the midterms

For Democrats This Midterm, Winning Isn’t Everything

The likely speaker of the House come 2023. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Democrats are cruising for some losing — the question is how much.

The party is all-but certain to lose the House Tuesday night. Currently, Republicans are favorites in 215 House races, according to Politico’s analysis. If the GOP merely wins those races — and takes three of the 29 “toss-up” districts — it will control Congress’s lower chamber come next year.

The fight for Senate control remains competitive. But polls have been shifting against Democrats in recent days. In late October, FiveThirtyEight’s forecast gave the party a 52 percent chance to keep the upper chamber; as of this writing, that’s down to 45 percent. Since the middle of last month, Republican Hersehel Walker has gone from trailing Rafael Warnock to boasting a small lead over the Democratic incumbent. In Nevada, the GOP’s Adam Laxalt has secured a substantial advantage over Catherine Cortez Masto. Meanwhile, Mehmet Oz is now close to even with John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, while Republicans have gained ground on Democratic favorites in Arizona and New Hampshire.

And there is some reason to fear that the electoral landscape may be redder than polls suggest. In 2020, surveys famously overstated Democratic support in many battleground states and districts. The primary cause of this error was a partisan divergence in voters’ likelihood of responding to pollsters’ calls. Perhaps, because Democrats were more likely to be cooped up at home during the pandemic in 2020 — or else, because voters high in “social trust” are now both more likely to be Democrats, and more likely to answer strangers’ calls — within every demographic, Democratic-leaning voters were more likely to be polled. Thus, even as pollsters sought demographically representative samples of the electorate, they nevertheless overrepresented left-leaning voters.

Last week, the New York Times’s Nate Cohn noted that his polling outfit had begun to detect a similar pattern of response bias in recent days, with Democrats in Kansas’s Third House District 70 percent more likely to respond to calls than Republicans in that battleground. The Times takes pains to account for this bias in its surveys. But many pollsters do not.

Now, it’s entirely possible that polls could be biased in the GOP’s favor this time around. Historically, surveys have rarely erred in the same direction for several elections in a row. Yet since contemporary American politics polarizes voters along lines of social trust to a greater degree than in the past, it is conceivable that surveys now have a persistent pro-Democratic bias.

This scenario is especially plausible given this election’s “fundamentals.” Joe Biden’s approval rating is more than 11 points underwater. The highest inflation in four decades has led a majority of voters to grade the economy as a “D” or an “F” in Morning Consult’s most recent poll. Crime remains elevated relative to pre-pandemic levels, and widespread housing shortages have condemned more than half-a-million Americans to homelessness. This increasingly visible deprivation has increased concerns about disorder and public safety among the more fortunate.

Historically, presidents this unpopular tend to suffer massive losses in midterm elections. And a climate of rising prices and fears of crime has often spelt doom for left-of-center parties.

It remains possible that Democrats will successfully swim against the tide. The Supreme Court’s wildly unpopular decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has given the party an issue that simultaneously energizes its base and alienates swing voters from Republicans. Further, Democrats’ growing support among the college educated — who are disproportionately likely to vote in midterms — could mitigate the in-power party’s perennial turnout disadvantage.

But all things considered, Democrats are more likely than not to lose both the House and Senate Tuesday night. It matters a great deal, however, how much they lose each by. To an extent, this point is so obvious as to go without saying. Of course, the larger the GOP’s hypothetical majorities in the House and Senate in 2023, the harder it will be for Democrats to retake Congress in 2024.

But if Republicans run the table in this year’s Senate races, they won’t merely nullify Democrats’ hopes for taking back the chamber two years from now. They will also put their party in position to compete for a filibuster-proof Senate majority in 2024.

At present, six Senate races — Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Hampshire, Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin — are “toss-ups” according to Politico’s forecast. If polls are overrepresenting Democrats by a couple of points, and Republicans sweep those races, they will enjoy a 54-seat Senate majority come next year.

In 2024, meanwhile, 23 of the 33 Senators up for reelection are Democrats. Five of those Democratic incumbents represent states that Joe Biden won by less than 3 points in 2020. Three represent states that backed Trump by more than 8 points two years ago (in the case of Montana and West Virginia, they backed the Republican by much, much more than that sum).

Given that landscape, if Republicans enter 2024 with 54 senators — and manage to win the presidency that year — they will have a very good chance of securing a trifecta with a 60-vote Senate majority. Which is to say: They would have a decent chance of making Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis, or whomever they chose as their 2024 standard-bearer, the most powerful president since FDR. (Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in 2009, but the party’s power was still checked by a conservative Supreme Court; Republicans in this scenario would have the judiciary on their side.)

And we don’t really know what a GOP that powerful would be capable of.

Throughout the Reagan era, the conservative president had to contend with a Democratic House. George W. Bush never boasted a filibuster-proof Senate majority. And the Republican Party is, if anything, more ideologically extreme now than they were during the second Bush presidency. Repressive changes to federal laws regarding election and representation might be on the table, along with nationwide abortion restrictions.

The conservative movement was founded in opposition to the New Deal. Yet for all its many victories, the American right has never succeeded in dramatically paring back the federal welfare state. But under Trump, they came a handful of votes shy of gutting Medicaid. If McConnell has upwards of nine votes to spare on a budget reconciliation bill in 2025, it is hard to say with confidence that any social program would be safe, especially since the large budget deficits generated by the Trump Tax Cuts and pandemic relief bills would provide a future Republican government with a ready-made excuse for “painful choices.”

To be sure, it is early to worry about these sorts of hypotheticals. It is entirely possible that Democrats have a better than expected night on Tuesday. And a lot can happen between now and November 2024. If inflation declines, and the U.S. economy stabilizes at a higher-growth equilibrium, Biden could very well romp to reelection. Even in the worst-case scenario, Biden’s midterm rebuke will not dwarf that suffered by Barack Obama. And Obama still managed to win convincingly two years later.

Nevertheless, the GOP’s very real shot at enjoying unprecedented power come 2025 clarifies the stakes of this year’s elections. The survival of abortion rights in blue America, of key pillars of the U.S. welfare state, and, quite possibly, of the republic as we’ve known it, might depend on Democrats losing Congress by a little instead of a lot.

For Democrats This Midterm, Winning Isn’t Everything