As Republicans have focused on inflation and crime to go on offense in Democratic territory over the past month — competing in traditionally blue districts in California, Oregon, New York, Illinois and elsewhere — there’s a growing sense among Democrats that there’s little they can do at this point to combat the combined forces of history and economics.
“There’s a general malaise that’s hanging over the country,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist. “What you’re seeing is an angry electorate that keeps kicking the people in charge out. They did it in 2016. They did it in 2018. They did it in 2020. And, if things hold to what it’s looking like, they’re probably going to do it again in 2022.”
While many Democrats have privately believed for months that Republicans were likely to take the House, they have expressed increasing fears in recent days that voters could hand the GOP a significant majority — an outcome that would amount to a major rebuke of the party in power. In some cases, the party appears to be conceding seats it previously competed for, a retrenchment that strategists worry could signal a “red wave” of widespread Republican victories on traditionally Democratic turf.
While the battle for control of the Senate remains closely contested — with both parties pouring millions of dollars into a handful of states that will determine whether Democrats maintain, or even add to, their slim majority — in the House the debate has shifted to predicting how large the new Republican majority will be. Democrats have 220 seats in the House now, and need 218 to maintain control.
One House Democratic strategist said that if Democrats hold 200 to 205 seats, they will consider it a good night. If the party ends up with 190 seats or less — a loss of 30 seats that would require several districts Biden carried by double-digits to flip — that would reflect a big red wave, said the strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Biden allies are preparing to spin even a defeat as a win for the president, since President Barack Obama lost 63 seats in 2010 and President Donald Trump lost 40 in 2018, and Biden is not expected lose as many. But because Biden began his presidency with a much smaller majority than his predecessors, even modest losses could leave Democrats with fewer seats than the 193 they had in 2011.
The party has continued to express confidence about holding the Senate, where elections are historically less dependent on the national political environment than House races. Still, a number of competitive contests have tightened in recent days as Republican candidates have continuously linked their opponents to Biden, who faces stubbornly low approval ratings.
The White House announced Thursday that first lady Jill Biden will be traveling to Arizona, where Sen. Mark Kelly (D) faces a tough challenge from Republican Blake Masters. In recent days, she has traveled to Rhode Island and New Hampshire to appear alongside Democratic candidates in areas her husband carried in 2020. Some candidates have preferred campaigning alongside the first lady, even as they have avoided appearing publicly with her husband.
The president has avoided campaigning in Arizona, where his approval ratings are underwater. Kelly has kept him at arm’s length while fighting off attacks from Masters that he is too close to Biden.
Biden and Obama plan to appear together in Pennsylvania on Saturday, in an effort to boost Senate candidate John Fetterman, whose recovery from a May stroke has become a central issue in the race. Republicans have argued that their nominee, Mehmet Oz, is a favorite in that race after a debate last month in which Fetterman stumbled over his words and struggled with the question-and-answer format. They have poured money into the state, running ads highlighting Fetterman’s debate performance.
Democrats are also flooding money into the state, which has seen the most spending of any contest this year.
Even some voters who turned out Thursday evening to see Clinton and Harris rally for Hochul were gloomy about the party’s prospects.
Easten Young, a senior political science and history student at Columbia University who said he votes in Kentucky, was worried about a lack of enthusiasm among young voters.
“I’m not feeling too confident, honestly,” he said. “I really hope that people like myself will get out and vote, especially young people, because it’s so important. But I think that it’s not looking too good.”
Democrats face head winds in a number of races, particularly in the House.
For example, the party has grown increasingly concerned that Republicans have a path to win all three House seats in South Texas, a longtime Democratic stronghold.
Party leaders in Texas and Washington have long expected that Republicans could gain a foothold in the region by flipping the state’s 15th Congressional District, where Republican candidate Monica De La Cruz has run an aggressive and well-funded campaign. But, now, Democrats are alarmed by GOP momentum they’re seeing in the neighboring 34th and 28th districts, where Biden won by nearly 16 points and more than seven points, respectively.
Local Democrats have been urging the national party and donors for months to send more resources and place more focus on the Hispanic-heavy districts, particularly Texas’ 34th District, where Republican Rep. Mayra Flores won in a special election in June. But national Democrats largely shrugged off Flores’s win because the district was set to become much bluer for the November midterms due to redistricting.
Republicans are “competing and taking advantage of a frustration, an anxiety in the community. They’ve shown up with real candidates and real money to compete. We’ve never seen that before,” said Democratic strategist Chuck Rocha, a former senior adviser to the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), pointing to the GOP’s big spending in the region to build on Trump’s 2020 gains among Latinos.
“We’re facing head winds, no doubt,” Rocha added.
In Wisconsin, local Democratic leaders are looking with dismay at a once-close race in the 3rd Congressional District, where Rep. Ron Kind (D) retired, leaving the seat open. GOP candidate Derrick Van Orden, who was filmed outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, is running against Democrat Brad Pfaff, a state senator.
“We’re looking very, very good,” Van Orden said in a brief interview Tuesday night. He said the main issues in his race have become “gas, groceries and grandkids,” adding that “we’re all worried about the kind of country we’re going to grow up in.”
The House Majority PAC, the Democrats’ main super PAC for the House, recently canceled about $1.6 million in TV reservations for the final two weeks of the race, giving Republicans a clearer shot at the open seat. Republicans have spent about $3.8 million in the race while Democrats spent about $2 million.
In one ominous sign for the party, some finger-pointing and internal criticism over strategy has begun to spill into public view even as voters are continuing to cast ballots. Some party strategists have complained that warning voters about the threat a Republican-controlled Congress would pose to abortion rights, Social Security, health care and democracy itself has missed the mark.
Clinton said she wished Democrats “could convey more effectively” the benefits of their accomplishments on the economy, even as they address other issues.
“I would boil it down to this — it’s really difficult to tell people what’s going to happen in the future when, understandably, they are focused on the present,” she said in an interview on “CNN This Morning.”
Democrats acknowledge that Republican attacks on crime have hurt their candidates, especially in blue states. In New York, Hochul’s Republican challenger, Lee Zeldin, has tried to link the state’s rising crime rates to Democrats’ bail policies. It’s a message Republicans across the country have embraced to paint their opponents as soft on crime.
An analysis of House Majority PAC spending found that 42 percent of the group’s ads mention abortion, 48 percent mention economic issues, 19 percent mention extremism or Jan. 6, and 5 percent mention education. Most GOP ads have focused on the economy and crime.
Democrats continue to hold out hope that abortion concerns in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade will surprise on Election Day, allowing them to outperform the polls with surprising turnout, as they did in a Kansas abortion rights referendum and a New York special election this summer. But they acknowledge that gains in polling that happened in early September have begun to fade, as prices for gas and other staples have remained high and the Federal Reserve has implemented a series of rate increases to bring down inflation.
Some party officials have begun to consider a potential silver lining of a potential drubbing in House races, which are held every two years. Because some of the losses are expected to be in blue states and districts that Biden won handily in 2020, Democrats could have more opportunities for easier pickups in 2024, said one Democratic strategist familiar with House races, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss the state of play.
“Clear path back in 2024,” the strategist said, “if we lose those seats on Tuesday.”
Dylan Wells, Annie Linskey, Michael Scherer, Sabrina Rodriguez and Azi Paybarah contributed to this report.