2022 midterms

Is the GOP’s Midterms Comeback Real or Just Hype?

Michigan gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon suddenly looks like a contender. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Carlos Osorio/AP/Shutterstock

Election narratives can shift strongly and suddenly. From January to July of this year, the reigning “story” of the 2022 midterms was a classic tale of the party of an unpopular president in a bad economy with a fragile hold on Congress getting “shellacked,” to use Barack Obama’s term. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, augmented by a lot of attention on Donald Trump’s misdeeds and some good economic and legislative news for Democrats, the narrative slowly turned toward the idea that this might be the exceptional election in which the president’s party holds its position or even makes gains. But beginning in late September, the worm turned again — with renewed jitters about inflation and a possible recession moving the numbers and common expectations back toward the GOP.

Republicans, of course, hope the breeze benefiting them stiffens and turns into a strong wind. And in the eyes of some Republican-leaning pollsters and spinmeisters, the contours of what a landslide might look like are beginning to come into view.

The Cook Political Report shows nine Senate races (five involving seats currently held by Democrats and four for Republican-held seats) as competitive, meaning that they are rated either as toss-ups or only slightly leaning one way or the other. It has been generally assumed all year that the two parties would split those contests — leaving one or the other controlling the Senate by its donkey or elephant fingernails. Indeed, one common thought was that control of the chamber might again come down to an overtime runoff in Georgia.

But latter-day “red wave” thinking has raised the possibility that Republicans could win most or all of these toss-ups and leaners. Certainly, no one would be shocked if Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Ohio all fell to the GOP. These are all races in which polling is either within the margin of error or tilting red. All other things being equal, that would give Republicans a two-seat majority in the Senate. Now, however, polls are also tightening in Arizona (with Mark Kelly leading Blake Masters by 2.5 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling averages) and New Hampshire (with Maggie Hassan leading Don Bolduc by 3.6 percent). Masters and especially Bolduc had been all but left for dead by the national party in the late summer but are now the beneficiaries of Mitch McConnell’s deep pockets and a lot of local enthusiasm and partisan media hype. A 54-46 Republican Senate is a real possibility if current trends persist.

Republican spin would have it, moreover, that at least two Democratic Senate incumbents are vulnerable. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who has a history of close wins, led every poll this year by at least five points over well-regarded Republican opponent Joe O’Dea. And in September, one pollster, Republican-leaning Trafalgar Group, showed Washington’s Patty Murray only leading Tiffany Smiley by two points. There are even some GOP enthusiasts who claim Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal is vulnerable. (A Fabrizio poll in October showed him leading Leora Levy by only five points.) If any of these upsets transpire, we could be looking at a Republican margin in the Senate that could approach supermajority dimensions in 2024 given the favorable landscape the GOP will enjoy that year.

If a gust of pro-Republican dynamics (either boosting relative turnout or attracting undecided voters) flips the Senate, it could give Kevin McCarthy the kind of House margin that would free him from total control by the extremists of the House Freedom Caucus. The Cook report shows 58 competitive House races with 32 of them rated as toss-ups. In 2020, Republicans won every Cook toss-up House race (27 out of 27). And the GOP has now retaken the lead in the generic congressional ballot, the polling estimate of the national House popular vote, by three points in the RCP averages. Here’s the New York TimesNate Cohn on what that could mean:

Consider, for instance, that a three-point Republican lead on the generic ballot is seven percentage points better for Republicans than Mr. Biden’s national four-point victory in 2020. If every district finished that far to the right of the presidential election result, Republicans would come away with 237 districts. That’s about as many as the Democrats had after their 2018 sweep.

Gubernatorial races are also affected by midterm-cycle dynamics. The Cook report has five toss-up races at the moment — four in offices currently controlled by Democrats (Kansas, Nevada, Oregon, and Wisconsin) as well as Republican-controlled Arizona. All of these races are very close. And the landmark Georgia race is now reported to lean Republican. But you can find at least one recent poll showing close races in states Democrats were previously expected to win by comfortable margins. These include Michigan (Trafalgar now has the Gretchen Whitmer–Tudor Dixon race tied), New York (Quinnipiac recently showed Democratic incumbent Kathy Hochul leading Lee Zeldin by only four points), Minnesota (Trafalgar has Republican Scott Jensen a hair ahead of Democratic incumbent Tim Walz), and New Mexico (Trafalgar shows Republican Mark Ronchetti a point ahead of Democratic incumbent Michelle Lujan Grisham).

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that all these races go Republican. That could net the GOP seven governorships for a total of 35 — the most they have held ever.

To be clear, a red wave of these dimensions remains very unlikely. And it’s worth noting that there are some statewide contests in which Democrats could be poised to win (e.g., the Iowa Senate race, where one highly reputable poll has Democrat Mike Franken within three points of seven-term Republican incumbent Chuck Grassley, and the Oklahoma gubernatorial race, in which Republican incumbent Kevin Stitt was actually trailing Democrat Joy Hofmeister in the last two public polls).

But history suggests that the president’s party usually loses altitude in the late stages of most midterm elections. Right now, Democrats should count themselves very lucky if they hang onto the Senate and hold Republicans to modest gains in the House and no new governorships in 2024 battlegrounds.

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Is the GOP’s Midterms Comeback Real or Just Hype?