With less than a year to go until the 2022 midterms, Republicans are increasingly bullish on the prospect of a red wave that could flip both chambers of Congress and end Democrats’ unified control in Washington.
Heading into 2022, Democrats find themselves on their back foot, defending their narrow House and Senate majorities — and President BidenJoe BidenDeputy AG: DOJ investigating fake Trump electors On The Money — Vaccine-or-test mandate for businesses nixed Warner tests positive for breakthrough COVID-19 case MORE — against a fusillade of attacks over stubbornly high coronavirus cases, inflation, the bloody Afghanistan withdrawal and more. Biden’s approval ratings have nosedived to the low 40s, portending a possible drumming at the ballot box next year — and they haven’t stopped falling.
The House is viewed by many on both sides of the aisle as likely to fall into Republican hands, given Democrats’ razor-thin five-seat majority there. However, despite a favorable map for Democrats, the party’s 50-50 majority in that chamber could be toppled too.
“I've been telling Democrats, especially Democrats in targeted seats, enjoy the holidays, and you got a decision to make: retire or lose next fall,” Rep. Tom EmmerThomas (Tom) Earl EmmerSupreme Court declines GOP challenge against House proxy voting Mask rules spark political games and a nasty environment in the House Swalwell slams House Republican for touting funding in bill she voted down MORE (R-Minn.), the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told The Hill.
Emmer cautioned that a GOP House majority is not guaranteed, though he asserted that as many as 70 Democrats could lose their seats in a possible wave, warning “in this environment, no Democrat is safe.”
Fueling the GOP optimism is a confluence of factors, both historic and current.
The party in the White House customarily loses seats in the midterms. GOP waves helped flip the House toward Republicans in 2010 and the Senate four years later, while a blue wave helped win Democrats back the lower chamber in 2018.
On top of that, Biden’s falling overall approval ratings have been coupled with lower approval by voters of his handling of several specific issues, including the coronavirus and the economy. That’s helped fuel a GOP advantage in the generic congressional poll, where, in part due to gerrymandering, Democrats typically need a slight edge to at least pull even.
Taken together, Republicans see a path to taking back at least the House, particularly given its narrow margins. Recent waves have flipped dozens of seats, and the GOP must net just five in 2022.
“I'm very confident that we're gonna take back the House,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who represents a suburban swing district near Omaha. “I think that on the key issues right now, all the energy is on our side. And when I look at all the polling data, it matches what I see in the district, voters are concerned about inflation, crime, the border, Afghanistan, and all those issues are in our favor.”
Beyond the overall irritation with the current state of the country, along with specific frustrations on policy issues, Democrats face structural headwinds in a redistricting year.
The map-drawing process, which is still underway, could alone get Republicans the seats they need. But already Republicans have fortified their advantages in states like Texas and Georgia, where there is unified GOP control of the state government and the redistricting efforts.
“Redistricting is going to be an obstacle,” said Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa.
That confluence of factors is leading Democrats to privately — and in some cases publicly — concede that their grip on the House is tenuous.
“The environment is particularly dour, both because of rising prices, economic anxiety, frustration about feeling stagnant when it comes to COVID, that it is not behind us despite the fact that we've been living with it for two years,” Democratic pollster Molly Murphy said. “If this environment holds, it's going to be pretty damning.”
That reality has apparently set in with at least some Democrats on Capitol Hill. Roughly two dozen are retiring from the House, either to leave politics altogether or run for another office.
By the end of 2017, the year before the GOP was swept out of the House majority, 25 House Republicans had announced they would not seek reelection.
“They're running for the hills,” GOP pollster Robert Blizzard said. “I think they see the writing on the wall.”
Frustrating Democratic efforts to keep the House are the issues for which Biden and the broader party are being blamed. Presidents have limited control over inflation, and while aspects of the coronavirus response, including on testing, is in Biden’s wheelhouse, no lawmaker could have prevented the omicron variant from hitting U.S. shores.
Compounding that, Democrats’ latest legislative efforts have fallen apart over a sprawling social and climate spending bill — opening up Democrats to GOP attacks on their competency and cohesion.
That leaves Democrats with limited legislative options to turn the tide, leading some to suggest a tonal shift from touting previous accomplishments could be key to ameliorating the party’s chances in 2022.
"I think understanding that people are pissed off and that that's OK and that there's an understanding of what those lives are like and a desire, and the goal is fixing those things and looking in touch with people, those are the things that Democrats can do tonally," Murphy said. "I think pointing to, 'Hey, things are actually great' just sounds totally tone deaf.”
To be sure, Democrats also have legislative accomplishments to highlight, including a nearly $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed earlier in the year and a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that was signed into law just a few months ago.
Some Democrats say those are valuable weapons in the party’s arsenal — as long as they’re effectively messaged.
“I think our chances are great. We just need to do good things and tell people about it,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The Hill, adding that he’d advise candidates to “run like the mayor.”
“I've been clear that we need to do a better job of messaging,” he continued, “and I think you'll see us do that.”
A GOP majority is still not guaranteed. While Republicans are boastful that House control is within their grasp, some voice concerns that infighting could tarnish their brand.
Former President TrumpDonald TrumpDeputy AG: DOJ investigating fake Trump electors Former Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz elected to Baseball Hall of Fame Overnight Health Care — Senators unveil pandemic prep overhaul MORE and his style of politics that proved toxic in the 2018 midterms still loom large over the party, and the current House GOP conference is wracked by divisions, as recently indicated by vocal rebukes from conservatives against centrists who backed the bipartisan infrastructure legislation.
On top of that, the party has had to answer for comments from some lawmakers that advocated violence against Democrats or were Islamophobic.
“It's not a choice between Coke and Pepsi. It's a choice between Coke and arsenic,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson. “The Republican brand is now toxic in a lot of the country.”
Democrats are projected to have better odds in the Senate, where a competitive map will be key to possibly offsetting a poor environment.
Democrats’ top defensive opportunities lie in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire — four states that Biden won in 2020. Meanwhile, Republicans are defending open seats in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which Biden also won, as well as North Carolina and Ohio.
With that dynamic, Democrats say that the Senate is a toss-up — instead of the House, which likely leans Republican.
“Within the Senate battlefield there are more than enough seats for Democrats to retain control and also more than enough seats for Republicans to flip it,” Ferguson said.
However, there too Republicans are bullish that a majority is within reach.
Biden won Arizona, Georgia and Nevada each by about 2 points or less, though Republicans flipped Virginia’s governor’s mansion by 2 points in November and narrowly lost New Jersey’s gubernatorial race. The contests from those two states represented 12-point and 13-point swings from 2020, respectively, far more than needed in several states Democrats are defending.
“I feel good about Republican chances of taking control, but it's definitely a very competitive map,” Blizzard said.
“In a state like Pennsylvania, Biden won by a point. So, if that shifts even 3 or 4 points, that could be enough. Nevada, same thing. Georgia, same thing. Arizona, same thing. If you start flipping Arizona, and Georgia and Nevada and New Hampshire, that's a net of four seats right there. So, I would bet on Republicans to win the Senate in ‘22.”