The wild card that might save Democrats in the midterms

The wild card that might save Democrats in the midterms
© Greg Nash

The odds don’t look great for Democrats in next year’s midterm elections. There’s a good chance that Republicans will win control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. That could mean the virtual end of the Biden presidency.

But a wild card issue may change those odds.

First midterms are usually setbacks for a newly elected president’s party. In 1994, President Clinton’s first midterm, Democrats lost 54 House seats and eight Senate seats. As a result, Democrats lost their majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. In President Obama’s first midterm in 2010 (“the tea party election”), Republicans gained a whopping 63 House seats and six Senate seats.

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How many seats will Republicans need to gain to win control of the Senate next year? Exactly one. How many House seats? Just five. Right now, Republicans control the redistricting process in 20 states, including Texas and Florida. Democrats control the process in 11 states.

Republicans aren’t taking any chances. They are busy passing measures to suppress voter turnout and control election administration in red states. Meanwhile Democrats like Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Top Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure MORE (D-W.Va.) and President BidenJoe BidenThe Supreme Court and blind partisanship ended the illusion of independent agencies Missed debt ceiling deadline kicks off high-stakes fight Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE are chasing the chimera of “bipartisanship” in an era of extreme partisan polarization. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell has already said that, if Republicans gain control of the Senate next year, it’s “highly unlikely” he’d allow President Biden to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in 2024, and possibly even in 2023.

If both houses go Republican, Donald Trump could get a big boost for 2024. It would mean that Trump’s defeat last year — apparent to most everyone but him — did not do any serious damage to the Republican Party.

What happens next year will depend partly on Biden’s job approval rating, which has held up nicely since he took office. So far, Biden has sustained job ratings above 50 percent (Trump never reached 50 percent). The president’s ratings are highly dependent on the performance of the economy, which has been strong. Aside from echoing dire warnings of inflation, Republicans are trying to heat up the culture wars by attacking “critical race theory” and socialism. Those issues don’t appear to be getting much traction. On the other hand, the sharp rise in crime rates could pay off for law-and-order Republicans, just as it did in the 1980s.

So, what we have is Democrats looking vulnerable next year and counting on a popular president, a strong economy and lingering anti-Trump sentiment to save them.

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But a wild card issue could suddenly spring up and transform the campaign. That happened in 2020. No one predicted that a pandemic would bring down President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE. But it did.

And no one is predicting now that the abortion issue could save the Democrats’ congressional majorities. But it could.

The Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case of a Mississippi law that bans almost all abortions after 15 weeks. The case represents the most direct challenge yet to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. A decision to uphold the Mississippi law would be widely interpreted as repealing the Roe ruling that gave abortion rights constitutional protection. A solid majority of Americans has long opposed overturning Roe (58 percent this year, with 32 percent in favor of overturning it).

The court — now dominated 6 to 3 by conservatives, including three Trump nominees — will very likely rule on the Mississippi law by next June. Just in time for the 2022 campaign.

The politics of the abortion issue has always been explosive. We saw that back in 1989, when the Supreme Court issued its Webster decision inviting states to pass abortion restrictions. 1989 was not a presidential or midterm election year, but the Webster decision provoked a backlash in local contests.

The abortion issue was key to the election of Douglas Wilder in 1989, the first Black governor of Virginia (and the first Black governor of any state since Reconstruction), and to the election of David Dinkins, the first Black mayor of New York City. 

According to the New York Times, Wilder “built his campaign around his support for abortion rights to an extent that no major candidate for high office has ever dared before.” The Washington Post reported that “after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Webster abortion case in July, Wilder’s media campaign seized on that volatile issue, casting it in terms of government intervention and personal privacy.” An exit poll revealed that Virginia voters who called abortion the biggest issue went 62 to 38 percent for Wilder.

1989 also saw Republican Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiCapitol insurrection hearing exposes Trumpworld delusions DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's riot lawsuit Bob Dole: 'I'm a Trumper' but 'I'm sort of Trumped out' MORE lose his first campaign for mayor of New York. According to National Public Radio, Giuliani was forced to change his position on abortion rights from pro-life to pro-choice: “An analysis of the ’89 campaign done by Giuliani’s own staffers called his handling of the abortion issue one of his greatest missteps.”

The abortion issue faded after 1989, when the Supreme Court reaffirmed Roe in a 1992 decision that accepted some restrictions on abortion rights in Pennsylvania. Next year, however, if the Court hands down a ruling in the Mississippi case that is seen as striking down Roe, it’s likely to create a firestorm that benefits Democrats. The message is simple: You can’t take away people’s rights without creating a fierce political backlash.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).