NEW YORK – The possibility of a great red wave still looms.
But as the 2022 midterm elections enter their final two-month sprint, leading Republicans concede that their party's advantage may be slipping even as Democrats confront their president's weak standing, deep voter pessimism and the weight of history this fall.
The political landscape, while still in flux, follows a string of President Joe Biden's legislative victories on climate, health care and gun violence, just as Donald Trump's hand-picked candidates in electoral battlegrounds like Arizona, Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania struggle to broaden their appeal. But nothing has undermined the GOP's momentum more than the Supreme Court's stunning decision in June to end abortion protections, which triggered a swift backlash even in the reddest of red states.
“This midterm looks and feels significantly different than it did six months ago,” said veteran Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. The abortion ruling “has energized some segments, especially the Democratic constituency, and it has thrown a wrench, at least to some extent, into the hopes of winning a ton of seats.”
History suggests Republicans should dominate the November elections.
In the modern era, the party that holds the White House has lost congressional seats in virtually every first-term president’s first midterm election. Ronald Reagan lost 26 House seats, Bill Clinton lost 52, Barack Obama 63 and Trump 40. Only George W. Bush’s Republican Party enjoyed a modest eight-seat gain in his first midterm, coming after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Nine weeks before Election Day, 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. But many Republicans are losing confidence in the high-stakes fight for the Senate majority and key governorships across the nation.
In Pennsylvania, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro argues that his focus on public safety, education, the economy and freedom is driving his momentum but concedes that his opponent is also a major factor.
“Folks trust me to get it done,” Shapiro, the state attorney general, told The Associated Press. “And in fairness, in part, it’s because I’m running against the guy who’s by far the most extreme and dangerous candidate in the nation.”
In one of the nation's most important swing states, Republicans nominated Doug Mastriano as their nominee for governor, even after learning about his leading role in Trump's push to overturn the 2020 election.
The state senator and retired military officer helped organize the state's effort to submit fake presidential electors beholden to Trump and was seen outside the Capitol as pro-Trump demonstrators attacked police on Jan. 6, 2021. He has also alienated moderate voters and even some Republicans with divisive positions on several issues, including abortion, which he opposes in all circumstances.
Mastriano's campaign didn't respond to an interview request for this story.
Shapiro will launch his first TV ad of the fall campaign on Tuesday, casting Mastriano's fierce opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage as a threat to Pennsylvania's economy. The ad is the first spot in a $16.9 million television advertising investment the campaign reserved for the nine weeks leading up to Election Day.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel acknowledged that the GOP must sharpen its message on abortion given the Democrats' apparent momentum.
“We can't allow them to control the narrative,” McDaniel said in an interview.
She emphasized Republican leaders' record of supporting exceptions for abortion in cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother, sidestepping questions about candidates like Mastriano, Georgia Senate nominee Herschel Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who oppose such exceptions.
“I’m not going to speak about every candidate and where they’re at,” McDaniel said. “But the past four Republican presidents since Roe believe in the exception, and that is where I think a lot of the American people are, according to polling. But they also believe in limitations, and Democrats have shown no inclination to have any limitation.”
On the Republican Party's broader midterm outlook, McDaniel said top races were always likely to tighten, despite the conventional wisdom that a massive red wave was building.
“Many of these states are battleground states," she said. “It’s going to be tight.”
On paper, Republicans continue to enjoy tremendous advantages.
Beyond the weight of history, Democrats are saddled with Biden's low favorability ratings as roughly 7 in 10 voters believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Democratic strategists acknowledge serious political headwinds as inflation and pessimism surge, but they note gas prices have ticked down, pandemic worries have waned and Biden has won major legislative victories on several key issues.
“Republicans haven’t taken advantage of the bad political environment. And they punted on having any agenda or getting anything done,” said Biden pollster John Anzalone, who was far less confident about the midterm outlook at the beginning of the summer.
“Historically, this should be a 30- or 40-seat win by Republicans," he added. “The entire Republican Party has been one big mistake for the past four or five months.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has blamed GOP “candidate quality” for why his party was more likely to win the House than the Senate.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who leads the Senate GOP campaign arm, sees it differently.
“He and I clearly have a disagreement on this. I think we’ve got great candidates,” Scott told the AP, citing opportunities to challenge Democrats in blue states like Colorado and Washington state. “I think we’re doing fine.”
Scott did acknowledge some uncertainty involving Trump's role in the coming weeks.
The former president helped his loyalists, most of whom embraced his conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, win primary elections across the country throughout the spring and summer. But it's unclear how Trump will help them, if at all, as the election moves into the fall.
“He’s got a choice about what he wants to do. He clearly has some candidates that he wanted to get through the primaries and they did,” Scott said. "He’ll make his own decision on what he wants to do.”
At the same time, a disproportionate number of women are registering to vote. And if recent voting patterns hold, that's good news for Democrats.
In at least seven states, women made up a higher share of newly registered voters following the overturning of Roe v. Wade, according to an AP analysis of voter data from L2, a nonpartisan data provider.
In the five weeks after the court eliminated the constitutional right to abortion, women made up 64% of new Kansas registrations. Then, on Aug. 2, Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure that would have let state lawmakers impose new restrictions on abortions.
Trump-backed Republicans who oppose abortion rights are fighting for momentum in several swing states.
A leading Republican Senate super PAC recently canceled television ad reservations in Arizona, where Blake Masters is running, while committing $28 million to help Trump loyalist JD Vance in Ohio, a state Trump carried by 8 points in the last election. In Pennsylvania, there are concerns that Mastriano is dragging down the rest of the Republican ticket, while Trump-endorsed GOP Senate nominee Mehmet Oz is struggling with residency questions. And in Georgia, Walker is facing difficult questions about his past and his opposition to abortion in all cases.
Rep. Tom Emmer, the Minnesota Republican who leads the House GOP campaign arm, warned his party against taking anything for granted.
He noted that most of the seats Republicans are targeting this fall are set in districts Biden carried, a contrast from past elections where Republicans found success in GOP-leaning districts.
“Don’t be measuring the drapes,” Emmer told the AP in a message to Republican colleagues. “This isn’t the typical midterm that we’re talking about.”
Associated Press writers Aaron Kessler, Hannah Fingerhut and Zeke Miller in Washington and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.