10 min read

Return of the bed-wetters

Republicans have seized the momentum, as Democratic candidates and strategists are beginning to worry.
Return of the bed-wetters
Good morning! It’s Monday, October 24, 2022. The 2022 election is 15 days away. The 2024 election is 743 days away.

Two weeks left: Democratic fears mount as Republicans pick up momentum

If there’s one headline that exemplifies the current moment in the 2022 campaign, it’s this one from the Washington Post: “Democrats fear the midterm map is slipping away.”

Former President Barack Obama’s political team was fond of referring to their fellow Democrats as “bed-wetters,” accusing party officials of slipping into a familiarly anxious state at just about the same point in every election cycle.

But, in this case, as the fundamentals of the 2022 election tip increasingly toward Republicans, the Democratic political class does have a reason to worry.

All signs point red

In the words of New York Times political scribe Blake Hounshell, “Right now, all the indicators on my political dashboard are blinking red — as in, toward Republicans.”

You can see this in any number of ways. The FiveThirtyEight election forecast, that biennial refuge of anxious political junkies, has begun to swing back in the Republican direction after a summer of Democratic gains.

One week ago, the forecast said Republicans had 72-in-100 odds of winning the House and Democrats had 64-in-100 odds of keeping the Senate. Now, the GOP boasts 80-in-100 odds of a House victory while Democratic chances in the Senate have gone down to 55-in-100. In other words: the House has moved steadily more out of reach for Democrats, while the Senate has become steadily more in reach for Republicans.

Even though his own model still shows Democrats as slightly favored, FiveThirtyEight’s chief data nerd Nate Silver writes that he now views control of the Senate as a pure tossup. Democrats might have a slight vestigial advantage due to candidate quality concerns, but the momentum is moving unmistakably in one direction with about two weeks to go.

Democratic incumbents across the map are slipping, from Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona (seeing his lead thin against Blake Masters) to Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto in Nevada (now something of an underdog against Adam Laxalt). In the House, Axios reports that strategists in both parties now view a “red tsunami” — Republicans flipping more than 20 seats — as a distinct possibility again.

Prominent House Democrats like California Rep. Katie Porter, known for her viral whiteboard presentations at congressional hearings, and New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the very man in charge of securing his party’s majority as the House Democratic campaign chief, are at risk of going under. In deep-blue Rhode Island, Republican Allan Fung has a real shot at becoming New England’s only GOP member of the House.

A “red tsunami” could be underway. (Gabe Fleisher and DALL-E)

Democratic messaging woes

Why has the midterm map turned so suddenly toward Republicans?

One simple explanation is the party’s strength in the set of issues that have dominated the campaign trail in the election’s final weeks.

Per a new ABC News/Ipsos poll, Americans trust Republicans to handle inflation over Democrats by a 15-point margin, gas prices by a 14-point margin, and crime by a 13-point margin.

Democrats are more trusted on an alternative crop of issues they have emphasized, including abortion (by 12 points) and gun violence (by 5 points), but polls have repeatedly shown that those are no longer the most salient issues of the campaign.

This dynamic has led to a final round of hand-wringing among Democrats that they’ve failed to find a message on inflation, months after prices begin to rise. “Inflation is there, but it’s global and not as bad as it is in some countries,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told Punchbowl News last week.

But the global nature of the problem comes as little comfort to Americans who share deep worries about the economy with pollsters, expressing fear about how to pay for gas and groceries.

As the Associated Press notes, President Biden has at times tried to be everything to everyone, elevating a laundry list of liberal priorities instead of honing a cohesive message for voters to rally around. (Per Semafor, this week’s top Democratic issue will be protecting Social Security and Medicare, a tried-and-true closer for Democrats in a year where health care has been a less prominent issue than usual.)

