How the Democrats Rallied
Congress was frozen. Joe Biden’s presidency seemed cooked. What happened?
By now you’ve surely heard: Reports of the Democrats’ inevitable defeat this November (might) have been exaggerated. The party infamous for its disarray is suddenly passing legislation left and right (well, center), making a mockery of its effete opposition, and scoring huge abortion-rights victories in Republican strongholds. Inflation may have peaked, and President Joe Biden slayed a terrorist (while sick with COVID). On Capitol Hill, Democrats finally mounted an effective case against former President Donald Trump, who, by the way, had his mansion searched by the FBI for the possible pilfering of nuclear and other highly sensitive secrets.
The Democrats’ recent hot streak has political prognosticators reassessing the party’s once-brutal outlook for this fall’s midterm elections. Its chances of retaining control of the Senate and swing-state governorships are rising, and although Democrats remain an underdog in the battle for the House, a GOP majority isn’t the sure thing it once was. Republicans have nominated highly flawed candidates in key Senate races (most notably Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Herschel Walker in Georgia), and Democrats have gained ground in the closely watched generic-ballot polling measure.
Democrats have plenty of reason for caution. Polls are notoriously unreliable in August, and recent elections have shown that political fortunes can change fast. Biden’s lackluster approval ratings remain a clear drag for the party, and even a slowdown in inflation means prices will remain high for a while. The president’s party historically loses seats in a midterm election even when voters are happy about the economy; the Democrats’ majorities in Congress are tiny to begin with. Yet the party’s prospects are clearly better now than they were back in the spring, thanks in large measure to three main developments.
The Overturning of Roe
If Democrats somehow maintain control of the House, or even lose their majority by less than expected, history will look at June 23—the date that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The 5–4 decision authored by Justice Samuel Alito was not a surprise to political junkies, but surveys suggest that it stunned rank-and-file voters who consistently told pollsters that they did not believe the end of Roe was coming. “It’s always been theoretical. People thought, Oh, they won’t go that far. And now it’s here,” Kelly Dietrich, a longtime Democratic operative who founded the National Democratic Training Committee, told me.
The clearest signal of an electoral backlash came just six weeks later in Kansas, when voters in the solidly Republican state overwhelmingly defeated an amendment that would have allowed the legislature to ban abortion. Democrats, however, have seen indications of higher engagement in several elections in which abortion was not directly on the ballot. In special elections in Nebraska and Minnesota, Democrats lost both House races but kept the gap several points below Trump’s 2020 margin of victory in each district. They performed better in Washington State’s nonpartisan primaries than they did in comparable contests in 2010 and 2014, both GOP “red wave” years. And in Alaska, the party exceeded expectations in a special House election, positioning Democrats to possibly capture a seat that the party has not held in more than 50 years.
Polls show Democratic enthusiasm for voting in the midterms—a data point in which they had severely lagged behind Republicans—spiking after the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Dietrich told me that registrations for candidate trainings have also surged in the past two months, and new Democratic voter registrations have significantly outpaced Republican ones in states where abortion rights are at risk, such as Wisconsin and Michigan, according to data compiled by TargetSmart, a Democratic firm.
Joe Manchin Gets to Yes
After more than a year of on-and-off-again negotiations, the Senate’s Hamlet on the Potomac finally agreed to a deal with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to back legislation lowering prescription-drug prices and making the nation’s largest-ever investment in the fight against climate change. The oddly named Inflation Reduction Act, which doesn’t do much to tame inflation but will reduce the deficit, hands an enormous and long-sought victory to Biden and the Democrats just in time for the fall campaign.
The law contains only a fraction of Biden’s original transformative vision, but because most Democrats had given up on Manchin entirely, they were ecstatic at his surprise, eleventh-hour decision to support a robust climate, health, and tax package. The elements of the law poll exceedingly well with key constituencies, making it an easy—and timely—issue for Democratic candidates to campaign on this fall.
Whether the Inflation Reduction Act by itself will boost the party in the polls is hard to say. But its enactment is the latest in a string of legislative achievements for Biden, including the passage of a modest gun-reform bill, the CHIPS Act to support high-tech manufacturing, and the PACT Act to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. Along with last year’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the $1 trillion infrastructure law, the recent run should erase the image of a do-nothing Congress and a Democratic Party that was seen as squandering its two years in power. “It’s an opportunity—almost a mandate—for Democrats to get out there and brag,” Dietrich said. “Democrats can’t be humble anymore.”
The January 6 Hearings: This Summer’s Surprising Smash TV Hit
Many cynics in media had low expectations for the hearings that the House Select Committee on January 6 would hold. But Democrats running the panel hired a former ABC News executive to help produce the events, and the result was a series of newsy and often riveting hearings that drew strong TV ratings and built a compelling case against Trump. The starring role of Vice Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming lent the hearings a bipartisan sheen and helped obscure the lack of involvement from most other Republicans, and the committee made a smart decision to almost exclusively feature testimony from current and former Trump confidants rather than famous critics of the former president.
Did the hearings change public opinion? For Democrats, the early evidence is mixed at best, and it’s possible that this month’s FBI search of Trump’s Florida home helped him consolidate support among Republicans all over again. Yet the hearings succeeded in reminding voters of the horror of the attack on the Capitol and what many of them disliked most about Trump. To that end, Democrats believed the hearings helped energize their base about the urgency of the fall elections, potentially protecting against a drop in turnout that would seal their defeat.
The biggest question about the Democrats’ newfound momentum is how long it will last. Did the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling and the party’s flurry of legislative success in Congress represent a decisive turning point, or merely a brief calm before the crashing of a red wave? Republicans have history and, they believe, political gravity on their side. Biden’s approval ratings have ticked up a few points to an average of 40 percent, but that dismal standing would still ordinarily point to a rout for a president’s party in November. Democrats are left to hope that this is no ordinary year, and if they do come out ahead in the fall, this summer’s comeback will likely prove to be the reason.