What you need to know about the Midterm Muddle

·10-min read

Welcome to Yahoo News’ Politics Briefing: Midterms Edition. Every week between now and Election Day, Yahoo News’ team of political journalists will pull together everything you need to know about the November midterm elections. And it will all be in one place: your inbox.

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THE BIG IDEA: The Midterm Muddle, or why nobody knows what will happen in November

The stars and stripes flag flying at the Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. (Getty Images)
The stars and stripes flag flying at the Capitol Building, Washington, D.C. (Getty Images)

Will Republicans win the Senate? Can Democrats keep the House? Are Democrats on track to break with historical precedent and expand their congressional majorities? Is a “red wave” that sweeps Republicans into office still materializing somewhere off on the horizon?

The answer to all the above questions is the same: Maybe. And this is a bit unusual compared to previous midterm cycles, where by mid-September you usually have a sense of where things are headed (big Republican gains in 2010, big Democratic gains in 2018, etc.).

Here’s what we know. President Biden is unpopular, and presidents — especially unpopular ones — usually watch their party get shellacked in their first midterm. Americans are also dealing with stubbornly high inflation, which continues to eat through their pocketbooks, despite the late-summer drop in gas prices.

Given these ingredients, most political observers spent the first half of the year waiting for a red wave. In April, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was telling audiences that Republicans were looking at the best political atmosphere since 1994, when a resurgent GOP took the House for the first time in decades and won the Senate as well.

McConnell, however, had a caveat: If Republican primary voters choose candidates that alienate the general electorate, they could lose many winnable races. And since then, Republican primary voters — often with the encouragement of former President Donald Trump — have chosen unproven, untested and, in some cases, quite radical candidates for the House and Senate.

But beyond what McConnell calls “candidate quality,” Republicans have another major problem: the Supreme Court’s decision in June to strike down Roe v. Wade, which instantly triggered strict abortion bans in a number of states. The GOP’s anti-abortion position proved wildly unpopular with voters over the summer, and Democrats are hoping that the fall of Roe and the return of Trump to the campaign trail will get their voters out to the polls this November.

As such, we’re looking at perhaps the most unpredictable midterm in modern history. And election prognosticators have recalibrated expectations accordingly. "We are reminded of the famous clip of Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi: 'What the hell’s going on out here?'" wrote Kyle Kondic and J. Miles Coleman at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Like most political experts (such as, reportedly, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer), Kondik and Coleman still see “Republicans as considerable favorites to flip the House” if not the Senate. “It’s just that in this peculiar election year, the political signs are mixed.”

“This week, the ups and downs have continued,” writes Yahoo News Senior National Correspondent Jon Ward.

“On Tuesday, the latest inflation report was worse than expected and sparked a market selloff. But also on Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., refocused national attention on abortion by proposing a 15-week ban on the procedure nationwide.”

By mid-week, House Democratic leaders were predicting they could actually pick up seats in the House and retain the majority. It seems far-fetched, but most experts are quite uncertain about making predictions right now.

Brendan Buck, who advised former GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan, noted that in 2016, most experts thought Democrat Hillary Clinton would win the White House, only to see her lose. And in 2020, “everyone thought Democrats would strengthen control in the House, but lost a bunch of seats.”

“I don’t know that today is any less certain. Maybe we were just too certain before,” Buck said. "It does still generally feel like the story is the same: Republicans are likely to take the House, but we have a divided country and who knows. Also Donald Trump makes anything more unpredictable, and I guess he’s back to a certain degree.”

And Greg Speed, who runs the progressive group America Votes, told Ward that November will be “a choice — Democrats and Biden vs. MAGA — not a referendum on the president.”

“It’s the first ‘choice’ midterm since 2002, which is also the last time the White House incumbent party gained seats,” Speed said.

We’ll see. In the meantime, as Yahoo News Senior Writer Christopher Wilson notes, Americans of all political stripes should brace for some unexpected results in November.

“Could Republicans come within single digits of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, as one recent poll suggested? Is Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s Florida seat in actual jeopardy, as polls have indicated for the last month? Maybe!

“With inflation, gas prices, COVID-19, the backlash to millions losing abortion rights and whatever major news events occur between now and votes being cast, you should be ready for plenty of surprising results come election night that maybe shouldn’t be all that surprising,” Wilson writes.

POLLS, POLLS, POLLS

A voter fills out their ballot at Bedford High School during the New Hampshire Primary on September 13, 2022 in Bedford, New Hampshire. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
A voter fills out their ballot at Bedford High School during the New Hampshire Primary on September 13, 2022 in Bedford, New Hampshire. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

In keeping with 2022's "who knows?" vibe, the latest public opinion surveys still aren't telling a consistent tale — or rather, they seem to be telling a few different tales all at once, Yahoo News National Correspondent Andrew Romano notes. Call it the “Choose Your Own Adventure” data dump.

If you're inclined to believe that Democrats are on the march, check out the so-called "generic ballot" question (i.e., the one where pollsters ask which party you want to control Congress next year). In every major nonpartisan survey conducted so far this month, Democrats have led by 2 to 7 percentage points. But Democrats typically have to win the national popular vote by at least a few points just to avoid losing seats in the House — the generic ballot tends to underestimate Republican support.

The latest Senate polls, meanwhile, make things only murkier. This week in the key tossup state of Georgia, for example, we got one poll showing Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock leading Republican challenger Herschel Walker by 13 points (50%-37%) among registered voters — but just 4 points (49%-45%) among likely voters. Then another poll showed Walker ahead of Warnock by 3 (47%-44%).