New York Times columnist David Brooks contrasts that scattered messaging with Republicans:

“G.O.P. candidates are telling a very clear class/culture/status war narrative in which common-sense Americans are being assaulted by elite progressives who let the homeless take over the streets, teach sex ed to 5-year-olds, manufacture fake news, run woke corporations, open the border and refuse to do anything about fentanyl deaths and the sorts of things that affect regular people.”
“In other words, candidates like [Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake] wrap a dozen different issues into one coherent class war story. And it seems to be working. In late July she was trailing her opponent by seven points. Now she’s up by about half a point.”

Meanwhile, as I noted last week, Biden is pledging that Democrats’ first act next year as the majority party would be a bill on abortion — not a measure to address the economy, at a time when voters are yelling out that the economy is what they’re focusing on.

Of course, it is also easy to exaggerate the specific ills facing the Democrats this year, considering that a president’s party struggling in the midterms is the expected outcome. Since 1934, presidents have lost an average of 26 House seats and four House seats in midterm elections.

American politics almost naturally seem to gravitate towards divided government, as voters delight in punishing the party to whom they awarded the White House two years earlier, providing a check on the incumbent’s more ambitious impulses. It seemed briefly like Biden might become the first president since George W. Bush in 2002 to dodge that gravitational pull — but history is not so easy to escape after all. Another way to look at the late-stage swing to Republicans is simply as an electoral return to form.

Big turnout expected

One more element to watch as Election Day creeps near: Analysts are increasingly expecting a high-turnout year.

Per the U.S. Elections Project, more than 7.5 million people have already cast early votes across the country. That has been enough for some key states to smash turnout records: in Georgia, for example, about 816,000 voters had cast ballots through Sunday. At this point in 2018 and 2020, about 428,000 and 812,000 voters had cast ballots, respectively.

2018 and 2020, of course, were record-breaking election years themselves; if the trend continues in 2022, it raises the possibility that low-turnout, low-interest elections might just be a thing of the past, at least as long as Donald Trump is on the scene. (Special elections, normally sleepy affairs, have also seen high turnout this year, and throughout the Trump era.)

NBC News also picked up on an uptick of enthusiasm — even from historic 2018 levels — in a new poll released this weekend:

“The poll also found 70% of all registered voters expressing high interest in the election — either a ‘9’ or a ‘10’ on a 10-point scale — which is the highest percentage ever in the survey for a midterm election at this point.”
“‘It’s an eye-popper’ when you have a higher number now than in 2018, which set a turnout record for a midterm election, said McInturff, the GOP pollster.”

Democrats often cling to the myth that high-turnout elections automatically mean Democratic-leaning electorates, but it is just that: a myth. Just as high turnout in 2020 led to GOP gains downballot, the NBC poll also suggested that high turnout this year could be another reason to expect a promising Republican cycle.    

In the poll, 78% of Republicans said they had high interest in the midterms, compared to 69% of Democrats — a 9-point enthusiasm edge, up from the 3-point edge Republicans had just last month.

Americans say this election is more important than past midterms. (NBC News graphic)

More midterm headlines

  • “Where’s Katie?” has become a constant refrain on the Arizona gubernatorial campaign trail as Democratic nominee Katie Hobbs skips debates and ducks reporters.
  • Florida Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist’s campaign manager resigned after being arrested for domestic violence.
  • Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola say they plan to rank each other first in Alaska’s ranked-choice voting next month.
  • Neither party’s leader is wanted on the trail. According to the Washington Post, Republicans are pushing Trump not to hold rallies in key states, while Biden has not held a campaign rally since before Labor Day.
  • A different Democratic surrogate is coming back, though: Barack Obama hits the trail this week.
  • The New York Times analyzed 3.8 million social media posts, official emails, and speeches by members of Congress. Their finding: “Republicans on average used divisive words and phrases more than twice as often as Democrats in tweets, and six times as often in emails to constituents.”
  • Per the NBC News poll, 67% of Republicans and 63% of Democrats say they would still vote for their party’s nominee if the candidate was “revealed to have a moral failure in their business, marriage or personal life.”

