What’s Left: An Unexpected Beacon of Hope for Democrats

With a thin majority edged out of Congress in 2021, it appeared the Democrats’ governing majority would likely be short-lived, with U.S. election history setting precedent for the likelihood of Republicans taking over the House, the Senate or both. However, recent circumstances shifted the odds more in favor of the Democrats, who seem to stand a chance at maintaining their governing majority of the federal government for another two years. 

By traditional metrics, the party of the sitting president tends to lose seats during midterms, and Democrats don’t have many to offer to retain control: the net loss of even one seat in the 50-50 Senate would mean Republican takeover, and in the House, the Democrats’ current nine-vote majority could easily disappear. Considering Republicans were in prime position after their controversial redistricting and blatantly targeted voter suppression, the Democrats had a solid chance of flipping control. However, prognosticators have recently recalibrated their views, churning out analyses that future GOP control of the House is no longer certain— the Senate majority may change.

Since mid-August, polls reveal this movement in favor of congressional Democrats, with a slight edge over the GOP on the generic ballot of 47 percent to 45 percent. A number of factors contributed to this shift in support for the Democrats, including a controversial Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights, a string of legislative and policy accomplishments, unexpectedly poor showings by some key Republican nominees and a decline in gasoline prices from high levels earlier in the year. Together, these raised Biden’s abysmal poll numbers, creating momentum for the party absent during this past year.

None of the recent events working in the Democrats’ favor loomed quite as large as the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In the aftermath of the ruling, multiple states across the country instituted total and near-total bans on abortion, with others expected to take similar action in the future. This highly controversial move from the court energized a lot of Democrats, independents and even Republicans who were not satisfied with the decision to infringe further on women’s rights for the autonomy of her own body. Specifically, a dramatic spike in new voter registration among women followed this reversal of Roe v. Wade, with surging numbers in battleground states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, reflecting the intense reaction to Dobbs from the electorate overall.

A string of legislative victories notched this summer contributed to the changing political landscape going into the 2022 midterms. In recent months, Biden signed a bipartisan gun control measure, a bipartisan bill expanding federal investment in semiconductors and other technology, creating the largest federal commitment to fighting climate change in history and announced a major policy decision forgiving student loan debt owed by millions of Americans. Although these laws and student debt relief did not go as far as many in the Democratic party wanted, all of them constituted victories in policy areas very important to large swaths of the Democratic party.

Hope for the Democratic party creeping closer to the November midterms was bolstered by the success of the party’s candidates in recent special elections. These successes include some in districts where Republicans were expected to perform well, leaving leading experts wondering if those elections presage a weaker-than-expected performance by Republican candidates in November. Particularly for Senate races, Republicans may have hurt their own cause from appearing too radical, extremely inexperienced, or both, revealed in a number of states where races were expected to be highly competitive. This effect is exhibited in battleground states, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Arizona, where Republican candidates trail in polls, as well as Alaska, where Democrat Mary Perolta defeated Sarah Palin— becoming the first Native Alaskan to represent her state in the House.

While both parties are viewed more negatively than positively, Democrats have pulled a slight advantage over the GOP. Voters still trust Republicans with economic measures, with a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll revealing 34 percent of Americans trust Republicans to do a better job of handling the economy, compared with 25 percent who say the same of Democrats. However, the shift in gas prices and Biden’s passing of the Inflation Reduction Act have shone a more favorable light on the Democratic party’s ability to regulate the economy as compared to earlier this year.

Moving forward, the Democratic party must reframe the narrative that the Republican party serves best as guardians of the economy. The August jobs report shows that the country added 315,000 jobs last month, bringing the unemployment rate to 3.7 percent, which is close to a 50-year low. However, that progress will not help Democrats at the polls in November unless voters actually feel the difference in their own lives, highlighting the necessity for Democratic candidates to bring attention to their recent economic accomplishments and their effects. Democrats recognize they still face major hurdles, but an unmistakable shift in voters’ opinions gives hope for the Democrats to minimize the loss of House seats and maybe even retain control of the Senate.