The battle for control of Congress: Abortion, inflation, crime and Biden
A view in the U.S. Capitol from the House through a corridor leading to the U.S. Senate. (Lynne Terry | Oregon Capital Chronicle)
WASHINGTON — Members of Congress are fanning out to every district in the country, leaving the wonky floor debates on Capitol Hill behind for the campaign trail in advance of the crucial Nov. 8 midterm elections.
Democrats are fighting to hold their razor-thin majorities in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, citing two years of victories on infrastructure, climate and prescription drug coverage. Republicans—whose early expectations they’d sweep the House were tempered after a Supreme Court abortion ruling—are trying to convince voters they need to balance the scales by putting them in charge of one, or both chambers.
GOP candidates are attempting to tie Democrats to inflation, crime, fears about immigration and an unpopular president. But they’re shying away from talking about a national abortion ban in the wake of the court’s decision to overturn two previous cases declaring abortion a constitutional right — while Democrats are seeking something of a nationwide referendum on abortion access.
Adding to the tension in an unusual midterm election, Republican election deniers are on the ballot in many states. Election officials have described threats and a spread of misinformation. Polls in the tightest races aren’t giving a clear indication of who voters want in office, often switching from one week to the next or putting both candidates within the margin of error.
The polling uncertainty has left party leaders to funnel as much cash and attention to key races as possible, with Senate battles in Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin drawing the most media and cash. Spending overall is expected to top a record $9.3 billion by the time the election is over, according to Open Secrets.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican not up for reelection this year, pegs the chances the GOP regains that chamber as dead even.
“We’re in a bunch of close races. I think we have a 50-50 shot of getting the Senate back,” McConnell said the last week of September.
McConnell sidestepped a question during the same press conference about whether he was being “overly dismissive” about the role abortion might play with suburban women, who tend to swing between voting for Democrats and Republicans.
“I think that issue is playing out in different ways in different states,” McConnell said, countering that the three biggest national issues Republicans will pound away at during the campaign will be “inflation, crime and open borders.”
Voting on abortion? Or inflation?
In Kansas — a state dominated by Republicans — residents overwhelmingly voted this summer to reject a constitutional amendment that would have allowed state lawmakers to enact abortion restrictions.
That’s been the only ballot question about abortion since the Supreme Court’s ruling in June, though California, Kentucky, Michigan and Vermont residents will vote on abortion ballot questions on election day.
A September poll by NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist National, a survey research center, found inflation was the No. 1 voting issue for Americans, with 30% saying it was “top of mind” when they thought about how they’d vote in November’s election. That figure was down from 37% in a July poll.
Abortion came in second, with 22% of people surveyed citing it as a top issue, up from 18% in July.
“The Supreme Court’s decision on Dobbs this summer has had a major impact on electoral politics heading toward the midterm elections,” Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, said in a statement accompanying the poll.
Abortion has likely been the most significant factor in improving Democrats’ chances in the past few months, Erin Covey, an analyst with the forecasting group Inside Elections, said in an interview.
Yet the inflation issue is powerful.
The consumer price index, which is the average market of consumer goods and services bought by a household, has found a continued increase in the cost of shelter, food, medical costs and education. The CPI determined that food has increased 11.4% over the last year—the largest 12-month increase since May 1979.
But despite economic concerns, the poll still found that Democrats have a 4-point advantage over Republicans in this upcoming election, primarily due to the Supreme Court’s decision.
Democrats have seized upon abortion as an issue to motivate their base and get new voters to the polls, but it’s unclear if those new voter registrants, particularly women, are due to the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling and if that will help Democrats win tight races.
In every election since 1980, women have always outnumbered men in regard to voter registrations, according to data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
The Democratic data firm TargetSmart, which tracks voter registrations, found that there was a spike in registrations of women voters following the early leak of the Dobbs decision, but voter registrations in 2018 and 2020 were still higher than voter registrations when Roe v. Wade was overturned on June 24.
Republican leaders in the U.S. House despite their struggles dealing with the abortion issue still expect they’ll regain control. But key Democrats have become more outspoken in recent weeks saying voters will keep them in the majority.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal have all said they expect to hold onto the House.
Pelosi, a California Democrat, said this week on CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” that overturning Roe v. Wade had a significant impact on how Democrats are approaching the midterm campaigns, leading to “a whole different attitude on the part of some about whether we could win.”
“I feel just watching each of the races—forgive me for saying this, in a very cold-blooded way, as to which races we can win, to ensure that we not only hold the House, but we increase our number,” Pelosi said.
Jayapal, of Washington state, said on a call with reporters she plans to campaign for at-risk progressive Democrats in the coming weeks, noting that many of the CPC’s members are also in the so-called Frontline program, which directs resources to Democrats in swing districts.
“We think progressives can win in tough districts and have shown it over and over again,” Jayapal said.
