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Opinion Meet the lonely Democrat who thinks his party can win in 2022

President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

For months, Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg has argued to anyone who will listen that conventional wisdom is flatly wrong. Despite President Biden’s dismal approval ratings, high inflation and unforgiving historical patterns, Rosenberg says, his party is still very competitive in this fall’s midterm elections.

Rosenberg’s problem? The category of “anyone who will listen” has been vanishingly small. Most prognosticators still predict a big GOP win.

Now, a new poll from the New York Times and Siena College provides grounds for consideration of Rosenberg’s thesis. The poll finds Democrats and Republicans in a virtual dead heat for the House — 41 percent to 40 percent among registered voters — leading the Times to conclude that the midterms constitute a “surprisingly close race.”

The case runs as follows: Yes, Biden’s approval rating is terrible. Yes, rising inflation represents a seemingly intractable political headwind, particularly with the latest news that inflation soared last month. But this time, a confluence of factors might “decouple” the midterms from presidential approval and weigh against inflation.

Those factors are driving home the deep toxicity of the increasingly radicalized and Trumpified GOP. These include the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade; the horrific drumbeat of mass shootings, some motivated by deranged right-wing ideologies; the extraordinary revelations about Donald Trump’s coup attempt; and Trump’s persistence as a major force in our politics.

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Rosenberg insists this could help energize an “anti-MAGA majority,” even though turnout traditionally favors the party that just lost a presidential election.

“The question was always whether the anti-MAGA majority would show up again, as it has in the last two elections,” Rosenberg told me. “I think the data shows we’re looking at a competitive election, not a wave.”

Rosenberg’s view recently started receiving respectful treatment from top political analysts. CNN’s John Harwood speculated that Rosenberg’s point might be germane in key statewide races with grotesquely MAGA-fied GOP candidates, such as Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania’s governor race.

The Times-Siena poll dovetails with this thesis in some ways. It finds Democrats have improved their standing since Roe fell. And voters who heavily prioritize abortion, guns and threats to democracy favor Democrats by an enormous margin of 66 percent to 14 percent.

These issues are driving a big Democratic advantage among college-educated Whites (57 percent to 36 percent), especially college-educated White women (64 percent to 30 percent). Indeed, the Times notes that liberal and educated voters who prioritize those issues but disapprove of Biden still favor Democrats.

All of this, the Times concludes, mean recent events have “temporarily insulated the Democrats from an otherwise hostile national political environment while energizing the party’s predominantly liberal activist base.”

Or, as Rosenberg put it: “The anti-MAGA majority has been awakened.”

However, the poll also supports counterarguments. Among voters who prioritize the economy and inflation, Republicans hold an overwhelming advantage, 62 percent to 25 percent. Republicans are also improving their edge among working class White voters (54 percent to 23 percent) and building on recent inroads among Latino voters (they trail by only 3 points), though the sample is small.

And a higher percentage of Latino voters prioritize inflation and the economy than any other group. So Republicans might seize on economic dissatisfaction to push forward a realignment on class and education lines that pulls non-Whites from the Democratic coalition.

Rosenberg — who worked in President Bill Clinton’s war room, founded the New Democrat Network, and helped with the 2018 House takeover — concedes the economy is a real weak spot for Democrats. But, he says, rather than constantly talking about mitigating inflation to minimize it politically, which draws more attention to it, Democrats should emphasize good economic news, such as continuing strong job growth and the rapid economic recovery.

And they should link Republican radicalization to mass shootings, the Jan. 6 revelations and radical antiabortion laws in GOP states in coming months.

“We have to explain how we’ve made people’s lives better, and indict Republicans as extreme and unfit,” Rosenberg told me. “We can do this, because both these things are true.”

Historical patterns failed to materialize in the 1998 and 2002 midterms. Both offered extraordinary events, such as the lead-up to Clinton’s 1998 impeachment (enabling Democrats to defy expectations) and the 2001 terrorist attacks (enabling Republicans to do so).

So a big question is whether the overturning of Roe, mass shootings traumatizing the country and the Trumpist insurrectionist spirit sweeping the GOP add up to something similarly extraordinary. (In those previous cases, however, presidential approval was also driven up.)

Many things must break Democrats’ way. CNN’s Ronald Brownstein notes that any “decoupling” from Biden’s approval must buck voters’ growing tendency to support the same party for president and Congress. That means defying “one of the most powerful trends shaping modern congressional elections.”

However, Brownstein described a key nuance. In House races, voters know less about candidates and vote in keeping with presidential disapproval. But in Senate and gubernatorial races, incumbents and candidates develop statewide brands that can resist that trend.

If Rosenberg proves correct, one outcome might be Democrats losing the House but holding the Senate by a hair and holding critical governorships in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

If that somehow happened, it would be no small thing. Holding the Senate would let judicial confirmations continue. Governors could ward off GOP legislators who would ban abortion and help corrupt or steal the 2024 election.

Many Democrats would count that scenario as a victory, especially relative to the red wave widely being predicted with such great certainty.

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