Founding Director - Center for Effective Public Management
Senior Fellow - Governance Studies
In the course of a sizzling hot summer, predictions for how Democrats will do in the midterm elections (especially the Senate) have gone from dismal to cautiously optimistic. Many factors have contributed to this turnaround. The Supreme Court reversed a half century of precedent when they overturned Roe v. Wade, giving dispirited Democrats an issue to rally around; Biden finally made a deal with his recalcitrant Democrats to pass important elements of his domestic policy agenda and surprisingly strong job numbers countered the threat of imminent recession and proved a strong, if brief, counterpart to the bad economic news around inflation. By August Democrats were tied with Republicans in the “generic ballot” a question that asks whether voters want Democrats or Republicans in Congress.
At the beginning of the summer, FiveThirtyEight was giving Republicans a 60% chance of holding the Senate but by August 10 their prediction had flipped and they now give Democrats a 60% chance of holding the Senate.
What happened? In addition to a string of positive news for the Democrats, a field of Trump acolytes have been nominated as Republican candidates for the House and Senate (as well as for governor and other statewide races). Many of these nominees have won with Trump’s endorsement and against the better judgment of others in the Republican Party. These candidates could decrease the chances of a Republican blowout this year, especially in the Senate.
Which is why this year reminds me of the 2010 midterm elections. Going into that election, Democrats held a commanding lead in the Senate. But President Obama and his healthcare plan were very unpopular; by mid-August, 2010 Obama’s approval rating was 43%.
Between the 2008 and 2010 elections, Dems lost 9 senate races—6 of them on election night 2010. Many of their candidates got trounced. Nonetheless, Democrats stayed in control, albeit by a much narrower margin.
One of reasons Democrats held onto a slim majority that year can be traced to the influence of the Tea Party in the 2010 Republican nomination process that resulted in some problematic nominees. In Delaware, they helped nominate Christine O’Connell over a more experienced candidate, former Governor, Mike Castle, who would have had a much better shot at the Senate seat, vacated by Vice President Biden and held by a placeholder. O’Donnell had many similarities to Trump and his candidates; she was actually called “unhinged” by the Republican Party Chairman of Delaware, and she specialized in outright lies and character attacks.
But she is probably best remembered for being the first and only candidate for the United States Senate who had to declare “I’m not a witch,” after admitting on a talk show that she had “dabbled in witchcraft” and had had a “date with a witch … on a satanic alter.”
In Nevada, the Republicans had a chance to defeat Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who had very low approval ratings due to record high unemployment in his state. Once again, the Tea Party endorsed a candidate, Sharon Angle, a conservative whose views were so far right that she even suggested phasing out of Social Security. She beat Sue Lowdon, the establishment candidate.
So, what about Trump’s 2022 choices?
So far none of Trump’s Senate candidates has had to declare that they are not a witch, but it is clear that some of Trump’s choices are weak.
For instance, Arizona is a very competitive state where Trump’s thumb on the scale gave the Republican nomination to Blake Masters, a first-time candidate who defeated some more establishment candidates in the primary. Right now, it looks like Masters may lose to the incumbent Senator Mark Kelly, thus allowing Democrats to hold the seat.
In Georgia, Trump endorsed Herschel Walker, a famous football player with no political or public sector experience and lots of personal problems. FiveThirtyEight now gives a slight edge to the incumbent, Raphael Warnock; if that turns out to be right, Democrats will hold the seat. Trump’s endorsement of author J.D. Vance, in Ohio, also a political novice, took place against the wishes of the outgoing Senator Rob Portman and other Republican establishment candidates. FiveThirtyEight gives Vance a small lead which would allow the Republicans to hold that seat, but observers are impressed at how Representative Tim Ryan has made the race a close one.
And now we come to Pennsylvania. There, the incumbent Republican Senator Pat Toomey decided to retire. Trump got into the primary endorsing television personality Mehmet Oz—against the wishes of the Republican establishment. At the beginning of the summer FiveThirtyEight gave Oz a big chance of beating the Democratic candidate John Fetterman but by August the numbers had flipped and Fetterman now has a significant lead. Oz has turned out to be a poor candidate. He has raised only about a third of the money Fetterman has raised. In addition, he has spent critical time out of state and the Fetterman campaign has painted him as a “Hollywood Doc” who is actually from New Jersey.
Trump has spent the 2022 primary season resisting the Republican establishment in order to put his own mark on the party. Not surprisingly he has shown a penchant for candidates who are celebrities and novices at politics—just like he was back in 2016. If, in November, Democrats continue to control the Senate and perhaps even pick up a seat or two the Republicans will have no one to blame but Donald Trump.