WASHINGTON — Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott has been in the House of Representatives long enough to remember the drubbing the Democrats took in 2010. As a freshman in 1994, he witnessed firsthand Newt Gingrich’s “Republican Revolution” sweep aside 40 years of Democratic control.
His advice for fellow Democrats once again facing an uphill battle to retain full control of Congress, which history says they are almost certain to lose?
“If you campaign, as Joe Biden says, against the alternative — not against the Almighty — we have a lot to campaign on,” Scott told HuffPost.
“If our focus is on what didn’t get done, people will not be impressed. If they look at what we have done, this is one of the most productive, progressive legislatures we’ve had in decades. So the question is how we’re going to campaign,” he added.
With a recent string of legislative victories — possibly capped off later this month by a huge climate tax and prescription drug pricing bill — Democrats are beginning to feel they have some big-ticket items they can take to the voters in November, even if it is not everything they would have wanted.
Add in a voter base energized by the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and an uptick in polling on whom voters prefer to see control Congress next year, Democrats are beginning to feel something akin to hope.
“We feel good,” one Democratic House aide told HuffPost. “Who knows about November, but this definitely helps.”
To be clear, the path remains incredibly steep and the likelihood Democrats can buck the historic trend of the party that controls the White House suffering substantial losses in the House remains small. But, Democrats hope, it may not be as small as it was a few weeks ago.
While Biden’s approval rating remains incredibly weak — FiveThirtyEight’s approval rating tracker has just 40% of voters approving of his job performance, with 55% disapproving — the rest of the party is so far floating above the 79-year-old president electorally.
The generic ballot, which has become an increasingly important measure of the battle for the House of Representatives, is looking better for Democrats than it has in months. FiveThirtyEight’s generic ballot tracker has the two parties essentially tied at 44% of the vote.
“We feel good.”
The inability of House members, who command far less media attention than their Senate counterparts, to meaningfully separate themselves from the national party brand means Biden’s inflation-driven unpopularity is going to drag the party down more in the lower chamber than it will in the Senate. But political forecasters are increasingly skeptical of a total Democratic wipeout in November.
“The last few weeks have called into question the size of the impending ‘red wave,’” David Wasserman, the Cook Political Report’s House editor, wrote in late July.
“Not only has the Dobbs decision infuriated and energized Democrats, but Democrats continue to outpoll Biden’s approval on both the generic ballot and in polls of individual races,” he added, referring to the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.
Republicans are still seen as likely to take the House, but Democrats are more hopeful they can limit the size of the GOP’s eventual majority — perhaps small enough for Democrats to mount a serious effort to take back the chamber in 2024.
In the battle for control of the Senate, buoyant polls in Pennsylvania and Georgia have shown Democrats in the lead against weak GOP candidates. In five surveys released this month, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has had a lead of 6 percentage points or more against celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz.
“The last few weeks have called into question the size of the impending ‘red wave.’”
The most recent Fox News poll of the race, released on Thursday, saw Fetterman earning 47% of support to Oz’s 36%. Particularly notable was Fetterman’s strength with white voters without a college degree, a group that has strongly tended toward the GOP since Donald Trump’s breakthrough victory in 2016.
Similarly, a Fox News poll of Georgia’s Senate race gave Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock a 46% to 42% lead over Republican Herschel Walker, a result in line with other recent polling of the contest.
The Senate is currently split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking ties. Republicans are going after Democrat-held seats in Georgia, New Hampshire, Nevada and Arizona, while Democrats are attempting to win over GOP-held seats in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Democrats have recently leveraged the split in the Senate to wrangle some legislative wins on bipartisan issues, like a gun control bill and a bill to boost the U.S. manufacture of semiconductors. And this week, they may add to those wins with a party-line vote for an unexpected agreement between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and conservative Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) on taxes, climate change mitigation measures and lowering the price of prescription drugs.
In the House, Democrats have maintained an uncharacteristic level of unity in passing what the Senate has sent them as well as taking largely symbolic votes meant to portray Republicans as out of the mainstream on assault weapons, the right to same-sex marriage and the right to abortion.
Democrats see the decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe as a potential wake-up call to their voting base. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she hopes it will lead to an “organic” backlash similar to that of many women in 2017 to the election of Trump as president.
“I think there’s more optimism because of the real contrast between our positive agenda and their negative mega-extremism, to criminalize a woman’s personal health decisions, to repeal Medicare and Medicaid, to hurt our democracy,” Pelosi told HuffPost Friday.
“I think the contrast is becoming clear to the public,” she added.
The rise of abortion rights as an electoral issue has clearly helped Democrats. While it has not surpassed inflation as the top issue for voters or totally overthrown the existing electoral calculus, Americans are increasingly naming it as a top driver of their vote.
A Suffolk University poll released last week, for example, showed 16% of respondents said abortion was their top issue, compared with 20% who named the economy and 11% who said the cost of living. Among women, abortion was the top issue.
Abortion may get even more attention from Democrats after Tuesday’s surprise rejection in Kansas of a proposed constitutional amendment to restrict it. The issue boosted turnout beyond expectations for a party primary election and the vote to reject the amendment was decisive, 59% to 41%.
Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said the Senate’s efforts on drug prices, climate change, tax avoidance and semiconductors show Democrats have been listening to the public’s concerns.
“The best politics is good policy,” he said.
Still, there are plenty of indicators of a rough political environment for Democrats. Poll after poll shows GOP voters are more enthusiastic about voting in November, and in many surveys — such as a New York Times/Siena College one — the undecided voters tend to have disproportionately negative opinions of Biden.
History remains on Republicans’ side, and they know it.
“Hope is not an election strategy. We wish Democrats luck winning over voters who blame them for record-high inflation and a recession,” said Michael McAdams, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Only days earlier, the NRCC tweeted out the 10-0 score of last week’s GOP victory over Democrats in the annual Congressional Baseball Game and took the opportunity to twist the rhetorical knife a bit.
“And November is going to be worse,” the NRCC wrote.