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Three bright spots for Democrats ahead of the 2022 midterms

The “MAGA hangover” is real.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 in the State Dining Room of the White House on July 28, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

The conventional wisdom was that 2022 was going to be a no good, very bad year for Democrats. There’s an unpopular incumbent Democratic president whose approval ratings have tanked. The US economy is potentially teetering on the edge of a recession. And Republicans are already planning what they’ll do if they retake control of the House, as has been widely predicted.

But even before Democrats unveiled a major new legislative push, bright spots were emerging that hint the midterms might not be as bad for Democrats as expected.

For one, Democrats are outpacing President Joe Biden’s abysmal approval ratings in generic ballots: Slightly more than 43 percent of voters say that, if the election were held today, they would support Democrats in Congress, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. Just over 44 percent said they would support Republicans.

Even influential Republican polls — including Americans for Prosperity, Echelon Insights, Chamber of Commerce, and Winning The Issues — recently found that Democrats were leading by between 3 and percentage 6 points. Democrats are also now favored to maintain control of the Senate, according to Decision Desk HQ.

“It was not clear from data that there was ever a [Republican] wave,” said Simon Rosenberg, a former senior adviser to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and president of the progressive think tank NDN. “The data that we have today suggests that the Senate is going to stay Democratic, and that the House is competitive. I’m very bullish on this election.”

Democrats have a fundraising advantage heading into the fall in key Senate races, including in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, Georgia, and Ohio. They’re also outpacing the GOP among small-dollar donors: through their platform ActBlue, Democrats amassed $64 million in small donations in June, compared to Republicans’ $26.6 million through their platform, WinRed.

There are individual races that are much closer than expected, including the Texas governor’s race and the Utah Senate race, where Republican incumbents are facing surprisingly tough reelection campaigns. And prospects for some Republican pickups are looking less likely now that the GOP has nominated far-right candidates.

Democrats thought they’d enter the midterms empty-handed after multiple failed attempts at passing Biden’s legislative agenda. But on Wednesday, the president and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who had held up previous iterations of the bill, struck a deal on the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which addresses everything from prescription drug costs to corporate taxes to the climate. It’s not yet law, but if the party is able to pass the package, they’d have a historic victory to campaign on in the fall.

“I think there’s a lot of hope for Democrats,” said Tom Perriello, the executive director of Open Society-US and a former Democratic congressman from Virginia. “Democrats, in many ways, have been able to increasingly own the role of the party of sanity and have a bigger tent.”

The GOP has nominated extreme candidates without broad appeal

The president’s party almost always loses significant ground in midterm elections, but 2022 may not follow that pattern. In part, that may be because Democrats aren’t running against a “normal Republican Party,” but rather a party that “ran towards a politics that the country had rejected overwhelmingly twice,” Rosenberg said.

“I think that what you’re seeing in current polling is that there’s a MAGA hangover,” he said. “There is an anti-MAGA majority in this country.”

In several states, Republican candidates won their primaries by catering to the hardcore partisans that typically vote in primary elections. But these candidates could prove too extreme to be electable in key battleground races, including in Georgia, Illinois, and Maryland, where they’ll need to win over disaffected independents who voted for Biden.

Football star Herschel Walker cruised to the Republican nomination to challenge Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, arguably the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate. Recent GOP triumphs in Georgia’s statewide races, like Gov. Brian Kemp’s win over a Trump-backed challenger in his primary, suggest embracing alt-right ideology isn’t the best recipe for success. But that’s what Walker’s done: He’s claimed that Covid-19 was “created by China,” as was the pollution in America’s air, and opposes abortion even in cases of rape or incest or where the pregnant person’s life is at risk. In July, Warnock expanded his lead to just over three percentage points, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average.

Illinois state Sen. Darren Bailey, who is running for governor, faces an uphill battle against incumbent Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his $132 million war chest, in a state that went for Biden by 17 percentage points. More traditional Republicans like former Gov. Bruce Rauner have been able to eke out wins in statewide Illinois races in recent years, but candidates like Bailey haven’t been successful. He has pushed to evict Chicago from the state and taken aggressive pro-gun and anti-abortion rights stances, urging people to “move on” only about two hours after the shooting in Highland Park earlier this month where seven people were killed. Pritzker is leading Bailey by at least seven percentage points in two polls conducted over the last two months by Victory Research and Fabrizio, Lee & Associates.

Similarly, Maryland state Delegate Dan Cox — who has associated with QAnon conspiracy theorists and helped bus people to the Trump rally that preceded the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 — won the Republican nomination for governor to replace incumbent Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who is term-limited. But he has little chance of winning over the Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who previously voted for traditionally Republican, anti-MAGA Hogan in a state that President Joe Biden won by more than 30 percentage points in 2020 and where there are more registered Democrats than Republicans.

