Essential Politics: Midterm races tighten as Democrats lose their ‘sugar high’ and Republicans reassess

A man in a suit speaks into a mic
Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona seemed highly vulnerable in March when this Senate committee hearing took place. Since then, abortion politics and the troubles of his Republican opponent have given him an easier path toward reelection.
(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

The 2022 midterm election so far has unfolded in three chapters.

In the spring, rising prices, falling approval for President Biden and growing concern about crime combined to create a very favorable environment for Republican campaigns. Half a dozen Democratic senators appeared at risk of losing their reelection bids, and a Republican sweep through contested House races seemed all but inevitable.

Then, in June, the Supreme Court released its decision overturning Roe vs. Wade and ending the nationwide guarantee of abortion rights that had prevailed for half a century. That outraged Democratic activists as well as millions of previously disengaged voters who suddenly realized that a right they had taken for granted had been abolished by five conservative justices.

Over the course of the summer, that anger grew. At the same time, gasoline prices began what would ultimately be 99 consecutive days of decline and Democratic lawmakers managed to break a long stalemate in the Senate to pass legislation on climate change and healthcare, enacting some major elements of the party’s agenda. Talk of a Republican wave subsided, and Biden’s approval rating began to tick back upward from dreadful to mediocre.


If they could control the schedule, Republicans might have wanted to hold the midterm election in April. Democrats would have liked August.

But the calendar sets the election for November, and now we’ve entered chapter three — with Republicans still favored to win a fairly narrow majority in the House and control of the Senate very much up for grabs.

“The sugar high Democrats were on before Labor Day has dissipated, but they’re still in far better position than many people, including many Democrats, would have expected in the spring,” said Jessica Taylor, who analyzes Senate and gubernatorial races for the the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “This is a unique election cycle.”

A shrinking battlefield

Typically, two big things happen in the final weeks of the fall campaign: pruning and consolidating.

Pruning takes place as the major party campaign committees and other big election players make final bets about which races to invest in and which to abandon.

Consolidating involves previously undecided or disengaged voters starting to focus on their choices. Typically, most of them drift back to the party they usually support, causing races to tighten.


Arizona provides a good example of pruning.

Back in the spring, Sen. Mark Kelly, the incumbent Democrat, looked vulnerable in a state that Biden carried in 2020 by just three-tenths of a percentage point.

But the Supreme Court’s abortion decision hit hard in the state, which has a large share of college-educated, politically independent suburban voters — the group that nationwide has been most prone to shifting their votes because of abortion politics.

In addition, Republican primary voters chose a nominee, Blake Masters, who was backed by former President Trump and had never before run for office. Masters has crammed a lifetime’s worth of offensive statements into his 36 years, giving Democrats multiple targets. Since he won the nomination, his efforts to whitewash his record, by scrubbing his website to remove support for stringent antiabortion measures, for example, have done little good, opening him to accusations of inauthenticity and flip-flopping.

Earlier this month, the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC run by allies of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the GOP Senate leader, pulled millions of dollars of advertising it had reserved in the state. And Masters’ former boss, the billionaire Peter Thiel, who financed his primary campaign, has shown no willingness to invest further.

Multiple recent polls show Kelly with around 50% of the vote and Masters trailing, although they disagree about the size of the margin. The average shows the Republican behind by about 7 percentage points.

A similar dynamic has taken hold in New Hampshire, another state with a large number of independent, college-educated voters. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan was once a prime Republican target. She has benefited greatly from Republican primary voters’ decision to nominate retired Gen. Don Bolduc, who said people should “rejoice” at the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling and who has also strongly backed Trump’s lies about fraud in the 2020 election.

Hassan leads Bolduc by 8 points in the most recent poll of the race, released Thursday by Suffolk University in Boston. Her lead is driven by a 16-point edge among independents, the poll found.

“Independents are the swing votes in these elections. The way the party out of power wins is by having a unified independent wave,” said David Paleologos, who directs the Suffolk poll and has surveyed voters in several battleground states this year.

Earlier this year, a wave seemed to be building, he said, but “Democrats have a line of defense” mostly from independent women, “who are selecting the Democratic candidate primarily because the Republican candidate is out of touch with their values on abortion.”