Democratic candidates are running on what they call a raft of accomplishments over the last two years of unified government, touting infrastructure, climate change and prescription drug prices, among others, Tommy Garcia, a spokesman for House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said. They are also focused on what they call Republican candidates’ extremism.
“A Democratic majority will build on this historic progress, continue fighting to lower the cost of living for working families, and restore Roe’s abortion protections that Republican judges ripped away,” Garcia said in a written statement. “Voters will reject the GOP’s plan to ban abortion nationwide, throw out votes if they don’t like the results of an election, gut Social Security and Medicare, and stir up fear for their own benefit.”
President Joe Biden’s approval has ticked up since Democrats notched a few victories this summer, passing bills on gun violence and climate, health and taxes, as well as granting student loan debt relief. Moderate drops in gas prices from record highs earlier this year have also helped, Covey said.
Still, polling in individual races has not shown a massive shift toward Democratic candidates, she said.
“Biden’s approval has gone up a bit, the generic ballot a little bit better. And obviously, we have seen Democratic over-performance in special elections,” she said. “In terms of the polling on an individual level, there hasn’t been a significant shift towards that.”
Analysts still rate a Republican takeover of the House as the most likely outcome, though the prospect of a landslide election is less probable, she added.
Who’s at risk?
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has 39 members in its Frontline program, naming them as at risk of losing reelection. The House’s current party breakdown is 220 Democrats, 212 Republicans and three vacancies.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s campaign arm, placed 75 Democrats on its “target list” after all states completed their redistricting processes in June. The cohort includes all of the Frontline Democrats, except Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey and Pat Ryan of New York.
The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter, however, has 30 House races in the “toss-up” category, with 20 of those held by Democrats, nine controlled by GOP members and one new district in Colorado.
A report that Axios published Sunday identified House races that Republicans or Democrats appeared to have quit funding. One of those was Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District, where Democrat Brad Pfaff is fighting to hold on to the seat that Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) will give up at the end of this year. Republican Derrick Van Orden is heavily outspending Pfaff. Axios called the Wisconsin pullback “a notable concession that Jan. 6 isn’t resonating as an election issue with swing voters,” but Pfaff’s campaign has continued to pursue tying Van Orden to the U.S. Capitol riot. It was bolstered by an outside group’s $500,000 ad buy in the La Crosse media market accentuating that message.
Cook places 194 House seats as leaning toward Democratic control while 211 seats are favored for Republicans. That means the GOP needs to win fewer of the 30 toss-up races to reach the 218 seats needed to control the chamber.
While every House seat is up for reelection for another two-year term, just one-third of the Senate will face voters on Nov. 8, since members are elected to six-year terms.
In the Senate races, Cook rates the Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin races as toss-ups. The Arizona, Colorado and New Hampshire races lean towards a Democrat winning. And the Florida, North Carolina and Ohio races lean toward a Republican victory.
Nine Senate seats held by Democrats are expected to stay blue, while 15 seats up this cycle that are held by Republicans are in the solidly GOP category. The Utah Senate race is classified as likely going to a Republican, according to Cook’s ratings.
Pennsylvania, where Democrat John Fetterman faces Republican Mehmet Oz for an open seat, was rated as lean Democrat, but was moved to a toss-up this week, with Cook’s Senate and Governors Editor Jessica Taylor writing that it has become a “margin-of-error” race.
“Republicans and Democrats alike admit the race has tightened and that Pennsylvania could be the tipping point state for the Senate majority,” she wrote.
Philip Chen, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver, said that in the Senate, Democrats have a better chance of picking up more seats because “Republicans are defending a lot of seats, and Democrats are fairly solid in the ones that they’re holding.”
He added that the popularity of the president does come into play. A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll this month found that Biden’s approval was only 40%, which was actually up from his May low of 36% approval in the same survey.
“We really will have to see how much the national mood dissatisfaction with President Biden and (how) things like that really do influence things, (and) how much of it is just the Senate is a tougher battle for Republicans this time around?” Chen said.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent millions of dollars against Democrats in key states. In Arizona, this election cycle the NRSC has spent more than $9 million against Sen. Mark Kelly, and more than $4 million against Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spent $10.5 million against Kelly’s Republican opponent, Blake Masters, and $3 million against Warnock’s Republican opponent, Herschel Walker.
Biden, speaking at a Democratic National Committee reception in New Jersey on Thursday, cited the tendency for the president’s party to lose some power in the first midterms.
“Based on statistics, the Democrats are running uphill because of the fact that, with only a couple exceptions, the first term of an incumbent president on the off-year election has been not a good deal most times,” Biden said.
He then predicted that Democrats would hold the Senate, possibly picking up “a couple seats,” though he didn’t seem as optimistic about the party’s chances of keeping the House—blaming trends at the state level. Biden pointed out there’s been “a lot of gerrymandering in the House across the country, because a lot of governors aren’t Democratic governors.”
Erik Gunn of the Wisconsin Examiner contributed additional reporting to this story.
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