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How Democrats could actually come out on top in the midterms

For all its faults, the party really has evolved over the past decade.
Image: Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi
Democrats just might be able to save their majorities in Congress, if they hustle.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images

For most of 2022, Democrats have been sinking ever deeper into a pit of despair. President Joe Biden’s approval ratings (driven by the worst inflation in 40 years), were approaching those of the late Bush administration. The party’s agenda was apparently dead in the Senate, and Republican gerrymandering had given the GOP a substantial handicap in House elections. Election nerds took it for granted that Democrats would lose the House and probably the Senate too, along with control of vital swing-state governments, in November.

In just a few weeks, things have taken a sharp turn for the better for the party.

But in just a few weeks, things have taken a sharp turn for the better for the party. Democratic senators pushed through the Inflation Reduction Act — a large climate and health care bill that proves the party isn’t completely incapable of governing. Inflation appears to be moderating somewhat. And Republican extremism has produced weak conservative candidates in several states and, thanks to the right-wing majority Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade, toxic opposition.

Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump appears to be in deep legal trouble. Last week, the FBI executed a search warrant at his Mar-a-Lago estate and reclaimed numerous boxes of documents. The entire conservative movement responded with purple-faced outrage, threatening retaliation against Attorney General Merrick Garland, the FBI and anyone else it could think of. One right-wing terrorist mounted an attack on an FBI office, which ended in his death.

But then on Friday, the warrant was released, and everyone learned Trump is under investigation for allegedly violating the Espionage Act.

Democrats just might be able to save their majorities in Congress, if they hustle.

Let me begin with the Inflation Reduction Act. This bill is far from perfect, thanks to the many compromises with fossil fuel interests demanded by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. But as analysts at Evergreen Action explain, on net it is a very significant attack on climate change, and sets the stage for promising climate activism in the future. It’s a huge deal.

It isn’t the only large bill Democrats have gotten through this Congress. There’s also a substantial semiconductor subsidy package, a measure to improve health care for veterans afflicted with chronic illnesses, the infrastructure bill that passed last year, and, of course, the massive American Rescue Plan passed in March of last year. Now, the American Rescue Plan may have increased inflation somewhat, but it also gave the United States the lowest unemployment rate in half a century and by far the largest number of new jobs in American history over a two-year period. Overall it’s arguably the most significant set of domestic accomplishments for a Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson.

It’s worth emphasizing how remarkable this is. Taken together, Biden’s Democrats, with literally zero margin for error in the Senate, have gotten policies through that are far more significant than the party got under President Barack Obama with 59 senators. For all its faults, the party really has evolved over the past decade.

Republicans definitely did not want to make the election turn around the former president when there is inflation to complain about.

Aside from having a record of accomplishment to boast about in midterm campaigns, the fact of serious accomplishment puts wind into Democratic sails. It looked as though the party would have no argument in its own favor aside from being able to keep out Republicans. But now it can promise future efforts, should the party remain in control of Congress.

On inflation, it seems increasingly likely that upcoming inflation figures will be cooler. As I previously argued, the prices of key commodities have been falling for months, and broader indicators do not indicate anything like a wage-price spiral. Sure enough, the month-to-month inflation data came in flat in July, and measures of inflation expectations are falling rapidly. Yes, we will surely still be seeing unusual price rises for the rest of 2022 relative to the pre-pandemic normal, but they’ll probably be more like Reagan-era jumps than Carter-era bounds.

Finally, there is Republican extremism. In several critical states and districts the GOP has nominated comically deranged candidates who are well outside the American mainstream. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Republicans nominated quack medicine charlatan Mehmet Oz for Senate, and for governor they have nominated Doug Mastriano, a state senator who organized buses for numerous Jan. 6 putschists and attended the riot himself. In Arizona, Republicans nominated former television anchor and election denier Kari Lake for governor, who, true to form, announced that she had won the primary even before the votes had been counted, by her own admission.

But these candidates’ announced plans to overturn democracy are possibly less of an election liability than their stances on abortion. Oz, reversing years of previous statements, has not protested the demise of Roe. Mastriano has long been a fanatical advocate of a near-total ban on abortion. Lake describes herself as “unequivocally pro-life.” In Michigan, the Republican attorney general nominee favors banning abortion even when the life of the mother is at stake. Across the country, Republican states are passing long-planned abortion bans that have created a stream of stories of pre-teen rape victims; women with wanted pregnancies that pose such dangerous complications that they're forced to flee to other states to get the care they need; women almost dying because hospitals fear to help them; and even a teenager being prosecuted for getting an abortion.

This is turning out to be electoral poison. Banning abortion with no exceptions for rape and incest reliably receives 15%-20% support in polls. In Kansas, an anti-abortion ballot initiative recently lost by 18 percentage points. Americans do not want to live in an anti-abortion dystopia.

Trump’s unprecedented legal problems are a nice cherry on top of the Democrats’ cake. Republicans definitely did not want to make the election center on the former president when there is inflation to complain about. Now their abject dedication to the most corrupt and lawless president in American history is laid bare. If conservatives have anything to do with it, Trump will be back in power come 2025, ready to carry out God only knows what. That’s a powerful argument in Democrats’ favor.

Now, Democrats would be fools to assume they will win by default. History and electoral common sense suggests that Republicans are still the favorites in the midterms. But the combination of solid achievement and loony extremist opponents is a powerful one. Biden’s poll numbers are improving, and the generic congressional ballot looks even better. If they put up a strong effort this fall, Democrats have a solid shot at remaining in control of Congress and the presidency.