The Memo: Democrats see signs for hope in key midterm races

Democrats are seeing some reasons for optimism amid a grim political environment as they look at this year’s marquee midterm contests.

Even as the party struggles with a plethora of problems — inflation, still-elevated gas prices and President Biden’s low approval ratings, among others — its candidates are putting up an unexpectedly fierce fight in many statewide races.

Democrats are especially enthused about the chance of picking up a Senate seat in Pennsylvania, where several recent polls have given Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) the advantage over Republican Mehmet Oz, better known as TV’s “Dr. Oz.”

The Senate race in Georgia has seen GOP nominee and former football star Herschel Walker fumble as he seeks to oust Sen. Raphael Warnock (D).

And, in other races that have not gotten the same level of national attention, Democrats are also growing hopeful about their chances of retaining seats on the endangered list.

In Nevada, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) has led former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) in several polls, though surveys of the race have been sporadic. 

In New Hampshire, Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) leads her potential GOP challengers, though the picture there is complicated because the Republican vote may solidify once an actual nominee is chosen — something that does not happen in the Granite State until September.

Republicans are defending 21 Senate seats while Democrats are seeking to retain 14 spots in the upper chamber. For the GOP to win control of the Senate, they are likely going to have to hold Pennsylvania while winning at least one seat in Georgia, Nevada or New Hampshire. While there are other ways Republicans can win control, one thing is clear: They need to win most of the battleground states.

The landscape in the Senate is much different — and much better for Democrats — than in the House, where virtually everyone in Washington expects Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to lose the gavel after November. 

As of Monday, data and polling site FiveThirtyEight assessed each party’s chances of controlling the Senate after November as exactly 50-50. By contrast, the site gave Republicans an 85 percent chance of taking control of the House.

But it isn’t only in the Senate where Democrats see encouraging signs.

In Texas, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke has been narrowing the polling lead enjoyed by Gov. Greg Abbott (R). 

In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — a target of fervent Republican opposition for years — enjoys a healthy polling lead over her challengers, one of whom will become the GOP nominee next week.

It seems, at one level, an incongruous picture given the prevailing political winds. 

Biden’s approval rating has been plumbing new lows in several recent polls, standing at 37 percent approval and 57 percent disapproval in the latest RealClearPolitics average. Inflation is at its highest level in 40 years. Other issues including border security and crime also seem to be weighing Democrats down.

Part of the apparent discrepancy comes down to candidate quality.

In Georgia, Walker’s stumbles include failing to publicly acknowledge some of his children until recently, fictional claims of having worked in law enforcement and bizarre comments about climate change.

Democratic strategist Abigail Collazo said that Walker’s weaknesses as a candidate were only part of the picture, however. She pointed to the increased salience of reproductive rights as another key factor.

Abortion is “exactly the kind of issue that is going to galvanize enough Democrats — and Republicans who support reproductive rights, by the way. The threat [of Roe v Wade being struck down] is now real. It is now a fact of life, and it is absolutely going to motivate and galvanize folks, not just to vote Democrat but to turn up at the polls at all.”

The same dynamics are at play in the Senate race in Pennsylvania. There, Oz has proven vulnerable to accusations of opportunism, given his longtime residency in New Jersey.

Fetterman has sought to make hay from that, including by launching a petition to have Oz inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

Independent experts suggest Fetterman is also benefitting from the fact that Oz only just made it through a bruising GOP primary, where many of the same lines of attack were used by his main rival, businessman David McCormick.

Fetterman “is continuing the campaign used by Dave McCormick — Oz is ‘Dr. Hollywood,’ the carpetbagger,” said Terry Madonna, a senior fellow in residence at the state’s Millersville University and a veteran observer of Pennsylvania politics. “The major theme isn’t going to change.”

In the Texas gubernatorial race, by contrast, Abbott is a far more seasoned political campaigner. 

But, in the view of some Democrats, he has been rendered vulnerable by a combination of factors — persistent problems with the state’s energy grid, the elevation of social issues including abortion and questions about the response, both by law enforcement and by politicians, to the Uvalde mass shooting.

O’Rourke narrowly lost to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2018.

Texas Democratic strategist Keir Murray noted that there is a difference between a competitive race and one that was likely to produce a victory for his party.

“While I think Beto is making the race competitive, actually winning is going to be a tall order,” Murray said. “There has to be a further shift in the national prospects for Democrats for a win to be possible.”

He added: “That’s not an indictment of Beto as a candidate. He is the best candidate Democrats in Texas have had for a generation. It’s just that those headwinds look very hard to overcome.”

Even in Pennsylvania, Democratic strategist Mark Nevins sounded a similar note of caution.

The trend in the Senate race in the state “on a day-to-day basis seems to favor the lieutenant governor [Fetterman], but we Democrats are running in a tough environment,” he said.

Democrats know just how steep a gradient their candidates need to climb this year.

But, for now, they are at least taking heart from signs of progress.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.