The G.O.P. is still favored in the fall House races, but Trump and abortion are scrambling the picture in ways that distress Republican insiders.
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“I am not a member of any organized party,” the humorist Will Rogers famously once quipped. “I am a Democrat.”
Today, one might make the same joke about the Grand Old Party. Everywhere you look, Republicans seem to be squabbling with one another over the direction of the midterm elections.
One day, it might be Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, complaining about the “quality” of his party’s candidates while his deputies point fingers at Senator Rick Scott of Florida, who runs the G.O.P.’s Senate campaign arm.
Another day, it might be Donald Trump calling for McConnell’s ouster and giving McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, bizarre nicknames like “Coco.”
On days that end in “y,” you might find Republicans on television complaining about Trump’s hold over the party, distancing themselves from his document-handling protocols and urging him to drop his obsession with the 2020 election, which establishment Republicans believe is unhelpful to their electoral chances at best and catastrophic to them at worst.
My colleague Luke Broadwater captured a litany of Republican complaints on the Sunday political shows, centering on He Whose Name Starts With T.
He noted: “Some are signaling concern that the referendum they anticipated on Mr. Biden — and the high inflation and gas prices that have bedeviled his administration — is being complicated by all-encompassing attention on the legal exposure of a different president: his predecessor, Donald J. Trump.”
What’s going on? It’s not so much that the underlying fundamentals of the midterm cycle have changed, although they have moved in Democrats’ favor somewhat. And it’s not so much that President Biden has suddenly grown popular, although his approval rating in public polls has ticked up a few notches in recent months. Nor is it that forecasters have begun downgrading Republicans’ chances of retaking the House — after all, The Cook Political Report still expects a G.O.P. majority next year.
Rather, what happened is what you might call a vibe shift among what the original insider tipsheet, The Note by ABC, used to call the “Gang of 500” — the motley collection of columnists, journalists and other political opinion-makers who haunt the green rooms in Washington and New York and collectively make up the “conventional wisdom.”
“We’ve gone from ‘Republicans will win every single election in the universe’ to ‘Republicans will not win a single election,’” said Corry Bliss, a Republican strategist who said he was confident in his party’s chances. “The pundits’ narrative has shifted overnight.”
The F.B.I.’s search of Mar-a-Lago probably has something to do with it. Democrats had been struggling to make Trump the prime villain in their election narrative — remember what happened in Virginia last year? — and he made it easy by bursting back into the news.
But, as I wrote last week, there are reasons to think that the conventional wisdom on control of the Senate has outpaced the evidence. It looks like November will be a dogfight.
As for the House, see this CBS News poll released on Sunday. It suggests that the race for control is tightening — but there’s no indication yet that Democrats are favored to win.
Republicans would win 226 seats if the election were held today, CBS predicts. That’s down from the 230 seats the network was projecting in July, but it’s still a majority in a chamber where control hinges on 218 votes. And it shows Republicans as up two percentage points in the so-called generic ballot question, which asks voters which party they would choose to control the House were the election held today. Republicans are still up 0.8 points in the RealClearPolitics average.
The poll also shows some positive news for Democrats: Abortion has become a huge issue motivating their voters since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, as further evidenced by the recent results in Kansas. Voters in that solidly Republican state surprised analysts by roundly defeating a measure that would have removed the right to an abortion from the State Constitution.
Elsewhere in the CBS poll, though, there are some warning signs for Democrats. President Biden’s disapproval number is still at 55 percent — a pretty dismal showing. Just 40 percent approve of his handling of the economy, which is far and away the most important issue to voters this year, and only 35 percent gave him a thumbs-up for his management of inflation. Those numbers are up slightly but remain well below where the White House would want them.
On a deeper level, however, there’s a good reason for Republicans to be nervous.
Back in January, G.O.P. analysts and operatives I spoke to were ebullient. One confident strategist told me privately that he expected Republicans to pick up as many as 70 seats in the House, the chamber that tends to be more sensitive to the public mood.
Since then, a few things have happened. After a steady rise for much of the year, gasoline prices are declining, and the rate of inflation has slowed. Congress passed important and politically popular legislation, including a bipartisan gun-safety bill, the Inflation Reduction Act and a law that creates financial incentives for semiconductor manufacturers to locate their plants in the United States.
Democrats have performed better than expected in four recent special elections — most recently in New York’s 19th Congressional District, which was supposed to be Republicans’ to lose. Sifting through the results, some liberal analysts have noted that highly educated voters seem fired up and ready to go to the polls for Democrats, despite earlier widespread concern about an “enthusiasm gap” working in the G.O.P.’s favor.
Republicans make a couple of points in response to those wins.
First, they say, the voters in those elections bear little resemblance to the mix of people who will show up in November. In New York, for instance, primaries are closed — meaning that registered independents can’t vote, but they could vote in the special election. Private polling shared with The New York Times showed the Republican candidate in the 19th District with a 36-percentage-point advantage among independents, driven by their concerns about the economy. But it’s hard to tell how many independents might have made the effort if they weren’t at the polls already for Primary Day.
Second, Republicans note that New York held three competitive Democratic primaries on the same day, which might help explain the seeming lack of enthusiasm on the right for Marc Molinaro, the Republican candidate in that district.
In the long run, said Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist who has been more bullish on his party’s chances than most, the Republican Party is showing signs of a much larger “crackup.”
Republican presidential candidates haven’t garnered 50 percent of the popular vote since George W. Bush bested John Kerry in 2004. Their base of aging, white, working-class voters is shrinking, he argues, while Democrats’ more youthful, multiracial coalition is growing — and yet Republicans have focused on appealing to the former.
According to Rosenberg, Republicans made a strategic error this year by embracing Trump and Trumpism despite the rebuke the former president’s party received in the 2018 midterms and his loss in the presidential election of 2020.
He pointed toward the stance that G.O.P. candidates like Blake Masters have taken on abortion. Many locked themselves into unpopular positions favoring bans that would make no exceptions for incest or rape. It was noteworthy, he said, that Masters, the Republican nominee for Senate in Arizona, recently scrubbed his website of his previous comments on the subject.
“Once the Republicans decided to run toward MAGA — politics that had been rejected overwhelmingly by voters in the last two elections — the chances of this being an atypical midterm rose very significantly,” Rosenberg said.
He added, “We have more ammunition to label their candidates as extreme than any consultants will ever have.”
A judge ordered Gov. Brian P. Kemp of Georgia to appear before a special grand jury investigating election interference by Donald Trump, but he will not be compelled to do so until after the Nov. 8 election, Richard Fausset writes.
The Justice Department set aside materials seized from Donald Trump’s Florida estate that have been flagged for possible attorney-client issues, Glenn Thrush and Alan Feuer report.
Trump’s legal team is scrambling to find an argument in defense of his handling of classified documents. It’s not going well, according to Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush.
Thank you for reading On Politics, and for being a subscriber to The New York Times. — Blake
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