Pennsylvania illustrates the other trend — consolidation.

Earlier this year, several polls showed the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, with a double-digit lead over Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz in the race to replace GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, who is retiring. The polls showed many Republican voters undecided about Oz.

But a win that large would be highly unusual in a state as closely divided as Pennsylvania — Biden carried the state by 1 percentage point, and Trump won it in 2016 by a similar margin. And, sure enough, more recent polls have shown a tighter race, including a Fox news survey released Thursday that showed Fetterman leading 45% to 41%.

Oz has started to do better mostly because Republican voters have started to close ranks behind him, even though they’re not especially happy about it: The Fox poll found 61% of Fetterman supporters said they were enthusiastic about their candidate, compared with 38% of Oz supporters.

Fetterman’s major vulnerability remains his health — he suffered a stroke in May shortly before the primary. He and Oz are scheduled to debate in late October, an event that could quiet lingering doubts about his recovery — or worsen them.

If Democrats can win the Republican-held seat in Pennsylvania and successfully defend both Arizona and New Hampshire, Republicans would have to defeat two Democratic incumbents to regain a majority in the Senate. The two most vulnerable remain Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada and Raphael Warnock in Georgia. Both of those races seem likely to go down to election day as too close to call.

Democrats could get an extra cushion if they could pick up another Republican-held seat. In Ohio, polls have continued to show the race between Republican J.D. Vance and Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan as a tossup, despite the state’s Republican tilt. Similarly, in Wisconsin, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson faces a strong challenge from Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. Recent polls have shown Johnson with a small edge.

Abortion politics also has played a role in some major races for governor. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and the party’s candidate in Pennsylvania, state Atty. Gen. Josh Shapiro, both benefit from being paired against Republican candidates who strongly oppose abortion rights in states where the majority of voters support them.

In Pennsylvania, the Republican candidate, Doug Mastriano, a conservative Christian whose campaign is nearly out of money and has aired no television ads, used its Facebook page this week to announce a new strategy: 40 days of prayer and fasting.

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The latest from the campaign trail

— Four years after voters set a modern record for turnout in a midterm election, they seem poised to do so again. Or at least come close, Mark Barabak wrote. The latest evidence comes from the most recent NBC News poll, which found 64% of those responding had a high interest in voting in the Nov. 8 election, registering a “9” or “10” on a 10-point scale. That’s more than the poll found at the same point in 2018, when 114 million voters cast ballots in the highest turnout rate for a midterm election since 1914.

The latest from Washington

— The Supreme Court opens a historic term Monday by welcoming the first Black woman justice as it faces challenges to past liberal rulings on race, affirmative action and voting rights, David Savage wrote. At issue this year is a long-standing dispute over the role of race in the law. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joins a court whose conservative majority has put itself on a collision course with progressives and civil rights advocates who insist that equal opportunity and fair representation requires considering race.

— Savage also took an overall look at the major cases to be heard by the high court in the term that begins Oct. 3.

— The Biden administration has narrowed its pledge to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loans, disqualifying some loans that appeared to have been eligible for relief, Jon Healey wrote. The basic contours of the debt relief program remain the same. Borrowers with incomes of less than $125,000 (or $250,000 for a couple) can qualify for up to $10,000 in debt forgiveness on their federal direct student loans. The amount of relief rises to $20,000 for borrowers who meet the income limit and received a Pell Grant — a form of aid aimed at the neediest applicants — while an undergraduate. What has changed is the treatment of loans guaranteed by the federal government but held by private lenders. The change is part of an effort to protect the debt-relief program from lawsuits filed by Republican states and some private conservative groups.

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The latest from California

— In her race against Democrat Jay Chen, Republican Rep. Michelle Steel has turned to a long-standing tactic in Orange County, accusing her opponent of links to communism. As Seema Mehta and Anh Do reported, heavily doctored fliers attacking Chen for supporting a Chinese-backed educational program a decade ago when he was on a local school board have begun showing up in mailboxes across the district, which includes the largest concentration of people of Vietnamese descent outside of Vietnam and where opposition to communism runs strong. Chen, whose parents are immigrants from Taiwan and is a Naval Reserve officer, attacked the fliers as “red-baiting.”