🚨 More news you should know

— Former finance minister Rishi Sunak is poised to become the UK’s next prime minister, after his sole competitor dropped out this morning. Former prime minister Boris Johnson also removed himself from contention on Sunday. Sunak will be the UK’s first non-white leader.

— Xi Jinping secured an unprecedented third five-year term as China’s leader at a Communist Party conference this weekend. Xi also named a new Politburo, stocking the key policymaking body with loyalists — and all men, for the first time in 25 years.

— Today marks nine months of war in Ukraine. Russia is accusing Ukraine of planning to set off a “dirty bomb,” an explosive weapon used to scatter radioactive material, but the U.S. and other Western countries pushed back on the allegation in a rare joint statement.

— The National Assessment of Educational Progress — known as the “nation’s report card” — is out this morning, and it’s developing. American students had their steepest-ever decline in performance, a sign of the pandemic’s toll on education; just 26% of eighth graders, for example, are proficient in math. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona called the results “appalling and unacceptable.”

Rishi Sunak, the UK’s next prime minister. (Number 10)

— A federal appeals court temporarily blocked President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan on Friday. That means the administration cannot begin erasing debt while the court finishes its review of a lawsuit against the plan.

— Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon was sentenced on Friday to four months in jail and a $6,500 fine for defying a subpoena from the House January 6th committee. His jail term will not actually start yet, as the judge said Bannon could remain free as he appeals his conviction.

— Meanwhile, the January 6th committee formally sent its subpoena to Trump himself. The panel sent deadlines of November 4 for Trump to fulfill its document requests and November 14 for Trump to submit to questioning. A months-long legal battle is likely to ensue.

— With flu and RSV cases rising earlier than usual, and Covid cases spiking in Europe, some experts worry about a “tripledemic” striking the U.S. this winter.

On Trump: This revealing audio tour through Bob Woodward’s 20 interviews with the former president. “I was struck by how Trump pounded in my ears in a way the printed page cannot capture,” Woodward writes.

On Biden: This interview with First Lady Jill Biden, delving into her influence in the West Wing and how it manifests itself, from stern messages to her husband’s staff to gently placing a hand on his knee when he goes off on tangents in meetings.

🗓 What your leaders are doing today

All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch or listen to it.

Executive Branch

President Biden will visit the Democratic National Committee headquarters and deliver remarks (1 pm), participate in a tree planting ceremony on the White House South Lawn (2:15 pm), and host a reception to celebrate Diwali (5 pm).

Vice President Harris will also attend the Diwali reception.

First Lady Biden will host an event with the American Cancer Society and special guest Mary J. Blige (11 am). Later, she will participate in the tree planting ceremony and attend the Diwali reception.

Second Gentleman Emhof is in North Carolina. He will join Democratic National Committee chairman Jaime Harrison for campaign events in Kannapolis (10 am) and Charlotte (1 pm).

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will hold her daily presss briefing (3 pm).

Legislative Branch

The Senate will briefly convene for a pro forma session (1:45 pm). No legislative business will be conducted.

The House will not meet. Neither chamber is scheduled to hold votes again until November 14, after the midterms.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is in Zagreb, Croatia, representing the U.S. at the First Parliamentary Summit of the International Crimea Platform, a group focused on restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity. She’ll hold a press conference while there (10:45 am).

With just 15 days until the midterm elections, Pelosi’s presence at the conference — and absence from the campaign trail — is notable.

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court will not meet.

The Trump Organization will go on trial in New York state court today, facing 10 counts of tax fraud. Jury selection will begin today; it is expected to last about four weeks, as the attorneys search for prospective jurors who can act impartially towards a famously polarizing defendant.

Campaign Trail

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and his opponent, Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL), will meet for their lone debate of the campaign (7 pm).

That’s all for today. If you enjoy Wake Up To Politics, it’s always appreciated if you donate to support the newsletter or buy some merch. Or if you tell your friends and family to sign up at wakeuptopolitics.com.

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Thanks for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe