Well, today is Mother’s Day, but it also marks exactly six months from the 2022 midterm elections, which means it’s time for the Toteboard to weigh in on how things are looking at this point in time. The short answer is not spectacular, but not totally hopeless either. And the political landscape may soon be in for a major disruption.
So first, some review. As the Toteboard noted early last year, we have several independent variables informing this year’s elections, and they don’t all point in the same direction. On the one hand, history suggests that the party in power will lose ground, especially in the House. On the other hand, the Senate map is at least theoretically tilted ever-so-slightly toward the democrats, bolstered somewhat by the recent decline in ticket-splitting. But the biggest variable is probably the man in the White House, who won a tepid, ambiguous vote of confidence a year-and-a-half ago. Shortly after the inauguration, the Toteboard considered how that might play out in the coming months: “Is the public nervous about Biden, only ready to give him a qualified mandate, and ready to yank his power if he doesn’t perform? Or does Biden actually have room now to grow, i.e., to satisfy or exceed expectations and then win over voters who weren’t quite ready to go all in with the democrats? It seems like either scenario is possible, creating further uncertainty about which (electoral) narrative will come to dominate.”
Unfortunately, fifteen months into Biden’s term, it looks like the former scenario has taken hold, and probably won’t let go. While he did enjoy a modest honeymoon for perhaps six months, last summer’s one-two punch of an awkward Afghanistan troop withdrawal and an unexpected Delta covid spike tanked Biden’s approval ratings, and they really haven’t budged since then. What is strange, if not entirely unanticipated, is that those numbers now seem pretty impervious to either good news or bad news. On the one hand, Biden’s calm, ethical, and strategic response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hasn’t prompted any noticeable rally-around-the-flag bump; but on the other hand, the sky-high gas prices and dismal economic news sharing the headlines with Ukraine don’t seem to be dragging him down any further either. Most likely, people have made up their minds about Biden, and they simply interpret new events through their existing partisan lenses. Of course, that could change, i.e., if covid is just a memory by November, if Putin gives up on his latest descent into madness, and if the economy miraculously rebounds, but that all seems like an awful tall wish-list.
Parenthetically, the Toteboard has a certain degree of sympathy for Honest Joe. He inherited a country, and a world, that is a fucking mess, and it just seems like he has a lot of people and circumstances conspiring against him, from the thoroughly malevolent republican party, to the critical mass of Americans who resist reasonable public health measures, to the global “leadership” unwilling to lift a finger about a looming environmental catastrophe, not to mention the recalcitrant members of his own party who seem intent on neutering his economic and social agenda whenever possible. But Biden is not only a victim. In part because of his age, in part because oratory was never his strong suit, he just comes off these days as kind of foggy, and perhaps even in over his head. For whatever reason, the public does not perceive Biden as embodying the power of moral suasion one expects in a real leader. And that’s a real liability approaching mid-term elections.
Since the Toteboard first previewed the mid-term playing field back in early 2021, there have been a pair of significant developments – one chronic, one happening as we speak – that really could shake things up in November, and for now, it’s really anybody’s guess how things will play out.
Unanticipated Variable #1: The Snake Factor. A year ago, one might have hoped that Trump would either vanish into exile or just die of syphilis, like any other deposed despot. But this vile mound of excreta masquerading as a human being has remained intent on playing the banished republican godfather/warlord, bestowing his possibly-retractable support on those who sufficiently kiss his ass and demonstrate that they can serve his interests in regaining power. Some of these endorsements go to long-time loyalists, and some to pragmatic partnerships, but the ones that will most test his power are the “vendetta endorsements,” the ones designed chiefly to punish incumbents who didn’t help him steal the previous election. At the moment, it’s still too early to tell how successful Trump will be in attempts to wield power over the forthcoming republican primaries – despite the hype, Ohio’s results don’t mean a whole lot yet – let alone the general election. But you can bet it’s a story that won’t go away.
Unanticipated Variable #2: The Five-Snakes Factor. Well, it looks like it has finally happened. The Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, and who knows what other rights they’re prepared to roll back. What is infuriating, of course, is that the republicans methodically and shamelessly packed the court with right-wing stooges (the Toteboard offers an extra special “fuck you very much” to Susan Collins), and now those complicit stooges somehow have the balls to pretend that they have somehow reached their conclusions through legitimate legal and historical argumentation. Will this energize the republican base, who now see for themselves that voting ruthless scumbuckets into office really can fulfill their dreams to turn America into a fascist theocracy? Or will it energize the democrats, who have taken their freedoms for granted for a little too long and are now waking up to the very real threats to democracy? Time will tell, but it only has six months to do so.
