With a month remaining before the midterm elections, House Democrats are in a position where few expected them to be even just a few months ago: competitive.
While the nation’s top political handicappers remain confident that Republicans will win control of the lower chamber in November, the expected margins have shrunk considerably heading into the home stretch.
The shift in momentum is raising Democratic hopes that they can minimize their losses; better their odds — if they do lose the gavel — of retaking it two years from now; and make life tougher for potential Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who’s already struggling to bridle the more bombastic impulses of his most conservative wing.
“We’re increasingly optimistic about our ability to hold the House,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters Friday in the Capitol.
Privately, Democrats acknowledge the fierce winds in their face as they attempt to defy history and keep their majority in a midterm cycle that routinely spells doom for the party of the incumbent president.
President Biden’s approval rating is underwater. Inflation has tormented low- and middle-income consumers, particularly when it comes to household essentials like food and fuel. The stock market is down. And a shooting war in Europe has added to the gloomy sense of a world gone off the rails.
Add to that list almost three dozen Democratic retirements, and it appears to be a toxic environment for a majority party fighting to cling to power. McCarthy, encouraged by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) victory in Virginia a year ago, predicted the GOP would pick up 60 seats — roughly the same number won by Republicans in the rout of 2010.
Yet the odds of a red wave appear increasingly remote as November approaches, according to election experts. Over the summer, prominent campaign forecasters made numerous shifts in their predictions, most of them steadily in favor of Democratic candidates.
Last week, the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election forecaster, continued the trend, shifting its forecast in 10 House races, seven of them in favor of Democrats. A day later, analysts at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an election handicapper based at the University of Virginia, shifted six House seats, four favoring Democrats.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said he’d predicted earlier in the cycle that the GOP gains would be somewhere between 20 and 30 seats. “I’m now thinking somewhere in the teens,” he said.
“Republicans remain in the driver’s seat to flip the House,” Kondik said, “but it does not look at the moment like some sort of big wave.”
Amy Walter, Cook’s editor-in-chief, noted a key difference between this year and 2010: Then, polls showed Republicans had a 13-point advantage among “persuadable” voters. The figure this year is 3 points.
“In order to make significant gains, Republicans would need to win in districts that Biden carried by 6 points or more,” Walter wrote in her latest analysis. “Even in big ‘wave’ years, it’s hard to flip districts that are deeply red or deeply blue.”
Republicans need to net only four seats to win back control of the House. But the margins could prove crucial for McCarthy and other GOP leaders when it comes to managing a restive right flank that’s already clamoring to impeach Biden, slash federal spending and take on the Washington establishment — even its own leadership. The larger the cushion, the more insulated GOP leaders will be from the conservative forces that had nudged the two previous Republican Speakers into early retirements.
The reasons for the late momentum shift are various.
Democrats, after months of public infighting, secured a series of legislative wins late in the summer, including a massive climate, health care and tax bill, which helped to boost Biden’s approval rating. Gas prices, after soaring to over $5 per gallon in June, have since fallen below $4. A number of Republican candidates have campaigned from the fringe and endorsed conspiracy theories, including the myth that the 2020 election was “stolen” from former President Trump, which could alienate moderate Republicans and independents in those districts.
And Democrats surprised even themselves in August with two long-shot victories in House special elections, one in New York and the other in Alaska, where Republicans have held the seat for five decades. The combination has allowed Democrats to fundraise even late in the cycle, while prompting increasingly bullish predictions from Democratic leaders about the outcome in November.
“I can’t tell you today what specific seats we’ll win,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told a group of reporters gathered in his Capitol office just before the long midterm recess. “But I think we’re going to hold the majority, [and] we may pick up a number of seats.
“The momentum, I think, is with us.”
Whether those trends hold, however, remains an open question, particularly given a volatile economy that remains the top issue on voters’ minds. Inflation continues to hound consumers, and a recent decision by OPEC+ nations to slash oil production has increased the chances that gas prices will rise in the weeks leading into November. After the late-summer bump, Biden’s approval rating has already leveled out.
“I do think it’s reasonable to look out for a potential late break to the Republicans — that does sometimes happen in midterms,” Kondik said. “As it stands now, the battlefield is big and involves the Republicans playing much more offense, but many of the most vulnerable Democratic seats remain in play.”
A wildcard in the election debate is the Supreme Court’s decision, passed down in June, to eliminate abortion rights. The ruling has energized female voters around the country, and it was thought to play a major role in the Democrats’ special election win in New York. Lawmakers say the effects of the decision are tangible on the campaign trail, where they’re seeing a boost in enthusiasm among women and other Democratic voters.
“Momentum turned in favor of Democrats the moment the Supreme Court decided to be a reactionary, partisan court and take away women’s reproductive health,” Schiff said. “All of that is a good indicator this is not going to be a traditional midterm of a president’s first term.”
Several factors are complicating the predictions heading into November. Polling in House races is notoriously scarce outside of the campaigns themselves. The ubiquity of cellphones has made voters more difficult to reach. Conservative voters, distrustful of pollsters and the media, are less likely to participate in public surveys. And the coronavirus pandemic remains a deadly presence, affecting the daily routines of millions of Americans.
In the eyes of some election experts, though, the deciding factor may be the simple question of which party more successfully dictates the flavor of the national dialogue in the final weeks.
“If it’s economy, inflation, gas prices, crime, etc., that’s where Republicans want to be,” Kondik said. “If it’s abortion, Republican foibles, Trump, etc., that’s what Democrats want.”
Mychael Schnell contributed.