Republican worries of a midterm flop are growing heading into the critical post-Labor Day campaign season, with analysts who had previously predicted massive GOP gains shifting their forecasts toward Democrats.
Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist and analyst, said the environment looks “not even close” to a red wave election year.
“The enthusiasm is just not there,” Tyler said. “Last time Republicans had a good year, they were 6 points ahead in the generic poll. Now we’re barely 2 points ahead. So it’s definitely not going to happen.”
RealClearPolitics averages of polls measuring whether voters would prefer Republican or Democratic control of Congress show the GOP advantage slipping from 4.8 points in late April to less than a point as of Friday. At around this point in 2010, when Republicans saw historic gains in Congress, generic polls showed an advantage of 4 to 6 points for the GOP.
Punctuating the narrowing polls was the result in a special election on Tuesday. New York’s 19th Congressional District — which includes suburban areas and went for former President Trump in 2016 but President Biden in 2020 — is representative of the kind of battleground districts that Republicans are hoping to flip across the country.
But while Republican Marc Molinaro stuck to the party’s points about inflation and the economy, topics that Republicans have repeatedly said are top of mind for voters, Democrat Pat Ryan narrowly won the seat after focusing heavily on abortion rights following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade earlier this summer.
Former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) said on Newsmax on Thursday that after the special election, “Republicans have to start paying attention.”
“The problem is where Republicans have to pick up in order to win the Congress is in districts like that,” Santorum said. “If you look at the national polls, if you look at a lot of these races like in my home state of Pennsylvania — if this is a red wave year, the polls are not showing it right now.”
Democrats celebrating the win in New York also point to recent special House elections in Minnesota and Nebraska as evidence of enthusiasm. Candidates there overperformed historical trends in GOP-leaning districts, even though they ultimately lost those races.
And in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and the controversy surrounding Trump over Jan. 6, 2021, and the FBI’s seizure of classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago estate, Democrats are aiming to emphasize negatives on Republicans rather than make the election a referendum on Biden or Democratic leadership.
“MAGA Republicans hope voters ignore their dangerous extremism, but NY-19 shows us that voters will reject their extreme agenda,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Tommy Garcia said in a statement.
Top Republicans have already started tempering expectations of taking back the evenly divided Senate as GOP nominees who were boosted by Trump show signs struggling.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week that the House is more likely to flip control than the Senate, citing “candidate quality.”
Tyler blamed Trump for the shifting dynamic.
“Donald Trump has turned this campaign from a referendum on Joe Biden, inflation, high food prices, high gas prices and affordable housing into a referendum on him,” he said.
Weaknesses for GOP candidates along with results from recent elections have led election analysts at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics and The Cook Political Report to shift several forecasts for key congressional midterm races toward Democrats. Cook revised its expected GOP gain in the House from 15 to 30 seats to 10 to 20 seats, and its Senate outlook from Republicans having an edge to a toss-up.
That marks a stark contrast from nine months ago, when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) predicted that 2022 could be even more of a Republican wave than 2010, when Republicans won a staggering 63 seats.
Republicans have since warned House members not to measure the drapes early and that the election will be tough, but GOP lawmakers are still largely operating on the assumption that they will win control of the chamber.
A Senate loss and only a small GOP majority in the House would “lead the media to say, ‘You know, this was a split decision,’” Tyler said. “No mandate, no red wave, no rejection of Biden’s policies. That’s a disaster for the Republican Party.”
Other GOP operatives downplay those fears, saying that the New York special election was an outlier case complicated by high Democratic turnout in primaries happening the same day and noting that there are still months to go before the midterms.
“Anyone who thought retaking the majority was going to be easy needs to buck up,” National Republican Congressional Committee communications director Michael McAdams said in a statement. “Majorities are won in November not August and we look forward to prosecuting the case against Democrats’ failed one-party rule.”
Sarah Chamberlain, president and CEO of Republican Main Street Partnership, cautioned against looking at the New York special election as an indication for what may happen in November. Many voters did not even know the election was happening, she said, or were on vacation.
“I would not red flag it yet. We’re going to wait to see and do some more polling, but I think things are fine,” Chamberlain said.
Republicans have beaten expectations before. Despite Democrats having more than a 6-point edge on the generic ballot in 2020, Republicans gained House seats and squeezed Democrats into the slimmest majority in the lower chamber in a century.
Democrats are also spending millions on defending seats rather than being offensive in their House map, a GOP strategist noted, with the record number of Democratic House members retiring rather than running for reelection this year helping the GOP expand its pickup opportunities.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said that weaknesses in GOP Senate and gubernatorial candidates, as well as many Republicans’ position against abortion, has given Democrats the opportunity ”to make the election more of a choice than a referendum.” But he cautioned against fully reevaluating the midterm environment before Labor Day and said that Republicans could still flip both chambers even if they fall below expectations of a “red wave.”
“It is possible that the Democrats’ addition of more college-educated voters, at the expense of losing more non-college voters, has skewed some of these special elections, as the college cohort is a more reliable voting bloc,” Kondik said. “That said, if the GOP had some big enthusiasm edge over the Democrats — and if it was bringing a lot of lapsed GOP voters back into the fold — one would think they’d be doing better than they are.”