The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion 5 factors that give Democrats a fighting chance in November

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) speaks during a news conference on the Right to Contraception Act outside the U.S. Capitol on July 26. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg)
Placeholder while article actions load

For months, the punditocracy has been writing off Democrats’ chances to hold either congressional house in the midterms. (For a group of prognosticators who’ve badly misjudged two presidential elections, excessive certainty still prevails.)

That now seems premature. The ground is shifting in advance of the midterms, and Democrats are in a better spot than they were several months ago. That’s not because President Biden’s poll numbers have improved; they haven’t. Rather, it seems that Democrats have improved their standing despite Biden’s polling woes. The FiveThirtyEight average shows Democrats have pulled within 0.7 percent in the generic congressional ballot, which measures which party voters want in control of Congress. In the Senate, Democrats are running strongly against weak MAGA extremists in Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, to name a few.

Five factors are key to understanding the Democrats’ better standing:

First, it’s impossible to ignore the effect of Dobbs on midterm races. Cynical predictions that the ruling would not matter proved foolish. The GOP is on the defense due to the overwhelming unpopularity of the court’s deletion of women’s fundamental rights, the barbaric abortion bans going into effect around the country, and the string of horrible cases illustrating the harm inflicted on women and girls. One positive sign for Democrats: Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a forced-birth extremist, is attempting to downplay the issue. Good luck with that. And thanks to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Republicans are also on the defense on issues such as contraception, same-sex marriage and the freedom of women to cross state lines to seek abortions.

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

Second, the House Jan. 6 select committee’s hearings have been bad for Republicans. This goes beyond just the scampering Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) or volunteer coup theorist Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah); the hearings have reminded voters that Republicans are still tied at the hip to unhinged, defeated former president Donald Trump. The proceedings also helped accelerate full-blown state and federal investigations, which Republicans undoubtedly would seek to impair if given majority control. The overall effect is that the looniest of the MAGA crowd (e.g., Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Matt Gaetz of Florida) appear to lead the party around by the nose. Hearing Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) underscore her party’s cowardice and lack of devotion to democracy may have pricked the conscience of some voters.

Third, Democrats will likely have many things to run on come November. This includes huge job gains, a historic infrastructure plan and an initiative to help make U.S. manufacturing more competitive against China. Moreover, on Wednesday, Senate Democrats seem to reach a more ambitious reconciliation bill than expected. The Post reports that the deal “aims to lower health-care costs, combat climate change and reduce the federal deficit.”

And if Democrats manage to pass any of their bills meant to protect the privacy of women using pregnancy-related apps or to codify rights to contraception, gay marriage and interstate travel, they will have added some awfully popular items to run on. Plus, most Republicans will have opposed some or all of them. Republicans have even voted against a move to stop oil companies from price gouging.

Fourth, the buzz about whether Biden will run for a second term reinforces a key point: Voters can separate their votes in the midterms from any vote of confidence in the president. Indeed, the media’s obsessive focus on Biden’s approval ratings may be irrelevant to the average voter. The great decoupling between Biden’s approval numbers and Democrats’ polling continues.

Finally, Republicans keep handing winning issues to Democrats. Republicans have refused to consider an assault weapons ban. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, released an agenda for his party, which includes raising taxes on poorer Americans and “sunsetting” all federal programs, such as Social Security. And the hype among Republicans about a nationwide abortion ban may spur even more Democrats to the polls. The more the GOP panders to the MAGA cult, the more Democrats benefit in competitive races.

This does not mean Democrats will keep both houses. Concerns about inflation and a potential recession remain a major drag on Democrats. But the dramatic movement in polls does highlight how fast politics can change and the degree to which Republicans habitually overplay their hand. Historic trends and phenomena (e.g., treating Biden’s low approval as the critical factor) may not apply.

If Trump would declare his 2024 run in the fall, effectively making the election a referendum on his return to power, Democrats could really pick up steam.