Democrats and nonpartisan analysts said Wednesday that they saw fresh signs for the party in power to be more optimistic about the midterms after a special election for the House in the wake of the Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade — but acknowledged that with three months left in the campaign, President Joe Biden and his party continue to face substantial political hurdles.
The result in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District, where Republican Brad Finstad defeated Democrat Jeff Ettinger, caught the attention of party strategists and nonpartisan analysts looking for clues about the mood of the electorate. Finstad led Ettinger by four points with 99 percent of the vote tallied Wednesday, according to The Associated Press. Donald Trump won the district by about 10 points in 2020.
In Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District, which held a special election in June, the change was even more pronounced. While Trump won the district by about 15 percentage points in 2020, the Republican congressional candidate, Mike Flood, beat his Democratic opponent, Patty Pansing Brooks, by around six points.
Both elections took place in the aftermath of the Supreme Court striking down Roe, which established a constitutional right to end a pregnancy. Democrats have been working to translate anger with the decision into support for their candidates. They said they were encouraged when conservative-leaning Kansas voted overwhelmingly in a high-turnout election this month to protect abortion rights.
Those three events, along with some other factors, could suggest the political climate for Democrats is not as apocalyptic as it seemed a few months ago, when Biden’s low approval numbers (which remain in negative territory) and high gas prices coupled with historic trends pointed to a Republican wave election, some analysts said.
David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said falling gas prices, an uptick in Democratic enthusiasm after Roe and GOP candidates being pulled to the far right in their primaries have helped level the playing field. “Overall, Republicans are still clear favorites for the House majority, but they may not be in line for the large gains they expected,” Wasserman said.
Republicans don’t need a wave to win the House, only a handful of seats, which is still very much in reach, analysts said. In the battle for the Senate, where candidate strength and the unique political makeup of each state tend to matter more than the national mood, the picture is more fluid.
A precinct analysis of both the Minnesota and Nebraska districts suggests that Democratic turnout was strongest in suburban areas and small towns. In Minnesota, Democrats also improved in rural precincts — by an average of 2 percentage points.
In the higher-turnout election in Kansas, a combination of factors came into play. According to data from the Democratic voter file company Catalist, Democrats saw a higher turnout rate then Republicans for the first time since at least 2008.
Some observers and strategists warned not to overread what happened in these three places. Nathan Gonzales, a veteran political prognosticator, said the politics do seem to be shifting, but said it’s hard to draw conclusions from three small samples.
“I think the results in Nebraska and Kansas and Minnesota shouldn’t be dismissed or ignored, but I haven’t seen enough evidence that these midterms will be atypical,” he said. I think for most of the cycle, it was: ‘Will Republicans have a good election or a great election?’ Since the reversal of Roe v. Wade, it might be closer to a good election.”
But Democratic strategists working on House races say there’s reason for them to be optimistic about the results. If they can overperform in a district Trump won by double digits, then it bodes well for the more competitive seats with closer margins, they argued.
“By just the numbers alone, our voters want to show up. We think that’s good news for us,” said Chris Taylor, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Some Republicans viewed it differently, predicting that inflation would still be a major impediment to Democrats’ chances this fall.
“I don’t see it,” said a GOP operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking more openly. “You always need to be concerned, but right now Democrats have shown an inability to fix the number one problem facing voters. I think people are losing sight of how bad things are for everyday Americans: They’re living with the consequences of Democrats’ economic mess every time they go to buy something.”
Historically, first midterms have been difficult for the party of a new president, and many Republicans say this cycle will be no exception. Privately, many Democrats have also said they worry about a bad night on Nov. 8 when the returns come in.
The Roe decision — which wasn’t present in the run-up to past midterm elections — has appeared to generate energy among Democrats, party strategists and analysts said.
“If you have both parties enthusiastic, then one party can see significant gains, but it’s not a wipeout. Roe has pulled up Democratic enthusiasm so that it’s not as much of a wipeout scenario,” said Gonzales.
Wasserman said Democrats have “made large gains among those who are likeliest to turn out in these low-turnout specials. We wouldn’t have seen these narrow margins before Dobbs. The abortion issue seems durable and is helping them to turn out their voters at more impressive rates than Republicans in these special elections.”
The elections since the Supreme Court decision indicate that the national environment might have improved for Democrats since the elections in Virginia and New Jersey last year. Even in those elections, Democratic turnout was high, as Terry McAuliffe received nearly 200,000 more votes than Ralph Northam did in Virginia four years earlier. But that was not enough to counteract the huge increase in Republican turnout, as Glenn Youngkin received nearly half a million more votes than Ed Gillespie in the state.
At a polling station in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District on Tuesday, Ann Brown, a former social studies teacher, said the Roe decision erased any chance that she would vote Republican this year. But Brown said she doesn’t feel great about Democrats’ chances in November and wishes they had done more when they controlled both houses.
“They had the chance,” she said. “Congress couldn’t unite.”
Former New York congressman Steve Israel, who chaired the DCCC during the 2014 midterms, when Democrats were trounced in House races, cautioned against reading too much into Democrats’ recent performance.
“The question is whether this is a long-term changing environment or the eye of the storm,” Israel said. “I remember waking up to vastly improved numbers in the lead-up to the 2014 midterms, then gravity set in, and our generic advantage evaporated in the three days before the election.”
“The best strategy,” he advised, “is hope for the best and continue planning for the worst.”
Eugene Scott in Washington and Sheila Regan in Minnesota contributed to this report.