Democrats and Republicans agree that inflation has been the preeminent political issue this spring — at least until the leak of a draft ruling that suggested the Supreme Court might overturn Roe v. Wade. The abortion issue now threatens to upend election calculations. But voters will also be hearing about crime, education, immigration and jobs before they cast their ballots.
Inflation and the economy
Inflation is a constant presence in the minds of voters when buying groceries, filling their gas tanks or paying their home heating bills. There is no escaping from it, and unless there is a significant easing in the next few months, it will continue as one of the top issues of concern.
The issue overshadows what is otherwise an economic story that the Biden administration would like to talk about, especially the number of jobs created and low unemployment rate. Democrats also see possible ways to soften concerns about rising prices by talking about their efforts to lower the cost of, say, prescription drugs. It could be a hard sell.
The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll finds nearly 7 in 10 Americans disapprove of the way President Biden has handled the inflation issue. Fifty percent say they trust Republicans to handle the issue, compared with 31 percent who say they trust Democrats more.
Abortion was catapulted to the forefront in May after Politico published an authentic draft of an opinion written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., showing that the Supreme Court was positioned to strike down Roe v. Wade in the case involving Mississippi’s restrictive abortion law.
Toppling Roe could boost Democrats by mobilizing abortion rights supporters and potentially narrowing the enthusiasm gap that exists between Republicans and Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee believes continued attacks by the GOP on women’s rights will help them in 25 competitive races taking place in largely suburban districts that also have a significant minority and college-educated population.
Some Democratic strategists pointed to 2018, when Democrats raised fears that Republicans would eliminate coverage for preconditions in health insurance as a way to motivate their voters. But there have always been more voters motivated by opposition to abortion rights than those who support those rights, and the issue ahead is how much that could change if the court overturns Roe.
“Now it’s absolutely incumbent that you elect senators that share your values, who are going to protect a woman’s right to reproductive freedom,” said Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Sen. Rick Scott (Fla.), chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, argued that the issue will not tank the GOP’s advantage because most voters are “not where Democrats are” on abortion and continue to feel the daily burden of inflation.
But since last year, Republican strategists had been weighing the negative effects overturning Roe could have on them electorally, possibly depressing recent GOP gains with suburban women, who in turn could influence their husbands not to vote Republican.
Republicans see other issues to exploit beyond inflation. Crime is one such issue, at a time when many major cities are suffering from rising homicide rates and increases in other types of crime. New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D) ran on reducing the crime rate, but his early months have seen the issue remain at the forefront in America’s most populous city.
Echoes of the “defund the police” rhetoric in the months after the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a White police officer in Minneapolis continue to haunt Democrats. Biden has repeatedly taken the opposite view. “The answer is not to defund the police,” he said in his State of the Union address. “The answer is to fund the police.” The fact that he had to say it underscores the Democrats’ vulnerability.
Related to that is the surge of undocumented immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border. The Biden administration has yet to bring this under control, and there is now a split within the party over the administration’s proposal to lift Title 42, a public health regulation instituted during the Trump administration that prevents asylum seekers from crossing the border. Several Democratic senators in competitive races have spoken out against the change, fearing such action would spur additional border crossings and threaten them politically.
Education and identity
For years, Democrats were the party favored by voters to deal with issues of education. Now the politics of education have changed, as Republicans have seized on the issue of critical race theory as a shorthand to attack Democrats on a range of education-related grievances.
Republicans see the issues as helping to attract suburban parents unhappy with various school policies. Democrats find themselves in the unusual position of being thrown on the defensive on a topic where they long have had the high ground.
Democrats say critical race theory isn’t actually taught in public schools, but the label of CRT has become a proxy for a variety of education issues. These include how race and racism are taught in the schools, a charged debate at a time when racism has become more visible in the country. They also include the role of parents in schools, the power of teachers’ unions and lingering anger over school shutdowns and mask mandates. Republican strategists are wary about injecting CRT as an issue into every race, instead encouraging candidates to determine the niche education issue in their districts or states and framing them around parental rights.
Another set of issues that have risen on the GOP agenda encompass LGBTQ rights. In Texas, there have been efforts to restrict gender-affirming care by parents of trans adolescents. Multiple states have sought to ban transgender students from participating in school sports. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed legislation restricting the teaching of gender identity and related issues to students in kindergarten through the third grade.
The risk for Republicans is that their focus on divisive culture issues could backfire in swing states and districts with more moderate voters, such as in Pennsylvania, where some traditionally Republican voters have changed their identification in recent years to independent.
The war in Ukraine is a wild-card issue. So far, despite the media attention it receives and the public revulsion over Russia’s invasion and atrocities, Ukraine has not become a dominant U.S. political issue, in part because of support for Ukraine and advocacy of U.S. assistance in both parties. Nor has the praise Biden has won from the foreign policy establishment or European allies translated into positive marks for his overall handling of national security issues. But no one is ready to predict where this issue will be by next fall.
Some of Biden’s best ratings now come on the coronavirus pandemic, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC poll. But covid has declined as an issue mentioned by voters. A recent NBC News survey showed a 21-point drop in the percentage of people who call it a top issue between January and March. Still, the overhang from covid continues to affect the political environment, contributing to what one strategist referred to as an “ornery” electorate.
Democrats recognize they are on the defensive on many of these issues but argue there are contrasts they can draw with Republicans that will force voters to think anew about their choices this fall. They are trying hard to focus voters on an agenda pushed by Scott that calls for middle-class Americans to pay more taxes. Scott’s ideas have been denounced by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans, but that isn’t stopping Democrats from going after them.