THE SENATE OUTLOOK:
The Toteboard’s preview from last year ended on the following note: “Until anything happens that changes the political landscape in a dramatic way, we are looking at a midterm election cycle that may not have a whole lot of movement at all, at least in the Senate. At the moment, the most likely outcome is a swing of only 1 or 2 seats, in either direction, though that could start poking up higher if things begin to get wavy.” And that’s pretty much where we still are now. Depending on who’s doing the counting, there are perhaps 3 or 4 seats that pollsters and analysts classify as tossups, and only a couple more that are genuinely competitive, with perhaps a slight lean toward the republicans. But it is a moderately fluid situation, and a handful of outliers may prove to be more significant later in the year. Not surprisingly, the hottest action will almost certainly involve the four most important tipping states from the last cycle, which may yet again keep us up half the night (or for the next several days) tabulating close returns: Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Georgia. In any event, the bottom line is that the good guys can’t afford to lose a single seat. If they do, they have to pick one up to compensate.
So let’s start with the seats the democrats really have to hold, listed here from most to least secure:
New Hampshire. On the surface, this one looks like good news. Incumbent Maggie Hassan appears to be well-liked, Trump and Trumpism took a real beating in the last election, and the potential A-List challengers former senator Kelly Ayotte and current governor Chris Sununu have both taken a pass. But New Hampshire is one of the most elastic and unpredictable states in the country, and a recent poll shows Hassan’s most likely opponents – senate president Chuck Morse, retired USAF general (and conspiracy theorist) Donald Bolduc, and businessman Corkie Messner – in striking distance or better. Still, all of the big prognosticators – Sabato’s Crystal Ball (SCB), Cook Political Report (CPR), Inside Elections (IE), 270ToWin (2TW), and Race to the WH (RWH) – show the race as tilting toward Hassan. BTW, New Hampshire is in no hurry to settle on the exact competitors, as the republican primary is not until September 13. In fact, the qualifying deadline for candidates is June 10, so theoretically we could even see a late-breaking entry on the scene, but that’s starting to seem unlikely.
Arizona. The newly minted Purple state will surely rate to be one of the hot spots going down the stretch. Former astronaut and Gabby Giffords spouse Mark Kelly successfully flipped John McCain’s old seat, though his 2.4% margin was not as impressive as many polls had predicted, and Arizona’s shifting demographics may butt into the headwinds of a republican year. Still, Kelly is a strong fundraiser and solid campaigner, and the republican party is still in some disarray after the vote auditing fiasco and their failure to recruit top-notch competition. The republican primary is August 2, and polls show a tight race between state attorney general Mark Brnovich (who is on Trump’s shit-list for not contesting the election) and polarizing businessman Jim Lamon, but there are many undecideds, and Trump may spring a late endorsement for right-wing billionaire Blake Masters. RWH tilts this one slightly to the democrats, but the other four outfits currently view it as a pure tossup.
Nevada. Catherine Cortez Masto also eked out a 2.4% victory six years ago, almost identical to both Biden’s and Clinton’s winning margins, so Nevada is technically a Blue (-ish) state, but just barely. CCM’s all-but-anointed opponent is Adam Laxalt, a former state attorney general and telegenic heir to two political families (one of which involved an extra-marital affair), so this one could be a real barn-burner. The few available polls promise a close race, and all of the pundits have this one in the toss-up category. The primary is June 14, but Laxalt is expected to have an easy ride. The Hispanic vote may end up deciding this one, and the democrats better not take their votes for granted.
