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With six months left, ominous outlook remains for Democrats

Despite historic events, Republicans still well-positioned for November

Six months before the midterm elections, things do not look good for the party of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer extending the Democrats' control of Congress, analyst Nathan L. Gonzales says.
Six months before the midterm elections, things do not look good for the party of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer extending the Democrats' control of Congress, analyst Nathan L. Gonzales says. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — Three-quarters of the way through the midterm election cycle, it doesn’t look like anything will change the ominous forecast for Democrats. And Republicans remain well-positioned to take back Congress this fall.

There’s a difference between historic events and game-changing events (events that change the trajectory of an election cycle). A Supreme Court decision effectively overturning Roe v. Wade would certainly be another historic event. But pause is warranted before assuming such a decision will fundamentally alter the current outlook for the midterms.

President Joe Biden’s job rating inverted in the aftermath of the withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and has never recovered. Biden’s 41.9 percent job approval as of Monday, according to the FiveThirtyEight average, is essentially the same as his 42.7 percent job approval six months ago on Nov. 10.

That’s remarkable stability in the face of monumental events. Biden appointed, and the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed, the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. Biden had to react to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the potential escalation of conflict between nuclear powers. And the United States has largely moved out of its pandemic posture. Yet none of those events had a noticeable impact on how voters viewed the job Biden is doing.

Despite some Democratic optimism earlier in the cycle that time would heal some political wounds, specifically those surrounding COVID-19 and the economy, that just hasn’t been the case. Persistent inflation, high gas prices, supply chain problems, crime, and other issues have built a political ceiling that Biden is having trouble cracking. 

The lack of improvement shouldn’t be a surprise considering no president in the last 70 years has dramatically improved his job approval rating from early in a midterm year to the midterm elections, according to Gallup’s archive. 

If the White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill don’t figure out a way to either regain the confidence of independent voters about the direction of the country or discredit GOP candidates in the eyes of voters looking for change, Democrats will likely lose both chambers of Congress. 

Without a seismic political event, 2022 remains on track to be a typical midterm election that goes poorly for the president’s party. That’s roughly the same outlook as six, or even nine, months ago.

30-seat average

The president’s party has lost 30 House seats, on average, in midterm elections going back a century. Republicans may fall short of that this year considering they already won much of the low-hanging fruit in 2020, when they outperformed expectations and gained a dozen House seats. They need a net gain of just five seats for the House majority, which is more likely than regaining control of the Senate. A specific House seat projection is still difficult, however, without more district-level survey data.

Republicans need a net gain of just one seat for a Senate majority. Although that outcome is less certain than the House, it’s hard to see how Democrats replicate Biden’s coalition in Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in the current political environment. Biden won all of those states narrowly  in 2020 and Democrats probably need to win all of them in 2022. 

At this point, Republicans are most likely to gain between one and three Senate seats. That doesn’t mean Democrats can’t maintain control or that Republicans won’t gain four or more seats. But the GOP is well-positioned to make Mitch McConnell the Senate majority leader once again. 

The best thing Republicans can do to maximize their gains is to stay out of the way. More specifically, Republicans should try to stay out of the spotlight and let voters focus on the various crises facing the country and take out their frustration on Democrats in power. 

Abortion referendum?

But nominating candidates with significant baggage or enacting state-level legislation that is out of the mainstream could cause voters to view the election as a choice between two ideologies. Republicans can still win the majorities with that framing, but it’s a more of a challenge than a simple referendum on the president and his party. 

Considering a Supreme Court decision on abortion isn’t even official, it’s too early to pinpoint the political fallout. Democrats don’t have enough room to grow their base turnout to alter the fundamental trajectory of the cycle. Republican candidates will have to be nimble in answering questions about abortion (which has been a struggle for some in the past). But what Democrats really need is for independent voters to prioritize abortion over the economy and reject GOP candidates in response to state-level Republican efforts to eliminate abortion access. That shift could happen with specific races, but not likely on a large scale. 

For now, the question is whether Republicans have a good cycle or a great cycle, while Democrats try to limit the damage by discrediting GOP candidates on a race-by-race basis.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.

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