Voter angst on abortion, ill-equipped Republicans elbows aside inflation woe
A panel of political strategists and journalists said unraveling of abortion rights by the U.S. Supreme Court and antics of former President Donald Trump recast the 2022 election cycle to save Democrats from humiliating Republican seizure of both the U.S. House and Senate.
The consensus among the analysts working with GOP and Democratic campaigns and the national reporters covering Washington politics was that runaway inflation, an ugly exit from Afghanistan, COVID-19 fatigue and unpopularity of President Joe Biden pointed to easy Republican takeover of the House and likely control by Republicans of the Senate in midterm elections during November.
The Dole Institute of Politics’ panel concluded Wednesday the landscape changed with reversal in June of Roe vs. Wade, which energized moderate and liberal voters across the country. Trump’s grumbling about losing the 2020 election and his endorsement of loyal but vulnerable candidates contributed to solidification of Democratic control in the Senate and an uncharacteristically thin Republican takeover in the House.
Gerald Seib, a journalist with the Wall Street Journal for almost 45 years and a graduate of the University of Kansas, said there was an early failure of imagination among congressional observers to grasp how deeply the election could be shaped by the former president and abortion politics.
“I thought abortion had faded as a salient issue. That was wrong,” Seib said. “Second, the Trump factor. I don’t think you can get around it.”
The Democratic caucus gained one seat in the Senate for a 51-49 majority, while Republicans claimed nine seats in the House for a 222-213 edge.
“It could have been a lot worse for Democrats,” said Jeff Horwitt, an NBC News pollster and partner in Hart Research.
In midterm elections since 2006, the party controlling the White House suffered double-digit losses in the House. The president’s party in 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018 lost an average 36 House seats in the midterms. The high point was 63 losses by Democrats during the first term of President Barack Obama.
In Kansas, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat with a Kansas City-area district, anchored her campaign to the abortion issue and defeated Republican nominee Amanda Adkins. Adkins’ record of anti-abortion activism didn’t mesh with the 172,000-vote rejection in August of a proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution that could have led to a ban or new restrictions on abortion in Kansas.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and U.S. Reps. Jake LaTurner, Ron Estes and Tracey Mann, all Republicans, won reelection last month with relative ease. LaTurner, Estes and Mann and U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall voted in January 2021 against certifying the election of Biden.
‘Voters are screaming’
Molly Murphy, the Democrat-leaning president of the polling firm Impact Research, said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision profoundly changed the midterm election. In April, a poll indicated Democrats lagged Republicans by 17 points in terms of enthusiasm about the 2022 elections. Other surveys indicated the economy was foremost in the mind of the electorate, with Republicans holding a 21 point advantage over Democrats on that topic.
She said leak of the U.S. Supreme Court’s intent to overturn Roe vs. Wade shocked the country, but issuance of the formal decision struck like a lightning bolt.
“If you had to sort of look at it as a pie chart of the different factors that made this a surprising and historic outcome, a starting place would be at that moment,” she said. “Anger is a motivator, and this made Democrats angry. It was no longer a referendum on Joe Biden.”
NBC News’ Horwitt said timing and substance of the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decision was detrimental to individual rights in the country but advantageous to Democrats.
“We would not have anywhere close to the result we have here without the Supreme Court weighing in when it did. It gave Democrats something to talk about. The Supreme Court’s fingerprints are all over this election,” he said.
Jessica Taylor, an editor of Cook Political Report’s coverage of U.S. Senate and governor elections, said abortion had been a baseline issue in the GOP portfolio for half a century. The idea was to secure a conservative majority on the court and strike down Roe vs. Wade, she said.
She said the reality of states enacting sharper restraints on abortion, closure of family planning clinics and questions about fate of pregnant children or saving the life of women combined to rattle voters.
“This is not a winning issue with them. It encompasses birth control. It encompasses contraception access, ectopic pregnancies,” Taylor said.
Many Republican candidates who built political careers aggressively professing opposition to abortion were uncertain how to handle the public reaction. Some responding by telling voters they were relieved control of legal abortion would return to the states, but a U.S. Senate Republican’s introduction of federal legislation establishing a 15-week national abortion ban undermined that line of thought.
Mike Shields, founder of Convergence Media and a Republican-leaning strategist, said the abortion decision was a hard lesson for Republicans: “When the voters are screaming, you have to have an answer.”
The Trump factor
Taylor, of the Cook Political Report, said Trump’s approach to endorsing candidates was to concentrate on individuals who publicly supported the former president’s false claim the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. Trump didn’t necessarily align himself with candidates who had the best chance of winning a primary and general election.
“It wasn’t just that Trump endorsed weak candidates and got behind these people, it was that he blocked good ones from running,” she said.
Brendan Buck, an NBC political analyst and former communication aide to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, said Trump’s branding recklessness was on display in the endorsement of former University of Georgia and NFL football star Herschel Walker. The Walker choice by Trump sidetracked the GOP primary candidacy of U.S. Navy veteran Lathan Saddler, who Buck was convinced could defeat Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock in the November election. On Tuesday, Warnock, a minister in Atlanta, beat Walker in the Georgia runoff election.
“There’s really nothing we could do about it. We couldn’t even fight back,” Buck said. “There isn’t really enough party infrastructure to fight against Donald Trump and really defeat some of his candidates in the primaries.”
Horwitt’s take on the Georgia showdown: “I know that Herschel Walker won the Heisman Trophy, but I think the better runner here for campaigns is the reverend.” He said Warnock’s victories in four elections in the past two years made Georgia the battleground of all battleground states.
Shields, the GOP consultant at Convergence Media, said celebrity candidates successful in business or other occupations without prior political experience appealed to voters because they appeared more genuine. However, he said, a portion of novice candidates don’t appreciate the learning curve in elective politics. Shortcomings could be masked in primary contests but liabilities were often exposed during general elections, he said.
He said there were candidates who mistakenly assumed they could coast to victory by modeling their race after Trump’s outsider victory in 2016.
“Some candidates that come along say, ‘I’m going to replicate that.’ It’s like, did you have a hit show on Sunday night on NBC? Have you been mentioned in popular culture since the mid-1980s?’” Shields said. “It actually makes some candidates lazy because they think if they have Trump’s support they don’t have to do anything.”
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