A Democratic Win Would Represent a Sea Change in American Politics
Four weeks from election day 2022, the partisan odds are increasingly hard to handicap. But make no mistake, the two alternative outcomes are not comparable. A Democratic win of one or both chambers of Congress would be historic, a Republican win of either or both merely routine.
History suggests Republicans have a strong advantage in the first midterm of a President of the opposing party. Joe Biden’s approval rating remains below 50%, worldwide inflation is taking its toll on the American economy, Russia is threatening the west with nuclear war, and Americans overwhelmingly believe we are going in the wrong direction. The conditions are ripe for history to prove itself right.
But something happened on the way to the GOP’s coronation. The party doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down on culture wars, election conspiracies, and its unwavering defense of a twice-impeached President who lost the U.S. popular vote in both of his bids for the presidency. The GOP has ignored the very basics of governing, instead projecting an angry posture of resentful white populism, replete with incidents of veiled and overt racism, mistreatment of migrants, attacks on sexual orientation, and a fundamental inability to understand the fallout from the Supreme Court’s invalidation of Roe v. Wade. It has proven an effective strategy for Republicans, but only with a growing minority of Americans.
The result is that for the first time in a generation there is an enormous pool of persuadable voters available to Democrats this cycle. And although the Democratic Party has been slow or in some cases even unable to fully adjust their messaging to these persuadable voters, these voters are speaking up for themselves and choosing Democrats.
In August, New York voters elected a Democrat in a hard-fought special election for the state’s swing 19th Congressional District. That same month in Alaska, Democrats picked up a “stunning” victory in the words of one seasoned political writer, winning a special Congressional election against former Governor and one-time Vice-Presidential nominee, Sarah Palin — the Democrats first House seat in Alaska in 50 years. In the traditionally pro-life state of Kansas, voters resoundingly defeated a ballot measure that would have stripped abortion right provisions from the state constitution. In a Minnesota special election, Democrats closed the Republican partisan advantage in the 1st Congressional District from 15 points to only four, and in Nebraska, Democrats closed the Republican advantage in that state’s special election for the 1st Congressional district from 17 to only five.
For Democrats, already coming off huge national wins in 2018 and 2020, the hope is these early 2022 results are the preamble to a historic change in American politics come November 8. Should voters return Democrats to control of either the Senate or House under the current national conditions, or should Democrats pull off the enormous task of holding both chambers, it could be the first real indication that today’s Republican Party is on the brink of becoming a permanent political minority.
A few races are beginning to demonstrate the plausibility of such an outcome. Take the case of Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert. Her re-election as a high-profile incumbent in a district Donald Trump won by eight points should not be in question. But it is now. After positioning herself as a vocal leader of the alt-right Christian nationalist lane of today’s GOP, a recent poll shows Boebert’s Democratic opponent, former Aspen City Council member Adam Frisch, within two points. Boebert’s evangelism of today’s Republican brand has her favorability rating upside down in her home district, and Frisch’s main street approach to focusing on jobs, inflation, and energy independence are giving independent and some Republican voters in Colorado’s 3rd District permission to pull the lever for the Democrat.
Or consider Florida’s 13th Congressional District, for years a pure toss-up district that twice elected Barack Obama but consistently elected a Republican Member of Congress until redistricting in 2016 made it a safe Democratic seat. The incumbent, former Florida Governor Charlie Crist, has vacated the office in the face of the latest redistricting by Republicans to draw a new seat Donald Trump won by six. Despite the relatively moderate politics of this one-county district, the GOP nominated a candidate who has denied the legitimacy of the 2020 election, embraced widely debunked conspiracy theories, declared herself a conservative ‘extremist’ on the issue of life and abortion, and declared she would oppose the widely popular expansion of veterans healthcare benefits approved by the Congress earlier this year. She led the entire primary cycle, garnering the early endorsements of Donald Trump, Matt Gaetz, and eventually, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Boebert. This lunge toward extremism by the GOP in Florida’s 13th has created an opportunity that otherwise would be unavailable to the district’s Democratic nominee, former Obama Administration staffer Eric Lynn. After sufficiently proving himself to progressives in an initially crowded Democratic primary, Lynn has been able to draw a sharp contrast with his GOP opponent in this bellwether county, now positioning himself as the clear choice for moderates and independents.
And finally in Ohio, where national Democrats seem to have given up on recovering from two straight Presidential losses and a dour Gubernatorial environment, longtime Democratic Representative Tim Ryan has constructed a U.S. Senate campaign around lunch-pail, working class Ohio issues and has pulled the race into a statistical dead heat. His opponent, J.D. Vance, has alternatively positioned himself as a pure vessel for Trumpism, running on a full embrace of today’s GOP trajectory. Ryan, focusing on home state politics, has embraced Roe while declaring himself a moderate on the issue, has not been afraid to call out his own party’s national politics, and refuses to let Vance put him on the defense with GOP talking points on policing and crime.
These races are hanging by a thread for Democrats going into November, and the political climate come election day may indeed prove too daunting for the party. But the thread that goes through these three races goes through dozens and dozens of other races across the country never before considered battlegrounds until now. Tie them all together and we could be on the eve of the most resounding shift in American politics this century.
We often ask whether Democrats can defy history this November. The more important framing may be whether American voters choose to make history. After giving Democrats sweeping control in 2018 and again in 2020, a decision by voters to again elect Democrats to the majority in November would affirm a truly new direction for America, rejecting today’s brand of Republicanism as an unviable majority coalition, and ushering in a new era of opportunity for the Democratic party.