ve already heard this, but inflation has jumped the most in four decades. Gas prices, already at a retail average of $4.60 per gallon, may well go higher with summer travel demand — perhaps as high as $6. Homicides have increased dramatically since 2019, fueling a return to “tough on crime” rhetoric among Republicans.

It's all easy fodder for an opposition party to run on. Polls indicate that voters trust the GOP more, by significant margins, when it comes to inflation and the economy in general. Republicans are enjoying their biggest advantage regarding the crime issue in decades.

All of this is reflected in how partisans are responding. The gap between the numbers of Democrats and Republicans retiring from Congress is the highest it’s been in decades. At the legislative level, Republicans are leaving fewer seats open than Democrats.

Republicans raised $170 million from January to March through WinRed, an online fundraising platform. That still lags the Democrats’ ActBlue, which has traditionally been much more robust, but represents nearly a one-quarter jump for WinRed over the same period in 2020. The Republican Governors Association raised $33 million in the first quarter of the year, which was nearly $10 million more than the Democratic Governors Association. The Republican State Leadership Committee brought in just over $10 million, compared with $6.5 million for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Who Will Turn Out?

In the end, voter behavior matters most of all. Again, the GOP has a big advantage.

A slew of polls have showed large and indeed growing gaps in terms of levels of enthusiasm about voting this year between Republicans and Democrats. But we don’t have to rely strictly on polls any more. We’re still relatively early in the primary season, but Republicans are showing up in ways that Democrats are not.

In the first 10 states to hold primaries this year, Republicans received 61 percent of the total vote, according to an analysis by GOP pollster John Couvillon. The party generating more enthusiasm in primaries has fared quite well in the last few midterms. Democrats received 54 percent of the primary vote in 2018 — a solid midterm year for them — while Republicans got 55 percent in both 2010 and 2014, landslide years for the party.

It’s true that primary turnout isn’t a perfect measure, since not all races are equally competitive. On Tuesday, for example, Stacey Abrams was unopposed for the Democratic nomination for governor of Georgia, while GOP Gov. Brian Kemp faced a contentious, if ultimately easy, contest against former Sen. David Perdue. Turnout on the GOP side increased by a half-million votes, compared to the 2018 primary.

But looking at the total picture, it’s clear more Republicans are turning out. A lot more Republicans. Overall Republican primary turnout is up 32 percent, while Democratic turnout has actually declined 3 percent.

All this paints a pretty grim picture for Democrats. They’re running behind on the issues that concern voters most. Their leader is losing support among key constituencies. Their potential candidates are less likely to run, while their voters are less likely to turn out.

It’s clear that Republicans will be stronger at the end of the year than they are now. It’s not yet possible to say how much stronger, but if anyone offers to bet you Democrats will retain power in Congress, take their money. At the state level, GOP victories may not be as momentous, but that’s only because they already hold majorities among governors, legislators and legislative chambers.

For Republicans, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas will fall early this year, on Nov. 8.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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