Republicans were feeling optimistic about their chances to take back Congress in next year’s midterm elections, and that was before President Joe Biden’s honeymoon period finally came to an end this month.
Biden’s first seven months in office saw rising vaccination rates, falling unemployment and positive approval ratings, but new challenges in the form of the delta variant, inflation and the evacuation of Afghanistan have taken a toll on his popularity.
Recent polls have found Biden’s approval rating falling to the lowest point of his presidency so far. A CBS News poll found Biden’s approval split at 50%, both NBC News and Gallup had it at 49% and a Reuters poll had it tumbling to 46%. For context, Trump’s approval hovered around 38% to 39% at this same point in his presidency, according to the RealClearPolitics average.
While it’s too early to know the long-term political impacts of the challenges facing Biden, Democrats don’t have much room for error. Republicans need just one seat in the Senate and eight in the House to take the majority next year, and history is on their side.
“That is one of most reliable patterns in American politics, that the president’s party tends to lose seats” in midterm elections, said Frances Lee, associate chair of the Department of Politics at Princeton University. “I mean, it’s so predictable, it’s often referred to as the midterm law.”
The early messaging from House Republicans is that Democratic policies have created three crises in the form of inflation, crime and immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“If Republicans had a significant advantage on handling the issue of rising prices, rising crime, or the crisis on the southern border, we’d be in good shape,” said National Republican Congressional Committee communications director Michael McAdams. “The fact that we have an advantage on all three means electoral disaster for vulnerable Democrats.”
While images of the chaos of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan have appeared in ads from outside pro-Republican groups like Citizens United and America Rising, and in social media posts from the Republican National Committee, the situation is far from a top focus. Republican political professionals who spoke with Deseret News said it’s too early to know how big of an issue Afghanistan will be for voters next year.
A review of ads run by Republican groups on Facebook also shows that ads about school-related issues are popular, like masks and teaching critical race theory, as are ads that prominently feature former President Donald Trump.
Republicans are hoping to field a diverse slate of candidates in 2022, including women, people of color and veterans, following their successes last year.
“In 2020, every seat Republicans flipped was won by a woman, a minority, a veteran or in some cases, a combination of all three,” said Calvin Moore, communications director of Congressional Leadership Fund, a House Republicans super PAC. “Republicans are carrying that lesson forward and continuing to recruit impressive, unique candidates that truly fit their districts as we look to retaking the majority next fall.”
While candidate recruitment is up this year, according to the National Republican Congressional Committee, House candidates aren’t 100% sure where they’ll be running, since redistricting based off 2020 U.S. Census data has been delayed by the pandemic.
As for Senate races, some marque matchups are beginning to shape up in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which are all rated tossups by the Cook Political Report. Potentially tight Senate races are also expected for Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly in Arizona, Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada, Raphael Warnock in Georgia and Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, as well as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida.
A messaging battle
Republicans’ midterm performance will hinge in part on the types of candidates that win the to-be-determined primaries. Far-right or pro-Trump candidates, for example, might easily win a primary only to face a more moderate opponent and electorate in the general election. In other places, like the seven districts Trump won in 2020 that were carried by Democrats in House races, being pro-Trump could be a plus or nonissue.
“We’ve had so many dramatic events, we’ve had two presidential impeachments, had a pandemic, we had a terrible economic crisis last year, and yet nothing seems to change things much,” said Lee, from Princeton. “I see things as just very stable, despite all kinds of dramatic events.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are making the case that they’ve delivered results. The Democratic National Committee launched a multistate “Build Back Better” bus tour last week featuring local candidates and a bus with “Shots in arms,” “Checks in pockets,” and “Jobs coming back” written across the back. Back in Washington, the White House has been conscientious of the political benefits of promoting popular legislation since the spring, like the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which included an expanded child tax credit and money for vaccines and small businesses. The legislation had a 63% approval rating in March, per Gallup.
Internal polling shared with House Democrats earlier this month and reported on by Politico showed generic Democrats falling behind Republicans in battleground district matchups, but it also suggested that a change in messaging could help, with an increased focus on the Biden agenda and infrastructure plan.
For vulnerable Democrats or those in swing districts, running as “Biden Democrats” appears to be a potential path to victory next November, but in an election shaping up to be in part a messaging battle of rising inflation versus checks in pockets, so much depends on how voters are feeling next fall.
A Republican majority would mean Biden would have a harder time getting support for his agenda, Lee said.
“It enhances the checks and balances in the political system,” she said. “It means that the president can expect tougher scrutiny, more confrontational hearings and investigations.”