Briefing

Who's going to win the midterms?

Are we in for a red wave, a red drizzle, or a stunning Democratic upset?

It's the question on everyone's minds: Which party will prevail in the 2022 midterms? Will it be the Democrats, desperate to hold onto their congressional majorities despite a historically likely loss? Or will it be the Republicans, eager to capitalize on rising prices and President Biden's low approval ratings? It's a landscape that might mold and morph a million times before election day, especially if Democrats continue their recent string of legislative wins, or the economy takes an inflation-related dip.

Below, we'll take a look at the current state of play — and offer up some analysis as to how certain policies, issues, and initiatives could affect the race, if at all.

The latest:

By many accounts, what was once predicted to be a "red wave" is looking more like a red drizzle. Historically speaking, the minority party in government almost always makes gains in a first-term president's first midterm election, and the GOP will almost certainly see a degree of success; as of Sept. 5, "leading operatives in both parties expect Republicans to pick up roughly 10 to 20 House seats, which would give the GOP a narrow majority in the chamber in November and break up Democrats' control of the federal government," The Associated Press reports. But the Senate, which Politico in the spring believed would lean Republican, is now looking more like a toss-up. As Charlie Cook of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report put it, these last two months have "turned the 2022 midterms on their head." But why, you might ask? Let's take a look:

Inflation 

Whether it's gas, groceries, or rent, rising prices are currently top of mind for every American. In fact, inflation is the number one voter-cited issue when it comes to the November elections, according to a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that ran from Aug. 29 through Sept. 1. The good news for Democrats is prices appear to be at least somewhat moderating, as do fears of a recession — but Republicans still have "a 39 percent to 26 percent advantage over Democrats when people are asked who would be better at handling the economy," NPR writes. Not to mention that 57 percent of those surveyed, including 63 percent of independents, believe Biden's initiatives have ultimately weakened the economy.

Overall, NPR continues, 30 percent of respondents "identified inflation as their top issue, but that's down 7 points from the last time the question was asked in July."

Abortion

Reproductive rights have found their way onto the ballot this election season after a June Supreme Court ruling overturned federal abortion protections as established under 1973's Roe v. Wade. Democrats have remained hopeful that the decision, which they've widely decried, will galvanize voters at the ballot box, and encourage them to push back on what they've described as GOP-led attacks on the rights of birthing individuals. Republicans, meanwhile, while initially loud in their support of the ruling (which returns the issue of abortion to the states), have begun somewhat backing off the related rhetoric, worried they might alienate an average conservative or independent voter with a more extreme-sounding talking point.

But as it's turned out, as Cook noted for the Cook Political Report, the mobilization has been less about the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling itself than it's been about the so-called "trigger laws" — or, previously passed abortion-limiting or restricting legislation designed to take effect if and when Roe fell — that followed in its wake. The landscape has quickly changed — as was "underscored" by the rejection of a likely anti-abortion referendum in Kansas, Cook writes — and an election Republicans hoped to make solely about Biden is now also about reproductive rights. 

In fact, "no issue has upended the battle for Congress and state races as abruptly," writes The Washington Post. "An enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican voters has narrowed since the Supreme Court's ruling, polling shows, while female voters who drifted away from the Democratic Party after the 2020 election are shifting back." 

As previously noted, the GOP will likely still benefit in November on matters of the economy. "But from Florida to Michigan, Wisconsin to Arizona, abortion has quickly become a larger focal point of voters and candidates, leading some in the GOP to brace for a much closer fight this fall than expected," the Post adds.

Legislative wins

After lots and lots of gridlock, Senate Democrats back in July jammed through their flagship climate and health spending package, finally handing the party something shiny and new to brag about on the campaign trail. The Inflation Reduction Act, which is now law, includes roughly $369 billion in green initiatives, as well as multiple provisions to lower prescription drug costs for those on Medicare. The president can also now hang his hat on the bipartisan gun law, negotiated in the wake of multiple devastating mass shootings, and the cross-aisle CHIPS Act, which will bolster semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S. All in all, the spate of legislative achievements has afforded Democrats something to run on "while countering accusations of a do-nothing Congress," The New York Times muses.

Student debt cancellation 

Lest we forget, Biden at the end of August canceled $10,000 in federal student loan debt for borrowers making under $125,000 a year — a polarizing decision, sure, but one quite conveniently timed around the midterm elections. Now, not only can Biden and the Democrats celebrate their aforementioned congressional achievements, they may have also figured out how to "stoke turnout among young voters" that had "soured" on the party, CNN writes.

On the other hand, however, Republicans have been afforded the chance to frame the forgiveness plan as an entitled, socialist bailout that could worsen inflation at taxpayers' expense, notes USA Today. Republicans were handed more ammo in late September when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released its estimate that the plan will cost the government about $400 billion. Watch for Republicans to additionally focus on galvanizing the 80-some percent of American adults without federal student loans, while Democrats work to appeal to the 85 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds that back some sort of government-led student debt relief, according to a Harvard University poll.

Donald Trump and the Mar-a-Lago raid

The midterms are often treated as a referendum on the president and party in power, but after a recent FBI raid on Donald Trump's Florida mansion, they're now at least somewhat about the former president — perhaps to Republicans' dismay and detriment. Before the raid, the GOP had been "blessed with campaign gold," David Drucker wrote for The Washington Examiner: With inflation up and Democrats shouldering the blame, it would have been all too easy for Republicans to ride an economy-focused platform to victory in November. But now the fallout from the raid "promises to keep a focus on Trump," rather than on issues and talking points Republicans could actually use to win, Mark Niquette wrote for Bloomberg. "If Republicans veer right and abandon inflation for Trump the persecuted, their critical advantage with independents could shrink, in some cases enough to cost them dearly," Drucker added. "Maybe the GOP still wins majorities, but not governing majorities."

There's also the chance most GOP voters won't care about the investigation against Trump and will instead find themselves all the more motivated to turn out and vote red. "Some people are mad over Mar-a-Lago. But I think most of it is going to be about how it impacts your family," Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said of his current read on the midterms, as quoted by Insider. "I think the FBI revved up the [GOP] base — by doing the raid and not telling anyone why they did it."

"Donald Trump is never as strong as when he's being attacked," added pollster Frank Luntz, speaking with USA Today. "He plays the victim better than any elected official I've ever seen and his voters love it." Meanwhile, though, "everyone else is sick of it and it turns them off," Luntz continued.

By the numbers, 65 percent of voters believe it was inappropriate for Trump to remove sensitive documents from the White House at the end of his term, while 26 percent believe he was in line in doing so, according to a recent Fox News poll. Further, 56 percent of voters think the FBI acted appropriately in raiding Mar-a-Lago, while 39 percent believe the opposite.

Update 2 p.m. ET, Sept. 27, 2022: This story has been updated to include an additional section on Donald Trump and the Mar-a-Lago raid.

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