For two decades, midterm elections have served as a vehicle for voter discontent, a chance for Americans to punish the president, shake up a statehouse and express their anger with the party in power by costing them congressional seats and governor’s mansions.
This year, though, the dissatisfaction has intensified and become something like a national anxiety disorder.
With the pandemic receding, voters have been whipsawed by economic uncertainty, public safety concerns, lingering public health threats and shortages of everything from used cars to baby formula to teachers. The political upheaval around abortion rights, devastating gun violence, the F.B.I. investigation into former President Donald J. Trump and his continued lies about the 2020 election have heightened the sense that the country’s political system is deeply dysfunctional, if not headed toward collapse.
Now, as the midterm contests enter the final campaign stretch after Labor Day, the election is shaping up to be a referendum on which party is more to blame for a country that has decidedly not returned to normal. From swing districts in sunny Southern California to the perennial political battlefields of Michigan’s Oakland County, candidates, voters and strategists from both parties describe an electorate that has lost its bearings.
“Folks look around, and they feel like it’s been a really tough couple of years,” said Representative Josh Harder, a Democrat running for re-election in the agricultural Central Valley of California, where wealthy Bay Area tech workers have driven up housing prices. “Our message can’t be, ‘Look at what we’ve done. Everything is fine and dandy.’ We have to listen and then we have to respond.”
The fundamentals — high inflation, an uncertain economy, the president’s dismal approval ratings — still favor Republicans, as do the recent shifts to the electoral map because of redistricting. But outrage over abortion rights, the passage in Congress of a series of economic and climate change bills and the continued dominance of Mr. Trump within his party have made some Democrats hopeful that they can triage some of their deepest losses.
Expectations of a so-called red wave have moderated since the spring, with President Biden’s approval rating rising modestly and gas prices falling from record highs. In recent weeks, Democrats have gained a slight advantage in polling, though their lead remains in the margin of error in most surveys.
They hope to make the election not a referendum on the unpopular president but rather a choice between “normal” and “extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic,” as Mr. Biden put it in a prime-time address on Thursday. Strong showings in special elections this summer have encouraged Democrats efforts to lean further into championing abortion rights and their message that the Republican Party is too extreme.
At a Labor Day speech in Milwaukee, Mr. Biden again warned about the dangers posed by the Republican agenda.
“MAGA Republicans, the extreme right, the Trump-ies — these MAGA Republicans in Congress are coming for your Social Security,” Mr. Biden told a crowd of union workers. He also once again accused Republicans of embracing political violence as part of an assault against democratic institutions. “The definition of democracy is you accept the will of the people when the votes are honestly counted,” the president said. “These guys don’t do it.”
The Democratic victories in special elections, typically sleepier summertime affairs, were driven by more engaged college-educated voters who were more energized by issues like abortion and gun control. But the midterm electorate may be more likely to mirror the governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey last year. In those races, Republicans made gains after attracting a broader electorate that was more focused on economic issues and education — topics that remain the top issue for the largest number of voters.
Representative Young Kim, a Republican who represents parts of Orange County in Southern California, said voters in her tightly contested district were regularly voicing concerns over what she sees as the failings of the Biden administration: the cost of living, border security and crime.
“They talk about the highest inflation that they’ve ever seen and the rise of prices everywhere, from grocery stores to clothing stores to coffee shops,” Ms. Kim said. Asked about abortion rights and threats to democracy, Ms. Kim was dismissive: “I hear about those things very infrequently.”
Strategists on both sides caution that the election environment remains deeply unpredictable.
Energy prices could spike again this fall, and the prospect of a continuing increase in interest rates has many investors and economists predicting a recession. The F.B.I. investigation into Mr. Trump is expected to continue, which could mobilize partisans in either party. He has privately floated declaring his 2024 presidential candidacy in the fall, a prospect that worries some Republican leaders who believe such an early announcement would be an unnecessary — and politically divisive — distraction. And in the states, legislative battles over abortion rights will keep the issue front and center.
Some voters say the instability has prompted them to grapple with decisions they never thought to make. How secure is your child’s school from shootings? Do you send your college student to school with abortion medication? Does the cost of beef make you skip over the butcher’s section in the grocery store?
