With voters from both parties energized, campaigns begin fall sprint
By Lisa Lerer and Jennifer Medina
For two decades, midterm elections have served as a vehicle for voter discontent, a chance for Americans to punish the president, shake up a statehouse and express their anger with the party in power by costing them congressional seats and governor’s mansions.
This year, though, the dissatisfaction has intensified and become something like a national anxiety disorder.
With the pandemic receding, voters have been whipsawed by economic uncertainty, public safety concerns, lingering public health threats and shortages of everything from used cars to baby formula to teachers. The political upheaval around abortion rights, devastating gun violence, the FBI investigation into former President Donald Trump and his continued lies about the 2020 election have heightened the sense that the country’s political system is deeply dysfunctional, if not headed toward collapse.
Now, as the midterm contests enter the final campaign stretch after Labor Day, the election is shaping up to be a referendum on which party is more to blame for a country that has decidedly not returned to normal. From swing districts in sunny Southern California to the perennial political battlefields of Michigan’s Oakland County, candidates, voters and strategists from both parties describe an electorate that has lost its bearings.
“Folks look around, and they feel like it’s been a really tough couple of years,” said Rep. Josh Harder, a Democrat running for reelection in the agricultural Central Valley of California, where wealthy Bay Area tech workers have driven up housing prices. “Our message can’t be, ‘Look at what we’ve done. Everything is fine and dandy.’ We have to listen and then we have to respond.”
The fundamentals — high inflation, an uncertain economy, the president’s dismal approval ratings — still favor Republicans, as do the recent shifts to the electoral map because of redistricting. But outrage over abortion rights, the passage in Congress of a series of economic and climate change bills and the continued dominance of Trump within his party have made some Democrats hopeful that they can triage some of their deepest losses.
Expectations of a so-called red wave have moderated since the spring, with President Joe Biden’s approval rating rising modestly and gas prices falling from record highs. In recent weeks, Democrats have gained a slight advantage in polling, although their lead remains in the margin of error in most surveys.
They hope to make the election not a referendum on the unpopular president but rather a choice between “normal” and “extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic,” as Biden put it in a prime-time address Thursday. Strong showings in special elections this summer have encouraged Democrats’ efforts to lean further into championing abortion rights and their message that the Republican Party is too extreme.
Democratic victories in those special elections, typically sleepier summertime affairs, were driven by more engaged college-educated voters who were more energized by issues such as abortion and gun control. But the midterm electorate may be more likely to mirror the governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey last year. In those races, Republicans made gains after attracting a broader electorate that was more focused on economic issues and education — topics that remain the top issues for the largest number of voters.
Rep. Young Kim, a Republican who represents parts of Orange County in Southern California, said voters in her tightly contested district were regularly voicing concerns over what she sees as the failings of the Biden administration: the cost of living, border security and crime.
“They talk about the highest inflation that they’ve ever seen and the rise of prices everywhere, from grocery stores to clothing stores to coffee shops,” Kim said. Asked about abortion rights and threats to democracy, Kim was dismissive: “I hear about those things very infrequently.”
Strategists on both sides caution that the election environment remains deeply unpredictable.
Energy prices could spike again this fall, and the prospect of a continuing increase in interest rates has many investors and economists predicting a recession. The FBI investigation into Trump is expected to continue, which could mobilize partisans in either party. He has privately floated declaring his 2024 presidential candidacy in the fall, a prospect that worries some Republican leaders who believe such an early announcement would be an unnecessary — and politically divisive — distraction. And in the states, legislative battles over abortion rights will keep the issue front and center.
Some voters say the instability has prompted them to grapple with decisions they never thought to make. How secure is your child’s school from shootings? Do you send your college student to school with abortion medication? Does the cost of beef make you skip over the butcher’s section in the grocery store?
Democrats hope they can offset economic concerns by energizing voters on abortion rights. In the weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, new voter registrations among women surged, according to a New York Times analysis, as abortion rocketed up the list of voter concerns in polling.
Already, the party has spent $92 million on advertising mentioning the issue, according to data from AdImpact, a media-tracking firm. They spent $5.6 million on ads about abortion rights over the same time period in the 2018 midterms.
They’ve targeted Republicans who support a national ban on abortion, a position that’s unpopular with independents and moderates. In recent weeks, a series of Republican candidates have tried to quietly scrub unpopular positions from their campaign websites, including a national ban, so-called fetal personhood laws and opposition to exceptions for rape and incest.
While Democratic candidates are focusing on abortion and their legislative accomplishments, the White House is resurrecting a message from 2020 — casting the midterms as a battle for the future of democracy with Trump as the central foe.
“This is a choice, and the choice is MAGA or mainstream,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the head of the Democratic House campaign committee.
But there are signs that Democrats, too, see the president as a drag on their electoral chances. So far this year, Democrats have spent just $78,000 on ads mentioning Biden, according to AdImpact data.
Republican strategists say that despite Trump’s continued dominance in the media, voters are more likely to hold the president accountable for their current stresses than the man he replaced.
Kristin Davison, a GOP strategist who helped mastermind Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s upset win in Virginia last year, said Republicans were focusing on what they see as a lack of leadership from Biden on issues including foreign policy and crime. While polling shows that majorities of voters in both parties see democracy as under threat, concern about that issue is outranked by the economy and abortion.
Republicans have yet to unleash much of their spending raised from outside groups, which is expected to begin after Labor Day. Their goal is to shift attention away from abortion and Trump by focusing on crime and attacking the Inflation Reduction Act and student loan forgiveness plan as excessive government spending that will not help voters.
“It’s cost of living, and it’s the economy,” said Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans. “This is a groceries-and-gas election.”