— It’s hard to explain just how much some people in rural California dislike and distrust the rest of us, especially Gov. Gavin Newsom, Anita Chabria and Erika Smith wrote in a column about extremism taking root in the state’s farming and ranching areas. From the small and politically mixed town of Greenville, which burned to the ground during last year’s Dixie fire, they found that there’s a real sense among many people in the rural parts of the state that urban California has betrayed them, ravaged their resources and simply doesn’t respect or value their way of life. In a subsequent column, they wrote that even as residents are working ceaselessly to bring back Greenville’s picturesque Gold Rush charm, climate change is working against them, ensuring that whatever returns will bear little resemblance to what was lost. Instead, Greenville will be a hotter, drier, harsher place. The state needs a tough conversation about how to break the cycle of burning, rebuilding and more burning, they wrote.

— In a historic deal between affordable housing groups and labor unions, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed two major bills Wednesday to convert underutilized and vacant commercial buildings into housing, Hannah Wiley wrote. Senate Bill 6 and Assembly Bill 2011 provide incentives for housing projects in commercial corridors otherwise zoned for large retail and office buildings as a way to help California fill a multimillion-unit shortage in its housing supply. Both bills guarantee union-scale wages and promise an expedited construction process, while keeping development close to city centers to help the state meet its environmental goals and avoid sprawl.

As the deadline approached for signing or vetoing legislation, Newsom also signed into law bills that would:

  • Require companies with 15 or more employees in California to list salary ranges for all job postings. The law, which is set to take effect Jan. 1, brings California in line with states including Washington, Colorado and Connecticut that have passed similar wage transparency laws in recent months, Jonah Valdez reported.
  • Aim to protect transgender youths and their families from bans against gender-affirming care. Senate Bill 107 by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) provides for a range of safeguards meant to block out-of-state attempts to penalize families that come to California seeking medical treatment for transgender children and teens or move to the state to avoid consequences for already seeking that treatment elsewhere, Mackenzie Mays reported.
  • Make it easier for agricultural laborers to join unions. Newsom signed the bill after previously indicating he might veto it. The signing was a hard-fought win for the United Farm Workers, Jessica Garrison wrote.

— The governor vetoed a bill to limit solitary confinement in California’s jails, prisons and private detention centers, rejecting advocates’ hopes to restrict a practice that many experts have likened to torture. In his veto statement, Newsom said he supported “limiting the use of segregated confinement” but claimed the measure was too expansive.

— He also vetoed a bill that would have required cities to forgive parking tickets for homeless Californians. The move was a disappointment for anti-poverty advocates across the state — who have warned that parking-ticket late fees can lead to more debt for already low-income people, Mays reported. “I am sympathetic to the author’s intent to provide financial relief to extremely low-income Californians, but a statewide requirement for parking ticket forgiveness may not be the best approach,” Newsom said in his veto message.

— George Skelton took a look at the debate over Proposition 30, which would raise the state income tax rate to 15.05% — by far the highest in the nation — on annual incomes exceeding $2 million. Newsom opposes the measure, which most of his party’s activists support. Much of the benefit of the tax increase would flow to Lyft, the ride-sharing company, which is bankrolling the ballot measure as a way of getting tax money to subsidize the cost of converting ride-sharing fleets to electric cars.

— A longtime labor rights expert has rescinded his endorsement of Los Angeles City Council candidate Danielle Sandoval, saying he advised her nearly two months ago that she needed to resolve wage theft claims targeting her restaurant, David Zahiser reported. Sandoval, running to replace Councilman Joe Buscaino, said in a statement that she had a payroll company and shift managers who managed compensation at the restaurant. The move comes after The Times reported on the wage claims, some of which have been pending for years.

— The city council in Temecula backed away from a proposed abortion ban after California’s attorney general warned officials that the proposal conflicted with state law, Summer Lin wrote. The council voted 4 to 1 not to include the antiabortion resolution on a future council agenda.

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