Republicans improving key races

FLORENCE, ARIZONA - JANUARY 15: Republican governor candidate for Arizona Kari Lake points to the crowd at a rally for former President Donald Trump at the Canyon Moon Ranch festival grounds on January 15, 2022 in Florence, Arizona. The rally marks Trump's first of the midterm election year with races for both the U.S. Senate and governor in Arizona this year. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

This week: The Briefing, Vol. X, Issue 37

  • Democrats still short on voter enthusiasm gap
  • Arizona Dem chickens out on debates
  • Republican Senate picture brightens, slightly

Outlook

Democratic surge? Have Democrats achieved something real with their recent apparent surge in congressional generic ballot polls? Or is this just a typical example of the variations that occur ahead of every election?

Polls vary widely on the congressional generic ballot right now. But it is important to remember that, not only do Republicans still lead in most of these polls (albeit not by too much), but their numbers are historically understated in such surveys generally. 

In 2014, a meager congressional generic ballot average of R+2.4 resulted in a 247-seat Republican House majority (218 seats are required for a majority), a nine-seat gain in the U.S. Senate, and an epic down-ballot blowout at the state level. 

Contrast this with the results in Democratic midterm years. In the wave year of 2006, a D+11.5 polling lead translated to a more modest 233-seat Democratic House majority. In 2018, a D+8.4 lead translated to a 235-seat Democratic House majority, even though Democrats lost two Senate seats that year. 

In short, this form of polling appears to favor Democrats generally, even if this has not been the case in every election. 

In the overall congressional average, Democrats achieved a tie last week. Then again, one single poll seems to be holding them up in the averages. And with the exception of that same poll — that of the British magazine The Economist — Biden’s approval also remains in the double digit negatives, usually closer to 20 than it is to 10 points underwater.

Voter enthusiasm: Another argument that Republicans are on track is the data on voter enthusiasm. Republican voters remain more enthusiastic about voting in the 2022 election than Democrats by a statistically significant margin when the question is asked. For example, the most recent CBS/YouGov poll showed a five-point Republican advantage among those who will “definitely vote.” This gap is usually an indication of where things are headed. The most recent Yahoo poll also found a five-point advantage among Republican voters saying they “definitely” or “likely” will vote this fall. 

The upshot of this is that Republicans should gain an advantage as pollsters shift from surveying registered voters to surveying likely voters, as they usually do around this time of year. 

The other piece of counter-evidence is of a more anecdotal nature. Republicans appear to be making progress in some of the key races for House and Senate. The pictures in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Ohio, and Nevada have improved just in the last few days. Pennsylvania has also improved, although the Democratic candidate there still retains a decisive advantage.

Meanwhile, Republicans appear set to gain several House seats where it is surprising to see them competitive at all. They hold the lead in two additional congressional seats in Oregon, both of them Democratic-leaning, one of them a D+7 seat (the 5th and 6th districts). This has nothing to do with redistricting, and everything to do with what looks like a big swing in public opinion against Democrats and Joe Biden. 

Democrats’ argument: The theory on the other side is two fold. The first part is that Joe Biden, with his “blood red” speech, is successfully making this year’s race into a referendum on Donald Trump and not on himself. This seems particularly implausible, given how poorly that speech was received and how Democratic candidates are running away from it like their lives depend on it.

On the other hand, it is much more plausible that the overturn of Roe could be keeping Democrats in the game, or even propelling them to unexpected success. This remains entirely possible, and the Republican Red Wave could yet prove very disappointing when it crashes. 

The reasoning is that even if House Democrats’ victory in Alaska can be written off as a fluke due to the state’s peculiar small-field ranked choice voting system, earlier Republican special election losses in New York State could be taken as an ill omen.

Even so, there are enough individual races that seem to be shifting Republicans’ way right now (albeit perhaps too slowly) that it would be a mistake for Democrats to get cocky. The red wave has not been dodged just yet. 

Governor 2022

Arizona: The refusal by Democratic nominee and Secretary of State Katie Hobbs to debate the Trump-backed Republican Kari Lake (R) is, frankly, an embarrassment for Hobbs. 

Yes, Lake has an extremely forceful personality,  and is very impressive to watch after years of media training as a broadcaster. Democrats would counter that she plays fast and loose with facts — fair enough, but she is a sufficiently credible candidate that she needs to be rebutted and refuted, not just dismissed. It appears that the progressive-left Hobbs is unwilling to trust in her ability to accomplish this while going toe-to-toe with Lake. 

The two are virtually tied in all recent public polls, so there is really no excuse for ducking out of a forum sponsored by an organization like the Citizens Clean Election Commission, as Hobbs is doing.

The Hobbs campaign claims it wants a debate but has made clear that it is only interested in a format that lets Hobbs avoid going up against Lake directly. This is a cowardly evasion that Lake will surely spend the next two months talking about non-stop. This should be much more effective than usual under these circumstances, and it follows on after Hobbs also refused to debate her Democratic opponent in the primary.

Senate 2022

Arizona: This race between Blake Masters and incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly is finally starting to look like a genuinely competitive contest. Although Lake runs ahead of Masters, he appears to have this contest within the margin of error with plenty of time left on the clock. Kelly is still the clear favorite.

Georgia: Another week, another poll showing Herschel Walker leading incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock. Walker is certainly a flawed candidate, but he is running in a Republican state where he is well known and liked. The Republican gubernatorial nominee, incumbent Gov. Brian Kemp, has held a steady lead all along against election denier Stacey Abrams. 

Although Georgia very narrowly rejected Donald Trump in 2020, it remains a state where extreme liberalism is toxic. Republicans and conservatives can and should win under the right conditions.

Nevada: The race between former Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R) and incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) may well prove to be the most important Senate race in the country in 2022. It is hotly contested, with the incumbent leading by just one point in a poll released in mid-August, and Laxalt leading by three points in another. 

Laxalt is among the best recruits of this year’s Senate class for Republicans, and Cortez-Masto is among the weakest Democratic incumbents. Given Biden’s enormous unpopularity, plus that of Gov. Steve Sisolak (who trailed his Republican opponent in polls taken last month), Republicans should have a wind at their backs in the Silver State this year. It is going to be very close.

New Hampshire: Gov. Chris Sununu, who is popular and will be easily renominated tomorrow, has intervened at the last minute in the Senate race to endorse state Senate president Chuck Morse in Tuesday’s primary. Morse trails badly against retired Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, whose Trump-style populism has been taking the Granite State’s Republican primary electorate by storm. Party leaders are concerned about Bolduc’s ability to win against Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, and some of them claim that his lead has been whittled down to the single digits. Hassan’s numbers were pretty weak against all comets in the spring, but no public surveys have been commissioned since then. 

Pennsylvania: With Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) finally coming under some serious pressure about his physical health and his ability to hold off this after his debilitating stroke, Mehmet Oz ® is finally starting to close the gap and poll like a competitive candidate. But he still trails. 

Fetterman’s numbers have been plunging ever since he started making public appearances, in part because he appears to be half-assing his campaign and hiding, and in part because the stroke’s effects are quite noticeable. 

His reluctance to debate Oz (he finally agreed to just one late debate) is starting to draw voters’ attention to the fact that he is either fit to debate and to serve in the Senate, or he is fit to do neither. He won’t be able to have it both ways. 

But Oz needs the debating to start soon, because absentee ballots are about to go out in seven days.

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