Democrats are still smarting about the 2016 presidential election.
Some Republicans continue investigating the 2020 presidential election.
Which is why the 2022 midterm elections really started just as the 2020 election ended.
Not that it seemingly ever ended.
Republicans are bullish they can flip control of Congress. So they’re dialing in on key issues they think can help them at the polls.
“President Biden has failed to protect Americans from the surge in violent crime,” said House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y. “We need to secure our borders. Secure our streets.”
History favors the GOP. Since World War II, the party of the President loses an average of 25-plus House seats in that president’s first midterm election.
Republicans need just one seat to claim the Senate. Five seats for House control.
“If Republicans don’t win the House, I think it would be a pretty significant surprise and a real, almost an embarrassing, result,” observed University of Virginia political forecaster Kyle Kondik.
But Republicans are seemingly already measuring the draperies.
“I’m looking forward to being Speaker in the next Congress,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
But are Republicans overconfident?
“Hell no,” scoffed Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala. “There’s too much at stake for anybody to think we’re going to coast into anything.”
That’s why Republicans continually rail against the policies of President Biden. They’re more than happy to play up what they see as extreme positions taken by members of the Squad or latch onto anti-Semitic tropes from Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. This is an effort by the GOP to cast the Democratic party as out of step with average voters and drifting to the left. And with only a few votes in play to win control of the House and Senate, Republicans believe this is a sound strategy.
Republicans are also highlighting problems with the surge in violent crime across the country. Especially when progressive members push narratives about defunding the police.
“It’s a really sad orthodoxy within the left wing of the Democratic Party that in order to be loyal to the cause, in order to advance their version of the Black Lives Matter movement, you have to be antipolice,” said Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky.
But some Democrats don’t see a problem. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., suggested people not overreact to crime.
“I also want to make sure that this doesn’t drive a hysteria and that we look at these numbers in context so that we can make responsible decisions about what to do,” she said.
Democrats find the GOP’s accusations about supporting police rich.
“So we’re to believe that the radical Republicans who have chosen the big lie over the rule of law?” asked House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. “We’re not going to be lectured about so-called law and order by a party that is leaning into lawlessness and disorder.”
Congress is naturally a reactive institution. Lawmakers often legislate when there’s a problem. But not on crime.
“Every place [Democrats] defunded the police, you got a rise in crime,” argued McCarthy on Fox Business. “They now want to eliminate police altogether.”
Progressive freshman Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., recently drafted a bill to create a federal “Division of Community Safety.” It would research alternatives to policing and incarceration.
This approach baffles some Democrats.
“It’s hard to understand other areas in the country that might be having complications with law enforcement,” said Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas. “All I know is I come from McAllen [Texas], which is the seventh-safest city in America.”
Some moderate Democrats are at odds with liberal colleagues.
“I’m not for defunding the police at all,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio. “It’s guys like me who have been putting the money in the bills and getting it down to the local communities so that we can take care of the rank and file people who are protecting us.”
Democrats may struggle with perceptions of the left-wing tilt in their party. But Republicans have their own problems. Expect Democrats to draw attention to the outsized, sometimes extreme voices, challenging President Biden.
A coalition of ultra-right House members recently assembled a censure resolution for the president. But even that fell short for some Republicans.
“He doesn’t need just censure. He needs to be impeached,” declared Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Texas.
“I also believe that President Biden should have a cognitive test,” suggested Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.
“The President has some real mental issues which need to be evaluated,” piled on Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas.
But one can often distill success or failure in a midterm election based on issues.
Republicans “need to understand that it’s not simply about attacking the Biden Administration and its record,” cautioned Fox News contributor and longtime political observer Karl Rove. “The big issue is going to be the economy.”
Democrats intend to campaign on their still-unfinished infrastructure bill – coupled with their massive, $1.9 trillion coronavirus bill approved in late winter.
“I’m excited to run on a record of results,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., who heads House Democratic re-election efforts. “You can’t run on recklessness and radicalism. And that’s the Republican party.”
Still, looming large is whether or not former President Trump helps or hurts the GOP. Democrats benefitted from disdain for the former President in the 2018 midterms. That’s one of the reasons Democrats captured the House. Consider how Trump drove voters to the polls in 2016 and 2020. That Trump wasn’t on the ballot in 2018 was detrimental to House Republicans that year. And, the outcome of the House elections ultimately proved to be a check on the Trump Administration.
“Presidents don’t always disappear. But they’re usually not as active in post-presidential life publically as Trump has been,” observed Kyle Kondik. “It’s a different kind of a wild card in this election that we don’t have a great historical precedent for.”
There’s concern among Senate Republicans that the former President could create a “Roy Moore” problem. In other words, some GOPers fear Trump could bet on Republican candidates who look great in a primary and tout strong pro-Trump bona fides. But that may be too toxic in the general election.
Embattled former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore ultimately secured the 2017 GOP nomination for Senate to succeed former Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., when he moved to serve as Attorney General. Moore was unelectable as a Republican – even in Alabama. Democrats seized the seat for two years as former Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., defeated Moore.
In other words, voters will want to know concrete plans from GOP candidates.
“People are going to want to know what Republicans are for,” said Rove. “What are you going to do to make the country stronger and my community safer?”
Big spending could harm Democrats among moderate voters. But that cuts both ways. There’s worry progressives may not vote if Democrats don’t ram through liberal priorities or stumble on infrastructure.
Ocasio-Cortez told Fox she thought “there is a risk” of liberal voters sitting out the midterms if her party fails to deliver.
In other words, many Democrats are more dialed-in to other parts of their agenda than addressing crime.
Plus, taking on crime doesn’t always work out politically for Democrats in midterms.
Crime also surged in the U.S. in the 1990s. As we noted, Congress is a reactive institution. Democrats needed to show they were on the case. As a response, Democrats passed a massive crime bill in the summer of 1994 – and promptly lost the House of Representatives that fall for the first time in 40 years.
The primary author of that bill? The then-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and current president of the United States.