Arizona is a similar story. One new survey showed Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly trouncing Republican Blake Masters by 20 points; another put Masters within the margin of error. And even in battlegrounds where the stats have been steadier, they've been steadily too close to call. In this week's bellwether Marquette University poll, Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson improved his standing against Democrat Mandela Barnes, who previously led by 5 points. But in this case "improved" means Johnson at 49% — and Barnes at 48%.

In other words, who knows?

SOUND LIKE A NERD

President John F. Kennedy waves during a congressional campaign rally in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania on Ocrtober 12, 1962. (Cecil Stoughton/The White House via JFK Library)
President John F. Kennedy waves during a congressional campaign rally in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania on Ocrtober 12, 1962. (Cecil Stoughton/The White House via JFK Library)

There have been 19 midterms since World War II. In 16 of them, the party in power has lost at least five seats in the House. The three midterm elections in which the party in control of the White House was able to stave off disaster came amid unusual political conditions: the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the unpopular impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, and a surge in President George W. Bush’s popularity following the 9/11 attacks that extended through the 2002 midterms.

One thing that Kennedy, Clinton and Bush all had in common before their winning midterms, however, was that they had high approval ratings. But Biden’s approval rating, although trending up in recent weeks, is still underwater.

APPOINTMENT VIEWING

U.S. Senate Republican candidate J.D. Vance, who was endorsed by former U.S. President Donald Trump for the upcoming primary elections, shakes hands with Trump during an event hosted by him, at the county fairgrounds in Delaware, Ohio on April 23, 2022. (Gaelen Morse/Reuters)
U.S. Senate Republican candidate J.D. Vance, who was endorsed by former U.S. President Donald Trump for the upcoming primary elections, shakes hands with Trump during an event hosted by him, at the county fairgrounds in Delaware, Ohio on April 23, 2022. (Gaelen Morse/Reuters)

Trump plans to host a rally for Ohio GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance this Saturday. Weirdly, though, they decided to schedule it at the exact same time that the Ohio State Buckeyes will be hosting the Toledo Rockets.

Trump knows a good deal about TV ratings, yet he decided to compete with college football in a state that’s crazy about college football. And Vance has been struggling in the polls despite Ohio’s Republican lean. Wilson notes that Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, a sometime Trump critic who appears to be cruising to reelection, is not scheduled to be there. But House candidate J.R. Majewski, who attended the “Stop the Steal” rally preceding the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, is scheduled to speak at the event.

SLEEPER RACE ALERTS

Joe O'Dea, Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Michael Bennet, speaks during a primary election night watch party, late June 28, 2022, in Denver, CO. (David Zalubowski/AP)
Joe O'Dea, Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Michael Bennet, speaks during a primary election night watch party, late June 28, 2022, in Denver, CO. (David Zalubowski/AP)

“After construction CEO-turned-rookie-candidate Joe O’Dea vanquished a Trump-endorsed MAGA rival to win Colorado’s GOP Senate primary in June, a handful of Republican polls showed the self-described moderate gaining ground on incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet,” Romano writes.

“Is O’Dea’s moderation — his calls for ‘balance’ on abortion, his distance from Trump, his tagline about ‘putting country before party,’ his focus on runaway inflation — working in Colordao? Perhaps. But since the deep-pocketed Bennet has started hammering O’Dea on the airwaves, only one new survey has surfaced — by the well-regarded Democratic firm Public Policy Polling — and it puts Bennet ahead by 11.”

Check out Romano’s dive into Colorado’s Senate race.

GAMBLE OF THE WEEK

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-KY) unveils a nationwide abortion bill with new abortion restrictions, during a news conference alongside representatives from national anti-abortion organizations, on Capitol Hill in Washington ,D.C. on September, 13, 2022. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-KY) unveils a nationwide abortion bill with new abortion restrictions, during a news conference alongside representatives from national anti-abortion organizations, on Capitol Hill in Washington ,D.C. on September, 13, 2022. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

It was one thing to propose a 20-week federal abortion ban back when Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land — something that Sen. Graham did several times, attracting the support of nearly all of his GOP colleagues and a few stray Democrats. But it’s another thing entirely to introduce an even more conservative 15-week federal ban in the midst of a midterm election that already has Republicans on their heels over Roe’s reversal — which is precisely what Graham did earlier this week, Romano notes.

The gamble is that the prospect of new national restrictions — which would severely limit existing access in blue states while letting red states further outlaw the procedure — will help boost Republican turnout at a time when Democrats appear to be unexpectedly fired up. At least four marquee GOP Senate candidates — Arizona’s Blake Masters, Georgia’s Herschel Walker, Florida’s Marco Rubio and North Carolina’s Ted Budd — seem to be making the same wager by supporting Graham’s new bill. “I’ve always been pro-life,” Rubio told reporters at the U.S. Capitol.

The problem is that measures like Graham’s are one of the big things firing up Democrats in the first place. “In the U.S. Senate, I will never stop fighting to codify Roe v. Wade and protect the fundamental freedom of women and girls to choose our own destiny,” Rubio’s Democratic opponent Val Demmings said in a statement.

We’ll find out in a few weeks which bet pays off. Check out Yahoo News Senior White House Correspondent Alexander Nazaryan’s coverage of Graham’s bill.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Inflation is still a problem for most. Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, told NBC News this week that the average American is now spending $460 a month more than they were a year ago for the same goods and services.