The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats’ midterm momentum isn’t slowing

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gestures during a news conference in San Francisco on Sept. 7. (Eric Risberg/AP)

It’s not one chamber of Congress. It’s not one state or region. We are seeing a widespread shift in Democrats’ favor virtually across the board. Whether it will be enough to save Democrats’ majorities in the midterms is far from clear, but the expected red wave looks as if it’s circling the drain.

The Cook Political Report spotted the trend in late August, predicting “a GOP net gain of 10-20 seats — down considerably from the spring, when the GOP looked poised to gain 20-35 seats.” Another model at the Economist sets the expected loss for Democrats at a mere 11 seats, a stunning shift from prognostications that Democrats were facing dozens of lost seats. Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics also sees a shift from late July and now figures that “a GOP gain in the 20s [is] more of an aspiration for the party than an expectation.” (Sabato’s Crystal Ball has shifted Alaska’s at-large House seat from “safe Republican” to toss-up — thanks to Democrat Mary Peltola’s win in the state’s special election — and moved Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District and Washington’s 8th from toss-ups to “leans Democratic.”)

Generic polling has steadily shifted toward Democrats since July. Meanwhile, President Biden’s approval numbers are also on the rise. Maybe his student loan relief announcement and recent speeches slamming MAGA Republicans are more popular than media pundits thought. While Republicans are still favored to pick up the five seats needed to flip the House, several points deserve mention.

First, polls are providing only a snapshot of the electorate. It may well continue in Democrats’ direction. And while Republicans don’t seem equipped to reverse the momentum, events have a way of catching the electorate’s attention (as we saw with the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision to overturn abortion rights).

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Second, so long as defeated former president Donald Trump’s mishandling of classified documents remains the biggest story on the GOP side, Republicans will find it difficult to shift to issues that benefit them. (Remember inflation?) The latest Marist poll shows more than 60 percent of Americans think Trump did something illegal or unethical (a percentage that could increase as the extent of the national security breach becomes known). Republicans who insist on defending this behavior might find a chilly reception outside the cultish base.

Third, given the utter disarray, extremism and irrationality of so many MAGA House members, there is no telling whether they can actually control the House with a razor-thin majority. The speakership fight alone might take weeks to resolve if the margin is only a few seats.

And it’s not just the House. The latest batch of Florida Senate polls shows Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) within the margin of error against his Democratic opponent, Val Demings. FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages show that Democratic Senate candidates lead in Ohio, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania while North Carolina is a dead heat. This does not mean Democrats will win all these seats, but it does require Republicans to conduct some triage, writing off losers (looking at Blake Masters in Arizona) to rescue salvageable candidates.

One additional fact weighing in Democrats’ favor: Their ability to control the agenda. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has vowed to bring codification of gay marriage rights to the floor for a vote. That is going to put right-wing incumbents running in swing states in a tough position. As Politico noted, “Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the most vulnerable GOP incumbent, said recently he won’t support the bill in its current form, despite saying earlier this summer he saw ‘no reason to oppose’ it.”

Two months are left in the midterm races (although early voting will begin in October in key states such as Georgia and Ohio). That leaves plenty of time for ad blitzes, debates, gaffes, zinger videos and two more sets of unemployment and inflation numbers to shift polling yet again.