Georgia. The Toteboard felt tremendous pride and jubilation when Georgia came through for Biden and both senate run-offs last year, and Dekalb County may prove yet again to be Ground Zero, as Raphael Warnock defends the seat he won in the special election. The republican primary is in two weeks, and Trump endorsee Herschel Walker seems to be breezing past a five-pack of no-name back-benchers. But those no-names have been trashing Walker pretty fiercely during a series of debate no-shows, calling out the former UGA football hero on his carpetbagging, inflated resume, shady business dealings, and history of spousal abuse and mental health problems, not to mention his lack of fluency on any actual policy matters (in other words, for being very Trumpian on all of the above), and things could get interesting if they can manage to force Walker into a runoff. But the most important Peach State primaries to watch on May 24 may not involve the senate at all. Georgia is Trump’s main vendetta state, and he has declared war on the republican governor and attorney general, and inserted himself into other tertiary contests as a result. In a truly bizarre internecine conflict, Trump cajoled defeated reptilian senator David Perdue into challenging the redneck governor Brian Kemp (a true battle of bad guys), and threw his weight behind conspiracy mongering congressman Jody Hice against the stubbornly constitutionalist (though hardly squeaky-clean) attorney general Brad Raffensperger, which created a chain reaction in races all the way down to dog-catcher. How so? Well, the ex-democrat and erstwhile corrupt DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones, who has tried to re-brand himself as the “Black Trump,” desperately wanted the Don’s nod for the gubernatorial race, but even Trump could recognize the chameleonic Jones for the damaged goods that he is. So to nudge Jones out of the race, and presumably to bolster Perdue’s chances, Trump promised Jones an endorsement for Hice’s seat in the conservative 10th district, a community with which Jones has no historical connection. And to clear the way for Jones, Trump talked declared candidate Patrick Witt into running for Insurance Commissioner instead, blindsiding the (Hispanic) republican incumbent John King, who was just minding his own business and expecting an easy re-nomination and re-election. Are you following any of this? Because this doesn’t even include the good stuff. However this republican circus turns out, the marquee senate matchup will be paired with a marquee gubernatorial matchup, as United Earth President Stacey Abrams pits her top-flight organization and personal charisma against whichever lowlife the republicans settle on in two weeks (at the moment, the polls favor Kemp). The duo of Warnock and Abrams should galvanize the African-American and liberal white vote, while the republicans will work to demonize them both in what will certainly be races decided by who gins up the most fervent turnout in this highly inelastic state. The Big-5 prognosticators all have this one in the tossup category as well. Note to fellow Georgians from the Toteboard: Unless there are important local primaries in which you are deeply invested, opt for a republican ballot on primary day (yes, that’s legal), hold your nose, and vote against Trump’s entire slate. Then go take a long shower.
And now, here are the best democratic targets, listed from most to least flip-able:
Pennsylvania. This is the only open seat in an Indigo state the democrats won in 2020, so it’s easily their best shot this time around. The democratic contest has been mostly between progressive lieutenant governor John Fetterman and moderate congressman Conor Lamb, though recent polls suggest that Fetterman, a vociferous defender of the state’s election integrity in the wake of Biden’s victory, may have it locked up. After having put up a series of lackluster senate candidates in recent cycles, the PA dems may have found their boy in Fetterman, who certainly casts a memorable figure, with his burly 6’9” frame, shiny chrome noggin, graying goatee, and standard-issue uniform of work shirts and cargo shorts. On the republican side, a free-for-all is currently underway among an army vet, a businessman, a boxing commissioner, a Bush-43 administration dinosaur, an ambassador to Denmark, a celebrity doctor, and a few other peculiar wannabes, with much of the usual GOP drama. Trump withdrew his support for Sean Parnell after public accusations from his ex-wife of spousal and child abuse, and the remaining candidates have since played musical chairs with the weak frontrunner seat. At the moment, Dr. Oz, former treasury secretary David McCormick, and the Black conservative Jill-of-few-trades Kathy Barnette are all slugging it out in the low double digits, with many undecideds. Until we know the actual nominees, it will be hard to get a handle on this one, but we’ll know the shape of things soon, as the primaries are being held on May 17. For now, most of the pundits have this one as a tossup, though IE tilts it slightly red and RWH tilts it slightly blue. This is a big one.
Wisconsin. This is a contest that really should be a big opportunity for democrats, but no one seems to be getting too excited yet, perhaps because the primary is not until August 9, and candidates still have almost a month just to qualify for it. Incumbent Ron Johnson is theoretically a weak candidate, having won two previous elections in heavily republican years by only modest margins, and transforming himself in recent years from supposed pragmatic coalition-builder to mouthpiece for the right’s worst fever-dreams. And democrats have a decent bench, with lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes (who would be the state’s first Black senator), state treasurer Sarah Godlewski, and many others hoping to distinguish themselves from the crowd. But Johnson has survived in the past, and pollsters have habitually underestimated his support (and that of Cheesehead republicans in general) in a state that may or may not be Indigo after all, so 3 of the 5 analysts are somewhat bearish on the democrats’ chances.