All that’s not to say far-right candidates are handing Democrats easy wins everywhere. Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Doug Mastriano — a fervent supporter of Trump’s 2020 election lies who compared gun control to policies under Nazi Germany and shared an image saying Roe v. Wade was worse than the Holocaust — has become less of a long-shot candidate than Democrats once thought, trailing his Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, by no more than 4 percentage points across three separate polls conducted in June.

But even the relative success of candidates like Mastriano may be useful to Democrats. They are clear examples of what is to many Democrats and independents a frightening prospect: a return to Trumpism.

“If Democrats were focused backwards on trying to re-litigate Trump, that wouldn’t be a winning strategy, but the prospect of a return to that chaos and divisiveness is a very real and present threat,” Perriello said.

GOP incumbents are haunted by their records

Even some Republican incumbents in red states don’t appear to be immune to a Democratic upswing.

In Utah, a state that has elected Republicans for decades, incumbent Republican Sen. Mike Lee’s fealty to Trump is proving problematic. Unlike his colleague Sen. Mitt Romney, one of only a few outspoken Trump critics in the GOP caucus, Lee zealously supported Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, encouraging him to “exhaust every legal and constitutional remedy at your disposal to restore Americans’ faith in our elections.”

His opponent, independent Evan McMullin, is trying to provide an alternative to Utah Republicans who are fed up with Trump and has been endorsed by the Utah Democratic Party, though would not caucus with either party if elected. McMullin increasingly appears within striking distance, now trailing by five percentage points, compared to six points in June, according to polls from the Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics.

The Texas governor’s race is also the closest it’s been since the 1990s. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is seeking a third term, has recently seen his poll numbers drop, fueling speculation that perennial Democratic promises of turning the state blue might actually come to fruition this time. His lead over his opponent, former Democratic congressman and 2020 presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, has narrowed to just six percentage points, according to a June poll conducted by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. O’Rourke is also outpacing him in fundraising, bringing in $27.6 million compared to Abbott’s $24.9 million in the last filing, though Abbott still has more money on hand.

O’Rourke’s rise has coincided with the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn Roe and the May school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. Abbott has been a proponent of Texas’s “trigger law” banning almost all abortions, which is set to go into effect in August, and his response to Uvalde has come under scrutiny since it came to light that his initial account of what happened wasn’t true and obscured costly mistakes made by law enforcement.

Democrats are deflecting Republican attacks and energized by policy

The fact that incumbents like Abbott and Lee, who were broadly seen as immune from challenges, are facing credible opponents suggests that the GOP’s line of attack on Democrats might not be as effective as they had hoped.

While Republicans have been hoping to tie their opponents to Biden’s sinking approval ratings, Democrats have been actively trying to decouple themselves from the president.

O’Rourke, for instance, appears to have turned down Biden coming to Texas to campaign on his behalf; rather than rely on the president, he has relentlessly attacked Abbott, repeatedly accusing him of doing nothing to prevent another mass shooting, failing to fix the state’s electrical grid following a deadly outage during a 2021 winter storm and being the “single greatest driver of inflation in the state of Texas.” And given the disparity in how Democrats are performing on the generic ballot versus Biden’s approval ratings, strategies like O’Rourke’s appear as if they’re relatively successful.

Republicans also haven’t made a coherent case against Biden’s record, Rosenberg argued.

“Republican energy is divided amongst itself,” he said. “It’s focused on conspiracy theories and critical race theory. It’s not focused on the Biden agenda. And it’s certainly not focused on anything that helps struggling American families.”

The GOP has consistently tried to blame Democrats for inflation and rising cost of living, but those arguments may be less salient come November. Gas prices have already come down significantly since their peak in June at $5.01 per gallon, and inflationary pressures are expected to ease in the coming months. Democrats also have a new weapon to fight claims they don’t care about families’ finances, the pointedly named Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which Manchin argues will “get our economic and financial house in order.”

That bill would enact many Democratic priorities, though it’s currently uncertain whether the bill will succeed. The Senate parliamentarian needs to give her stamp of approval so that Democrats can pass it with a simple majority through the reconciliation process. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), a key moderate, has yet to offer her support for the bill, and Democrats can’t afford even a single defection in order to pass the bill in a 50-50 Senate.

But if it does pass, it would likely be a “big boost” to Democrats, Rosenberg said. It would allow Democrats, especially vulnerable members of the House, to tout a major and recent legislative achievement that moves forward issues prioritized by their base.

“It’s going to make the Democratic closing argument stronger, and it’s going to boost morale and bring the party together at a critical moment,” he said. “I think it’s going to give Democrats a lift. Even if it’s a point or two, that could be the difference between us keeping the House or not.”

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