How GOP extremism may boost Democrats' midterms prospects
One thing that Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrats Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have in common is that all of them watched their parties suffer major poundings during the midterms but went on to become two-term presidents; Reagan’s reelection victory over Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale in 1984 was a massive landslide despite the gains Democrats had enjoyed in the 1982 midterms. Presidents can recover from weak approval ratings and midterms losses and go on to win a second term, as Reagan, Clinton and Obama all demonstrated.
President Joe Biden continues to suffer from weak approval ratings, which doesn’t necessarily mean that those ratings won’t improve or that he won’t be reelected in 2024 if he decides to seek a second term. But Democrats, mindful of Biden’s approval ratings and the major red waves of 1994 under Clinton and 2010 under Obama, have been fearing that Republicans will recapture the U.S. House of Representatives — and possibly the U.S. Senate as well — in the 2022 midterms. Articles published by The New Republic and the conservative website The Bulwark on August 5, however, highlight a scenario in which this year’s midterms become a referendum not on Biden, but on the radicalism and extremism that has overtaken the GOP.
In The Bulwark, John J. Pitney — a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California and author of the 2020 book “Un-American: The Fake Patriotism of Donald J. Trump” — stresses that Democrats have an opportunity to make the 2022 midterms about Republicans if they focus on the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and the far-right radicalism of former President Donald Trump, the MAGA movement and the MAGA candidates running for office this year.
“In a typical midterm election,” Pitney explains, “the party not holding the presidency casts itself as a check on the incumbent administration, even more so when the president’s party controls both chambers of Congress. The elections of 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2018 all started with unified government and all ended with the out-party winning control of the House — and the Senate in 1994. The in-party has never been able to wear the ‘check and balance’ mantle — until this year. During the 2022 midterm, there are a couple of ways in which the Democratic appeal is essentially that they will act as a counterweight against an out-of-step Republican Party.”
Pitney continues, “The first involves the Supreme Court. Historically, we refer to the legislative and executive as the ‘political branches,’ as opposed to the supposedly apolitical judiciary. The general public no longer sees the Court that way. In a Quinnipiac University survey, 63 percent of voters agreed that ‘the Supreme Court is mainly motivated by politics.’ And a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that 74 percent of adults say the Court has become ‘too politicized.’ If people regard the Court as a political branch that is overreaching what the public wants, then they may view the midterms as a way to check it.”
Pitney goes on to describe Trump as “another target for checks and balances.”
“In normal times,” Pitney notes, “voters would not see any need to check the loser of the last presidential election. But these are not normal times. Trump is likely to run in 2024 and has already said as much. Most Republican voters believe the lie that Trump won the 2020 election, and as we saw on January 6, some of them are willing to act on that delusion. Trump and his followers are openly trying to stock Congress and state governments with election deniers. Many of them will be in office next year. Accordingly, a vote for Democrats is a vote against a powerful foe — not an incumbent administration, but a government-in-waiting and its accomplices.”
Although Biden is “deeply unpopular,” Pitney argues, Democrats “have been handed an opportunity to portray themselves as the opposition party.”
Meanwhile, in The New Republic, journalist Alex Shephard, emphasizes that “a summer dominated by the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and explosive January 6 commission hearings have pushed” the Democratic Party “to narrow leads in generic ballot polling.”
“FiveThirtyEight’s tracker now has Democrats and Republicans tied, while several recent polls have shown sharp gains for President Biden’s party when voters are asked who they would prefer to have control of Congress,” Shephard observes. “On Tuesday, (August 2) voters in Kansas — a state that hasn’t gone blue in a presidential election since 1964 — strongly rejected a proposed amendment that would have likely banned abortion in the state. Polling from YouGov and Indivisible in Arizona, meanwhile, found that voters in the state overwhelmingly reject both candidates who supported Donald Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ and those in favor of restricting abortion in the state. According to the results, which were conducted between July 28 and July 31, 51 percent of voters surveyed said they would view a candidate who believed the 2020 election results were fraudulent ‘less favorably,’ while only 23 percent said they would view them ‘more favorably.’”
Shephard adds, “Meanwhile, 55 percent said they would view a candidate in favor of banning abortion after six weeks ‘less favorably,’ while just a third of voters said doing so would lead them to view them ‘more favorably.’ When asked to choose between a generic Democrat holding the view that abortion should be legal through the first trimester and in any cases involving rape or incest and a generic Republican that favors banning all abortions, 60 percent chose the Democrat; just 27 percent went with the hypothetical Republican.”
The ballot measure in Kansas that Shephard refers to asked voters whether or not legal access to abortion should be removed from the state constitution; 59 percent of Kansas voters said “no” — which is, to borrow a phrase that Biden famously used during the Obama era, a “big f*****g” deal considering how deep red that state is.
“The results in Kansas point to another reality for Democrats: Speaking loudly on issues voters actually care about matters,” Shephard notes. “In the immediate wake of the Supreme Court decision that gutted Roe’s protections, the Biden Administration was notably slow to respond, only putting out milquetoast executive actions in the weeks after the decision. The Kansas result demonstrates that even voters in red states respond to major issues like abortion access…. The repeal of Roe and the January 6 hearings have given Democrats an opening to stake out a firm position on a favorable issue for the first time in months. They may as well take their best shot.”
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