Dwight Pearson, a 60-year-old chef in Cincinnati, said he felt waves of shock this year, beginning with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“You’ve got a war, climate change, all these floods and volcanoes — a lot of things are chaotic,” Mr. Pearson said. “I’ve never seen this before. Never. And it’s not just natural calamities, it’s everyday life — you can’t even go to the grocery store without being very alert and observing all your surroundings.”
Mr. Pearson, a registered independent, has seen firsthand evidence of both a labor shortage and supply chain troubles. He recently began working in a smaller kitchen after struggling to find employees and has waited for months to receive items he has ordered. “It’s just total chaos,” he said. This fall he plans to split his vote — for Tim Ryan, a Democrat running for Senate, and for Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican seeking re-election.
Democrats hope they can offset economic concerns by energizing voters on abortion rights. In the weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, new voter registrations among women surged, according to a New York Times analysis, as abortion rocketed up the list of voter concerns in polling.
Already, the party has spent $92 million on advertising mentioning the issue, according to data from AdImpact, a media-tracking firm. They spent $5.6 million on ads about abortion rights over the same time period in the 2018 midterms.
They’ve targeted Republicans who support a national ban on abortion, a position that’s unpopular with independents and moderates. In recent weeks, a series of Republican candidates have tried to quietly scrub unpopular positions from their campaign websites, including a national ban, so-called fetal personhood laws and opposition to exceptions for rape and incest.
Representative Angie Craig, a Minnesota Democrat, said abortion rarely came up in her 2018 election, and even after the leak of the draft Supreme Court decision in May, voters in focus groups conducted by her campaign were not strongly motivated by the issue. Now, as she campaigns in the swing suburbs outside the Twin Cities, she said she is asked about abortion rights daily.
“This issue has really triggered my constituents in a way that it is just an attack on freedom,” she said.
While Democratic candidates are focusing on abortion and their legislative accomplishments, the White House is resurrecting a message from 2020 — casting the midterms as a battle for the future of democracy with Mr. Trump as the central foe.
“This is a choice, and the choice is MAGA or mainstream,” said Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, the head of the Democratic House campaign committee.
But there are signs that Democrats, too, see the president as a drag on their electoral chances. So far this year, Democrats have spent just $78,000 on ads mentioning Mr. Biden, according AdImpact data.
Republican strategists say that despite Mr. Trump’s continued dominance in the media, voters are more likely to hold the president accountable for their current stresses than the man he replaced.
Kristin Davison, a G.O.P. strategist who helped mastermind Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s upset win in Virginia last year, said Republicans were focusing on what they see as a lack of leadership from Mr. Biden on issues including foreign policy and crime. While polling shows that majorities of voters in both parties see democracy as under threat, concern about that issue is outranked by the economy and abortion.
“We can go into Covid, and we can go into the economy — there’s a million different forces playing on the American people right now that makes them feel like they aren’t in control of their own lives,” Ms. Davison said. “Criticize Trump all you want. When he was there, you felt like there was someone with their hand on the wheel.”
The structural dynamics of this election cycle also mean that Republicans face an easier fight to win control of the House, where they need only five seats to win a majority. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates 10 Democratic seats as leaning toward or likely to be Republican, but only three Republican seats as leaning Democratic.
Republicans could pick up three seats from redistricting alone, according to some estimates. A wave of Democratic retirements means more than a dozen Democratic seats in competitive districts lack incumbents to defend them.
Democrats are more optimistic about their chances of retaining control of the Senate, where contests can turn on personalities and give candidates a better chance of bucking the national environment. In Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Ohio — all key contests — more experienced Democratic politicians are running against first-time Republican candidates who won contested primaries with the support of Mr. Trump.
A number of Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have attributed their faltering Senate chances to those candidates who staked out far-right positions during the primary to win Mr. Trump’s backing.
Republicans have yet to unleash much of their spending raised from outside groups, which is expected to begin after Labor Day. Their goal is to shift attention away from abortion and Mr. Trump. They plan to do that by focusing on crime and attacking the Inflation Reduction Act and student loan forgiveness plan as excessive government spending that will not help voters.
“It’s cost of living, and it’s the economy,” said Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans. “This is a groceries-and-gas election.”
Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.
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