Angst is growing among Democrats that the momentum they saw earlier this year in their bid to keep control of the Senate is beginning to wane as towering inflation and deepening economic unease supplant issues like abortion rights atop the list of voters’ concerns.
As recently as a few weeks ago, Democrats were bullish about their chances of defying harsh historical and political headwinds, believing that voter anger over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and lingering GOP concerns about the quality of Republican candidates might allow them to not only hold, but expand their paper-thin Senate majority.
But the political winds appear to be shifting once again in the GOP’s favor. Recent polling has found Republicans regaining an edge on the so-called generic ballot, a survey question that asks voters which party they plan to vote for in November. Meanwhile, the data website FiveThirtyEight’s Senate forecast shows Democrats’ chances of holding the Senate dropping by 11 percent over the past month.
“A month ago, it looked like not only were the Democrats poised to hold the Senate, the question was: were they going to be able to get, you know, two extra seats?” said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster who worked on former President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. “Now I think the hope is just to hang on.”
With fewer than three weeks to go before Election Day and early voting already underway in key battleground states like Georgia and Arizona, the tightening contest for the Senate has some Democrats fearing that the party may have peaked too early.
“If you look at the Dobbs decision — that seems to have come a little too early for the Democrats,” Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), said, referring to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court decision that overturned the constitutional right on abortion.
“And I think there [are] other currents — inflation is probably the biggest one — that have kind of interfered with the singularity of that argument.”
Indeed, Republicans have hammered Democrats relentlessly on inflation, the economy and crime throughout the fall campaign season, betting that those issues would eventually outmuscle Democrats’ core themes: that abortion rights are at risk, the future of American democracy is in jeopardy and that they’re capable of governing in a volatile moment in the country’s history.
The New York Times-Siena College poll of 792 likely voters nationwide showed the economy and inflation topping the list of problems facing the country, while only 5 percent of voters said that abortion is the most pressing issue. Even among Democratic voters, economic challenges took precedence over reproductive rights.
In one of the poll’s more alarming findings for Democrats, women who identified as independents said they preferred Republicans by an 18-point margin, a stark reversal from September, when those voters favored Democrats by a 14-point margin. Democrats have sought relentlessly to sway those voters by warning of threats to abortion rights.
“The voters who would be most susceptible to the Democrats’ messaging on abortion are shifting,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist and former congressional candidate.
“As long as the Republicans stay focused on two things — my money, my family — then they’ll win in 2022,” he added. “They’ll win in 2024. Because the Democrats aren’t showing any sign of changing their approach.”
To be sure, Democrats still stand a decent chance at holding their Senate majority in spite of the recent shifts. Their Senate candidates are outraising Republicans across the board, the GOP is seeking to wrangle a roster of untested candidates and, as of Thursday, FiveThirtyEight’s forecast still gives Democrats a 60 percent chance of winning the Senate.
At the same time, Democratic incumbents who were considered some of the most vulnerable have solidified their positions in key races.
In Arizona, for example, Sen. Mark Kelly (D) has a distinct polling and financial lead over his Republican rival Blake Masters. Likewise, New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) is leading her GOP challenger Don Bolduc by nearly 8 points in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. Both races lean in Democrats’ favor, according to The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper.
But with the Senate divided 50-50 between the two parties, Democrats have no room for error. If Republicans net even a single seat in the upper chamber next month, it would deliver them the majority.
In Nevada, the race between Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and Republican Adam Laxalt remains in a dead heat. And despite facing a spate of scandals and questions about his personal history, Republican Herschel Walker has managed to stay within striking distance of Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) in Georgia.
Democrats still stand a chance at flipping a GOP-held Senate seat in Pennsylvania, where Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz are vying to succeed retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), though polling has shown a tightening race in recent weeks following a barrage of attacks against Fetterman accusing him of being soft on crime.
“A lot of these races — they were always going to tighten,” one Democratic strategist said. “I think a lot of folks just got ahead of themselves over the summer, thinking they had some kind of silver bullet.”
“I still say advantage Democrats for now,” the strategist added. “But yeah, no doubt the Republicans are catching up a little bit.”