North Carolina. Although Obama and Kay Hagan won here in 2008, North Carolina has remained a Burgundy state since then, lingering in the “can’t-quite-seem-to-win” column for democrats over the last several cycles. The open-seat race is clearly not the lowest hanging fruit, but it is still theoretically contestable, at least according to some early polls. The democratic candidate-to-be is former state supreme court chief justice Cheri Beasley, while the republicans seem poised to bypass former governor Pat “Bathroom Bill” McCrory in favor of congressman and Trump protégé Ted Budd. We’ll know for sure in a week-and-a-half, as NC joins PA as an early-primary state. All of the prognosticators tilt this one red, though they differ slightly as to how deeply.
Florida. Seemingly in response to the Toteboard’s urgings, congresswoman and former impeachment manager Val Demings has decided to take a crack at Marco Rubio, who has certain institutional and demographic advantages but is really kind of an empty suit. If anyone can crack this notoriously stubborn Burgundy state, it might be Demings, who is a sharp spokesperson for democratic ideals, has tight connections to law enforcement, and could conceivably rally the African-American vote. Most of the pundits don’t give her a shot, but a couple haven’t written her off quite yet, and the Toteboard would really, really, like to see this one go blue. Side note: If Wisconsin’s Barnes, North Carolina’s Beasley, and Florida’s Demings can run the table, we’ll have an unprecedented three Black women in the Senate. The primaries aren’t until August, and the results are pretty much predetermined, so this one will stay under the radar for a while.
Ohio. This now Burgundy and rapidly-reddening state probably wouldn’t be on the radar, were it not for the retirement of incumbent Rob Portman and the recruitment of a possibly strong democratic candidate. The recent republican primary gave the nod to hillbilly elegist JD Vance, who wriggled up from the muck thanks to a late and somewhat contested Trump endorsement, while the dems are putting their best foot forward with congressman Tim Ryan, who notably (but unsuccessfully) challenged Nancy Pelosi for the House leadership position and made an abortive stab at a presidential run. Ryan boasts a standard progressive voting record, but he also has his fingers on the pulse of the Ohio labor class and gets (in a way few democrats do) the ways that globalization hasn’t always been so good economically for his state. Like Florida, this isn’t yet a prime target, but it very well could be later on.
Addenda: Two quick notes. First, Iowa was originally on this “maybe” list back when there were rumors circulating that 7-term senator (!) Chuck Grassley would retire. But Farmer Chuck decided that he wants to spend his 90s harassing democratic judicial nominees, and he’s pretty much untouchable. To make things worse, likely democratic nominee Abby Finkenauer almost failed to qualify for the primary, which doesn’t make her or her team look all that competent. In any event, the Toteboard doesn’t see this race as competitive. Second, there’s some buzz that if Missouri republicans nominate disgraced former governor Eric Greitens (no domestic abuse here, just attempts to blackmail a former mistress), he’ll be a vulnerable “legitimate rape” candidate (a la Todd Akin), but the Toteboard just doesn’t see a democrat winning Missouri in this day and age.
Overall, the 2022 midterms don’t look a whole lot different now from where they were fifteen months ago. The races to watch are mainly in the new perennial tipping-point states of Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, with no more than a half-dozen additional states (especially Nevada) possibly creeping up into top-tier status. If the democrats carry all the states Biden won in 2020, they stand to gain one seat. If the two parties split the difference on the states currently rated as tossups, the democrats actually stand to lose one seat. So for now, it’s looking close. Over the next several months, we’ll get a clearer picture of who the actual contenders are in most of the key states, the extent to which Trump is really still in charge of the republican party, and how the abortion issue seems to be effecting the playing field. And of course, there’s always the economy, Biden’s approval ratings, and other national or global surprises that could change the mood of the electorate by November.
Stay tuned for the next Toteboard update on the midterms in three months, as well as other Toteboard posts in the interim. Until then, OK, see you.