As the final bitter notes of Torn in the USA, also known as the 2020 election, slowly fade, it’s already time for the band to start tuning up for the 2022 midterms. And while many called the November election the most important in the last half century, these midterms may come in a close second.
Why are they so critical? Put aside for a moment whether you support the Biden Administration’s legislative efforts; Republican success in the House and/or Senate would vindicate Trumpism and the party’s autocratic direction. And the GOP’s efforts to pass voter-restriction laws in 43 states underlines how determined the party is to regain power, recognizing this is their best hope for victory. The “Big Lie” about voter fraud in 2020 may have eroded confidence in our electoral system among many GOP supporters, but Americans as a whole do not approve of someone threatening their right to vote.
While a first-term president almost always loses seats in their first midterm election, there have been two notable exceptions. In 1934, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, getting credit for his handling of the Great Depression, gained 9 seats in both the Senate and House. After the 9/11 attacks during George W. Bush’s first term, Republicans gained 8 House seats and flipped the Senate in 2002, the only time a chamber has changed hands during the first midterms. FDR also had the benefit of following one of the only two presidents in the last 100 years, who was so unpopular, that they lost the White House, Senate and House in four years. Care to guess the other one?
Two dynamics suggest that 2022 should be the third instance of this rare occurrence. First, if Joe Biden continues to get high marks for his handling of the COVID crisis, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) remains popular and the economy gradually improves, he will be viewed in the same heroic light as FDR and George W. Bush. Second, be it Bill Clinton in 1994 or Barack Obama in 2010, Republicans were able to effectively run against a president’s persona more than his policies. This won’t be true with Joe Biden, a non-divisive figure who has been known for decades.
However, the Democratic Party has repeatedly proven it can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, evidenced by Hilary Clinton’s loss in 2016 and Al Gore’s in 2000. Despite winning the presidency in 2020, Democrats lost seats in the House, squandered several winnable Senate seats and suffered declining support from Black and Hispanic voters. Back in 2018, they captured 40 seats in the House, talking about kitchen table issues such as health care and job opportunities. But in 2020, Republicans were able to brand Democrats with issues such as open borders, defunding the police and economic socialism. Only two Senate runoffs wins in Georgia, with an assist from President Trump’s post-election denials and behavior, gave the Dems control of all three branches.
If I were the Democrats looking ahead to the 2022 midterms, I’d never take my eye off the COVID-19 ball, as well as pursue infrastructure, climate change, immigration reform, and voting rights legislation, all of which enjoy broad public support. Over the last ten years, there has been a steadily increasing demand for a more active government, which has only intensified during the pandemic.
The Republican party has misread this trend and continues to offer nothing but obstruction and anti-government rhetoric (we’ve been waiting ten years for the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare replacement). The party doesn’t currently stand for anything other than being a vessel for the interests of corporations and wealthy donors, and the Mitch McConnell wing is at odds with the Trump loyalists, most of whom were willing to overturn the results of a free and fair election. This intraparty civil war is being exacerbated by the former president’s efforts to control fundraising, choose primary candidates, pursue vendettas against those who voted for his impeachment/conviction and suck all the oxygen out of the GOP tent by threatening to run in 2024. As long as the current border crises doesn’t spiral out of control and inflation remains a distant memory, the Democrats will be well-positioned, a year from November.
Dave Spencer is the founder of Practically Political, a forum for pragmatic, non-partisan solutions to our biggest challenges. He was a former board member of No Labels.