Democrats' narrow chance to retain control after 2022

The assumption among most politicians — and bettors — is that Republicans will win control of the House next year, perhaps the Senate too.

It's reflected in the Democrats’ rushing to get anything done in this Congress, worried it's the last chance, and pressuring Supreme Court Justice Stephen BreyerStephen BreyerSenate panel votes to make women register for draft Biden's belated filibuster decision: A pretense of principle at work Klobuchar: If Breyer is going to retire from Supreme Court, it should be sooner rather than later MORE to step down so they can tap a replacement. Republicans mainly want to thwart Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries FDA aims to give full approval to Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day: report Overnight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response MORE and not antagonize Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries Missouri Rep. Billy Long enters Senate GOP primary Trump-backed Mike Carey wins GOP primary in Ohio special election MORE. Most even opposed a bi-partisan commission to investigate the Trump-inspired Jan. 6 mob assault on the Capitol.

There is, however, a pathway — albeit a narrow one — for the Democrats to keep control.


First, the Senate would pass legislation that overturns voting suppression laws enacted in a number of Republican controlled states. A compromise offered last week by Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinThe infrastructure bill creates more need for workforce training The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by AT&T - Simone wins bronze with altered beam routine Jesse Jackson arrested with voting rights protesters at Capitol MORE (D-W.Va.), the key Democrat, offers a way: It would delete many of the provisions in the massive House-passed bill but override some of the onerous state provisions and make Election Day a national holiday every two years.

Stacey Abrams, the prominent Black politician, has accepted Manchin's middle ground. If too few Republicans prove they're serious about protecting the right to vote, it's justification for Manchin, who has stressed bipartisanship, to proceed with mainly Democrats.

Without that, Democrats face a decidedly uphill struggle. With it, they still have to meet other challenges.

One prerequisite is a booming economy next fall. The consensus outlook is for robust growth for the next year and a half with the jobless rate dropping to 4 percent or below, strong wages, and rising disposable income. Politically, that would easily offset 3 percent to 4 percent inflation. The average American would be better off than today, a lot better off than two years before.

This would undercut the Republican refrain about “reckless” Biden policies.


Then there's the three Rs: redistricting, retirement and recruitment.

Manchin would curtail partisan gerrymandering, which Republicans have planned to parlay into gaining a net half dozen House seats.

Since open seats usually are easier to win, retirements matter. Already there are five Senate Republican retirements, three or four of which will result in competitive races. As of today, there are 13 open House seats, most in politically safe districts. Redistricting will affect how many more retirees.

It also will impact recruitment. The handful of November elections will too. There are only two gubernatorial races. One, New Jersey, seems certain to remain in Democratic hands. Democratic-controlled Virginia, however, could be a leading indicator. In ten of the last 11 Virginia governor's races — always a year after the presidential election — the party that controls the White House has lost. If Democrats buck that trend in November, they'll hail it as a harbinger to recruit good 2022 candidates.

Democrats need to stay on the offensive. "Just as in sports, campaign dynamics shift depending on which party controls the ball," notes Paul Kirk, a former U.S. Senator and national party chair.


The stress should be on economics, health care, family assistance, priority issues for voters; polls give the Democrats an advantage on these matters. The chunk of the Biden agenda not likely to pass this Congress — childcare, home health care, affordable housing — are good issues for Democratic candidates.

At the same time, Democrats have to respond forcefully against false charges such as they intend to defund the police; they didn't respond well last time — and paid a price. There are instructive models. In a New Mexico special House election this spring, the Democratic candidate successfully pushed back against the “soft-on-crime” and the “open-border” charges.

Democrats also have to stay away from the crazy “woke” stuff. An example: In the budget, Biden's Department of Health and Human Services substituted the term “birthing people” for “mothers.” Imagine Joe Biden saying Queen Elizabeth reminds him of his birthing person.

Trump-centric Republicans will play the race card, with “Critical Race Theory” the trump card in the deck. Republicans want to ban the idea that race is at the center of the American experience from public school curricula. The Democrats should answer that race is an historic stain, still too prevalent, but that most Americans aren't racists and politicians should keep their hands off school curricula.

Like Republicans, Democrats have a negative arsenal. In most competitive districts, Trump, whose national standing has plummeted, may be a good target. Kirk sees another one: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care: Florida becomes epicenter of COVID-19 surge | NYC to require vaccination for indoor activities | Biden rebukes GOP governors for barring mask mandates McConnell warns Schumer cutting off debate quickly could stall infrastructure deal Top House Democrat says party would lose elections if they were held today: report MORE, whose negatives rival Trump's: “They can paint him as the poster boy for obstruction and dysfunction.”

The Democrats have been dealt a difficult 2022 hand; if they play it really well, they can win.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.