Expectations are a big part of politics. Midterms tend to cost the president’s party seats, and so the president’s party goes into the midterm year on a defensive footing. The party fields fewer candidates ((non-TLS link) The Green Papers: “2022 Political Parties” counts 843 candidates for Democrats to 957 for Republicans, but that number includes state races; I couldn’t find a good pair of numbers for Congress only. For comparison, their 2018 counts were 706 to 687.), directs funds to shore up incumbents, sees more retirements, and has less energy. The media treats the president’s party as weakened. And then the result comes, either better or worse than predicted, and the media still has a narrative to ride into the new year, while the parties scramble to get ready for the new Congress.
Call it the armored marathon runner scenario. Thinking the race to be defensive, the runner wears full plate armor, which makes them slower. If it turns out they can actually go on offense, it’s harder because they’re still wearing heavy polished metal all over their body. Incumbency helps individual candidates win elections, but incumbents have their job to do while they run. Challengers are more able to campaign, and thus provide a lot of extra energy to their ticket, even if they don’t win.
Now, Democrats have gotten good news. The economy remains strong-ish (? If hot? If not? The question-mark economy.), they passed a transformative climate-plus bill (eureka!), and they passed a bipartisan technology bill, along with the earlier bills on infrastructure and modest gun safety. But predicting how their achievements and the state of things will fare in November—always difficult—is all the harder for the strangeness of these times.
They also got the terrible news—the Dobbs decision—that stripped a fundamental right from millions of women, empowering the worst state legislators, in states with poor records for protecting women’s health, to legislate pain and suffering. But that bad news also means a new skepticism of Republicans: being anti-woman isn’t popular with America. (Statistically, most Americans either are women, or know at least one woman.)
The Democratic party didn’t plan to be in this position. That is, the balloted candidates are mostly baked in. A few states still have primaries, but even there, who decides to run in a president’s-team midterm year is different than who runs alongside the president. It’s a different crop.
Those differences amount to structural problems, alongside others like gerrymandering, which make it a tough race for Democrats. Republicans have their own problems. They have no real agenda beyond opposing President Biden and Democrats, and whatever their post-Dobbs policy may be, they don’t have it yet. But unlike Democrats, Republicans started the year planning to contest more races, planning for a harvest.
This year’s election will not be the election to fully repudiate Dobbs. If we see one, it will likely be in 2024, when Democrats will have had more time to field candidates, to draft policy. By then, the media will have made clear the terrible crime the Repubs on the Supreme Court perpetrated against America. By then, state courts ((Paywall) The Washington Post: 9 August 2022: James Bikales and Praveena Somasundaram: “State supreme courts could soon decide on abortion, raising stakes of their midterm races”) and state legislatures will have worsened, and perhaps in some cases, bettered the state laws around abortion. It will be a more mature issue with abortion rights activists poised to begin cleaning up the mess.
But 2022’s election can still turn out differently than it looked from January 2022. Even wearing armor, the Democrats have a decent chance to win this marathon. Will it come down to turnout? Will it come down to how many people actually show up and cast ballots for each of the two major parties? It very well could.