Both parties brace for October surprises

Strategists and political observers on both sides of the aisle are bracing for a dreaded October surprise in the final month before Election Day, wary of anything that could upend the political landscape and reshape the outcome of an already volatile midterm cycle.

There have already been a handful of unexpected hiccups. Last week, a news report detailed allegations that Georgia Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker paid for his then-girlfriend’s abortion more than a decade ago. That was followed on Wednesday by the news that OPEC and its allies would slash oil production, ushering in an expected rise in gas prices at a critical time for U.S. politics.

And there’s still more uncertainty. Fears of a possible economic recession are on the rise, Russian President Vladimir Putin is dramatically escalating his rhetoric against the West amid his country’s war in Ukraine and the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol could release its highly anticipated final report before Election Day.

All told, the late-breaking developments and potential for more to come have made an already unpredictable midterm election year even less predictable.

“In ’18 – and a lot of other midterm years – you knew what was going to happen. There was a very consistent throughline,” Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist, said. “You knew a wave was coming. Now, we don’t know. And it’s the cause of much heartburn.”

For Republicans — and especially for first-time candidates like Walker — the biggest concern is that any revelation or misstep could sink their prospects in the final weeks before Election Day, Reinish said. Democrats, meanwhile, are at the mercy of an uncertain economic and geopolitical landscape.

“For Democrats, if something happens to affect the national mood or the news cycle, it’s going to be a development outside of their control — gas prices, a foreign policy issue, an economic issue,” Reinish said.

October surprises — last-minute convulsions in the political environment that can change the course of an election — aren’t anything new. 

In 2016, just 11 days before the presidential election, former FBI Director James Comey announced that his agency was reopening its investigation into then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of State. Many Democrats still blame that disclosure, at least in part, for her loss to former President Trump.

And just two years ago, Democrat Cal Cunningham’s Senate campaign in North Carolina was upended by revelations of an extramarital affair. He went on to lose that race to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) a month later.

David Greenberg, a history professor at Rutgers University, said that the “original October surprise” came just before the 1980 presidential election, when Ronald Reagan’s campaign feared that then-President Jimmy Carter could save his floundering reelection bid by securing the release of American hostages in Iran — though that scenario didn’t play out.

Since then, Greenberg said, October surprises have played out in the media as anything from candidate-related scandals to significant geopolitical events.

“I think over the years, it’s sort of been watered down to refer to any surprising news that comes in October that might affect the outcome,” Greenberg said. “Big news happens in October nowadays and we call it an October surprise. It’s lost a bit of its meaning.”

There’s also some debate about just how meaningful October surprises still are. For one, the political environment is far more polarized and there are fewer swing voters who could be swayed by last-minute revelations about a candidate or major event.

What’s more, Greenberg said, news tends to come and go much faster in 2022 than it did even 20 years ago. What happens in early October, for instance, may not be top of mind for voters a month later.

“It’s a cliché to say that a week is a lifetime in politics, but there’s always time for one more turn of the wheel,” he said. “Since 1980 when the term was coined, a month has come to seem like a longer span of time. So maybe it should be a late-October surprise.”

Nevertheless, with control of both the House and the Senate at stake next month, Democrats and Republicans are wary of anything that could upend the trajectory of the midterms. While strategists from both parties have sought to project optimism, they’ve privately contemplated for months the possibility that late-breaking news could spite them.

That has already happened to some extent. The GOP’s House campaign arm withdrew its advertising for Republican candidate J.R. Majewski late last month after reports that he had misrepresented his military service. And the abortion allegation surrounding Walker has put his campaign on defense at a time when his standing in the Georgia Senate race appeared to be improving. Walker has vehemently denied the allegation and has threatened to sue the news outlet that reported it. 

Meanwhile, gas prices are already beginning to tick upward in the wake of OPEC’s decision to curb oil production, while concerns are growing among policymakers that efforts to tame inflation, which remains near a 40-year high, could push the economy closer to a recession, putting President Biden’s party in a politically precarious position.

“I think the Democrats are more at risk because they’ve got the White House, they’re in power, and when things go wrong, that’s who takes the blame,” said Keith Naughton, a veteran Republican strategist. “For things to go right for the Democrats, it has to be individual things in different races that hurt Republican candidates enough to overcome larger problems that the country is facing. But the bigger issues are probably going to win out.”

But even with the electorate as polarized as it currently is, last-minute scandals and controversies aren’t meaningless, Shana Gadarian, a political science professor at Syracuse University, said in an email. While many of the most partisan voters have been tuned in to the midterm elections for months, there are still other voters who are just starting to pay attention and haven’t yet decided how to cast their ballots.

“There is still some component of the electorate that, as partisan and polarized as we are, doesn’t know who they’re going to vote for until the end and makes up their minds based on what they learn — things that are front of mind in the closing weeks of the campaign.”

Still, she said, “we shouldn’t overstate the effect that scandals can have on voters because there are still a large number of people who don’t pay attention to politics.”

Naughton, the Republican strategist, said that where October surprises could matter the most are in the handful of toss-up races, like the Senate contest in Georgia, where the outcome could ultimately come down to which way moderates and swing voters break in November.

“The list of surprises that could have an impact is getting smaller, because it’s harder to find something that’s a dealbreaker for a party’s core voters,” he said. “But the number of swing voters is shrinking which means they’re more valuable. So in close races, if you have something impactful, it could make a big difference.”

Tags Cal Cunningham Donald Trump Herschel Walker Herschel Walker Hillary Clinton James Comey Jimmy Carter October Surprise Raphael Warnock Thom Tillis Vladimir Putin

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