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Flip the Script

The Democrats’ Surprise Chance to Snatch Victory From the Jaws of Defeat

The ruling party was set to be slaughtered in the 2022 midterm elections—then the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and Senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin struck a deal.

President Biden, Vice President Harris and Democratic leaders at a bill signing
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Democratic leaders at a bill signing in March

Joe Manchin hit all five political talk shows Sunday, touting aspects of the Inflation Reduction Act that most Democrats would much rather gloss over—notably, $5 billion to upgrade some coal plants. That pales in comparison to the $370 billion the bill would spend on climate-related measures, but it’s the kind of payoff that the West Virginia senator has the power to demand and get.

If the Democrats manage to pass this bill—if the party’s other wet blanket in the Senate, Kyrsten Sinema, or Josh Gottheimer and his SALT crowd in the House don’t kill it—the dynamics of the midterms just might change considerably. Democrats at last have something to show for all their Keynesian ambitions. Combine this with what, as I’ve written, should be the centerpiece of their fall campaign—defense of abortion rights and exposure of GOP plans to limit abortion rights nationally if the party takes back power in Washington—and they have a shot at keeping not only the Senate but maybe the House too.

That’s a long shot, to be sure. The Cook Political Report rates 34 House districts as toss-ups. Democrats are defending 26 of those, and Republicans just eight. Beyond that, there are seven more Democratic seats that Cook rates “lean Republican.” Those aren’t great numbers any way you slice it.

However, something is different in 2022 compared to the 2010 or 2014 midterms or even 2020, when Democrats lost House seats even as their president candidate was winning. In 2010, you could smell a bloodbath coming. There were two reasons for that, one empirical and one structural. The empirical reason was simply the state of the economy, with the country still gobsmacked by the Great Recession. But the structural reason was more interesting and is rather less discussed.

Democrats had won a lot of House seats in 2006 and 2008 because of George W. Bush’s unpopularity. So you had a bunch of Democrats in office in 2010 representing districts with Cook PVI (partisan voting index) numbers like R+5, R+7, or even higher. Something similar was true after 2018, when Democrats won in districts where they normally would have no chance because of Donald Trump’s unpopularity—think Kendra Horn in Oklahoma.

But those winners were largely wiped out in 2020 (Horn lost). Now, if you look at the list of the 26 toss-up Democrats, there are only two in those kinds of districts: Jared Golden in Maine’s 2nd, which is R+6, and Matt Cartwright in Pennsylvania’s 8th, which is R+4. Most of them are in districts that are even, or R+1, or D+1—tough districts, but holdable with the right arguments.

And, I should add, with the right kinds of opponents. Take Abigail Spanberger in Virginia’s 7th. It’s D+1, but it’s also mostly a new district for Spanberger—the state legislature redrew the district to such an extent that it no longer even includes her home. Still, her opponent, Yesli Vega, is a rich target. Vega has questioned the 2020 election results, said January 6, 2021, was just “a group of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights,” and was endorsed in a crowded field by Ginni Thomas, the pro-insurrectionist married to Justice Clarence Thomas.

On abortion, Vega is way out there. She’s accused Spanberger of “murdering the unborn.” And a month ago, she agreed with a questioner who was skeptical that rape could result in pregnancy. From Axios:

Vega was then asked, “I’ve actually heard that it’s harder for a woman to get pregnant if she’s been raped. Have you heard that?”

Vega responded: “Well, maybe because there’s so much going on in the body. I don’t know. I haven’t, you know, seen any studies. But if I’m processing what you’re saying, it wouldn’t surprise me. Because it’s not something that’s happening organically. You’re forcing it. The individual, the male, is doing it as quickly—it’s not like, you know—and so I can see why there is truth to that. It’s unfortunate.”

I don’t see where Vega has said explicitly that she’d vote for a federal abortion ban, but it’s a fair and logical assumption, based on both her statements and her list of endorsers, that she would do so. Spanberger should spend the fall stressing the point and making her answer, as all these vulnerable Democrats should. And say, again and again, the most damning thing of all: that Republicans want 13-year-old rape victims to be forced to have those children. If every voting American hasn’t heard that sentence or one very like it 500 times between now and November, the Democrats haven’t done their job.

Vega is hardly an outlier. Spanberger’s fellow Virginia Democrat Elaine Luria is also running against an extremist, as are a lot of others. If the Democrats can get voters thinking more about their opponents’ extremism than gas prices, a number of candidates in these swing districts might have a shot.

The Inflation Reduction Act can play a role here. It should bump up President Biden’s poll numbers a little. Whether it will actually help reduce inflation by election time is a crapshoot. But Biden and the Democrats now have a pretty impressive lineup of accomplishments to run on: the American Rescue Plan, which (most Americans have no idea) is still sending grant money out to cities and towns and states for a host of projects; the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is just getting ramped up (see this map for how much money is going to each state); the gun bill; the veterans/burn pits bill, assuming Senate Republicans reverse course given the enormous criticism they’ve received; and now the IRA, which will make major climate investments and, unless Sinema knifes it, begin to tighten the carried-interest loophole (it will not “do away” with it, alas, but it’s movement in the right direction). That one is symbolically important because Trump won some points from some credulous people in the media for talking about it a lot in 2016 and vowing to end it, which he never lifted a finger to do.

That’s a real record. Throw in—and emphasize—Republican radicalism, and maybe all is not lost.