That sound you heard late Tuesday night was the collective dropping of jaws and twisting of necks of the political class, watching a state that had last elected a Democrat to the Senate in 1932 (that’s not a typo, 1932), overwhelmingly vote to keep abortion legal. That landslide, along with turnout numbers in early August approaching Presidential election levels, suggests to Democrats that they may have found the issue that will turn the feared “red wave” into a trickle come November.
Or… maybe not.
The less dramatic, more prudent response is to add the abortion issue to the pile of Things We Don’t Know About the Midterms. That pile, in 2022, is more like a tower.
In November, American voters could send a small army of new Republicans to Congress, putting a brick wall in front of the Biden agenda and likely launching a chaotic new wave of investigations and Washington finger-pointing. But they might not—and if they don’t, the Democratic president could spend the next two years shaping the country with a small, battle-scarred but ambitious majority.
When it comes to gaming out the next three months, even at the most basic level, we don’t really know what we think we know. For example, it is true that the party in the White House loses an average of 26 House seats and four Senate seats — a number that would easily hand both chambers back to the GOP. But that’s a bit like saying that if you put Bill Gates in a room with nine homeless people, their average wealth is $10 billion. Sometimes the White House’s party loses 50 or 60 seats. Sometimes it’s more like single digits. On three occasions in the last century, the White House’s party has actually gained seats.
More important, measuring midterms by what happens in the House of Representatives ignores the powerful political consequences of a split decision. The last midterm elections, in 2018, qualify as a “wave” election in the House, with Democrats picking up 41 House seats and control of the chamber. But on the other side of the Capitol, Republicans actually gained two Senate seats, which meant that Amy Coney Barrett became a Supreme Court justice, and dozens of Donald Trump’s appointees were confirmed to the federal bench. Right now, that split decision looks like a real possibility. (That’s cold comfort to Democrats hoping that one or two more Senate seats would open up a range of legislative possibilities — if the House flips, it doesn’t matter if Senators Manchin and Sinema lose their chokeholds on the Democratic caucus.)
With all that in mind, here’s a by-no-means complete look at the biggest political unknowns roughly 100 days out:
Can Biden and the Democrats pull off a major legislative triumph?
With Joe Manchin as a born-again semi-progressive, a last-minute achievement seems within reach: major climate change provisions; the ever-popular, never-enacted power to negotiate drug prices; a tax hike on the affluent. But the bill has to pass muster with the Senate parliamentarian; without her approval, it can’t be passed under the Byzantine “reconciliation” process and would need an impossible 60 votes to pass. It also has to win the approval of Senator Kyrsten Sinema, as well as a critical group of House moderates.
If it does pass, will it matter politically?
If you dwell in the Kingdom of Politics, the passage of legislation is treated as profoundly significant. If Congress were to pass the Inflation Reduction Act, on top of the CHIPS Act to bolster the semiconductor industry, and last year’s infrastructure act, this would, by Washington’s measure, provide Democrats with a powerful argument.
But voters dwell in the Kingdom of Normal Life. Will simply passing three bills make a difference to them? Let’s look at the three midterms where the White House’s party actually gained seats in Congress. In each case, there was tangible evidence of achievement outside of mere bill-passing. In 1934, even with a massive unemployment rate of 20 percent, there were New Deal programs putting people to work, an economic growth rate of more than 10 percent, and a banking system saved from ruin. In 1998, even with President Bill Clinton enmeshed in scandal, the combination of low unemployment, low inflation, real wage growth and impending budget surpluses was enough to give Democrats five more House seats. Four years later, voters went to the polls with a very different kind of national issue in mind: the wounds of Sept. 11 were still raw; President George W. Bush had successfully displaced the Taliban from Afghanistan; and the momentum of the “Global War on Terror” was powerful enough to give Republicans eight more seats in the House and two Senate seats.
What about this November? It seems worth asking some tough questions about those Democratic achievements. Are any of the infrastructure projects promised in last year’s bill up and running? Has broadband come to rural America? Are the roads, bridges, rail lines a reality? (This is no criticism; it just takes time for major projects to move forward.) Will prescription drug prices have come down in 100 days? Will the air and water be any cleaner? As a matter of substance, Democrats will have plenty of talking points. As a matter of political impact…we just don’t know.
How powerful will abortion be?
It isn’t just the margin in the Kansas abortion vote, it’s the turnout. For decades, there’s been a debate about whether the overturn of Roe v. Wade would trigger a significant political response. (I’ve tended to the skeptical.) But with the reality of Roe’s erasure, and the draconian responses in state legislatures, the vote in Kansas suggests there is in fact a politically significant cohort that will turn out, even in a deep-red state, to preserve the right to an abortion.
But abortion as an issue will literally be on the ballot in a few states this fall at most. (Democrats might wish it otherwise, remembering that in 2004, gay marriage bans were on the ballot in 11 states, and passed in all of them, to the decided advantage of George W. Bush.) The question for Democrats is whether they can make GOP candidates stand-ins for a vote on abortion — for instance, by pushing them to take a stand on a federal abortion ban. Indeed, Democrats will likely try to “nationalize” the issue by arguing that “a vote for a Republican Congress is a vote to ban abortion.”
The question is whether that will override concerns over crime, inflation, and other issues that favor Republicans. The answer is…we don’t know.
Trump is on the ballot
The former president isn’t literally running, of course, but he’s found a way to make himself the main character in plenty of races — not just by endorsing, but by supporting a raft of candidates who specifically back his bogus claim that he won the presidency. And he’s come down hard on Republicans who voted to impeach him for it.
While Trump didn’t manage to wreak vengeance on all of his targets, the primaries so far showed that the 45th president still dominates his party. More than 100 “election deniers” won primaries, including an entire slate in Arizona (assuming Kari Lake prevails in the governor’s race). With Trump, all but announcing his presidential ambitions, is his looming shadow enough to motivate Democrats (and less-conspiratorial Republicans) to show up, and lessen the political impact of President Biden’s historic unpopularity? In that case, we could see a very unusual midterm election in which the unpopularity of the sitting president is mitigated by the unpopularity of the opposition party’s most visible figure.
If these are not enough unknowns, here are a few more: Does inflation stay high? If it drops in the next two months, as some economists think, will that make the issue less potent? If voters’ near-tribal party preferences continue to be a dominant factor in voting, will that make “problematic” candidates like Mehmet Oz, Herschel Walker and Doug Mastriano acceptable to enough people to win?
There are times when it’s possible to divine the outcome of a midterm well in advance. Before Obama was even inaugurated in 2009, his economic team’s gloomy forecast of a slow, halting recovery led David Axelrod to exclaim “we’re gonna get our asses whipped in the midterms.” He was right.
The Kansas abortion vote is just the latest sign that this is not one of those times. History still points to a good night for Republicans. But sometimes, history takes the night off.
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