Democrats on the defensive as economy becomes primary concern over abortion

Polls indicate tide shifting toward Republicans with high inflation rates and gas prices working in their favor

With less than two weeks to go until election day, Democrats’ hopes of defying political history and keeping their narrow majorities in the House and Senate appear to be fading, as many of the party’s candidates go on the defensive in the final days of campaigning.

Over the summer, many election forecasters wondered if Democrats could avoid the widespread losses typically seen by the president’s party in the midterms. With voters expressing outrage over the supreme court’s decision to end federal protections for abortion access and gas prices falling, Democrats had been hopeful that their endangered incumbents could win re-election.

In August, Democrats took the lead on the generic congressional ballot, according to FiveThirtyEight. They held on to that lead for two and a half months – until last week.

The national political environment now seems to have moved in Republicans’ favor, and Democrats are running out of time to turn the tide. Gas prices started to rise again this month, although they have since started to moderate. With inflation at near record levels, the share of voters who name the economy as their top priority has increased since the summer.

A New York Times/Siena College poll taken this month found that 44% of likely voters say economic concerns are the most important problem facing the country, compared with 36% who said the same in July. Just 5% of likely voters identified abortion as the most important issue right now. Voters’ renewed focus on inflation and gas prices could hurt Democrats’ chances in some key congressional races, given that Republicans consistently score better on surveys asking which party is better equipped to manage the economy.

The shifting winds have prompted some Democrats to question whether they made a tactical error by focusing heavily on abortion rights in their campaign messaging. Just last week, Joe Biden promised to send a bill codifying Roe v Wade to Congress if Democrats fortify their majorities in the midterms.

“I want to remind us all how we felt that day when 50 years of constitutional precedent was overturned,” Biden said last Tuesday. “If you care about the right to choose, then you got to vote.”

With surveys indicating abortion rights are not top of mind for most voters, some progressive lawmakers are urging their colleagues to instead emphasize economic proposals like raising the minimum wage and creating a federal paid family leave program as they campaign for re-election.

“In my view, while the abortion issue must remain on the front burner, it would be political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy and allow Republican lies and distortions to go unanswered,” the progressive senator Bernie Sanders wrote in a Guardian op-ed earlier this month.

Sanders added: “Now is the time for Democrats to take the fight to the reactionary Republican party and expose their anti-worker views on the most important issues facing ordinary Americans. That is both the right thing to do from a policy perspective and good politics.”

Democrats worry that the strategy pivot may be coming too late for some candidates, as alarm bells go off in battleground states across the country.

In Florida, a state that Donald Trump won by just three points in 2020, the Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, appears likely to defeat his Democratic challenger, Charlie Crist, by double digits. DeSantis, a Trump-like figure who is widely expected to run for president in 2024, has already raised at least $177m this election cycle, setting a record for a gubernatorial campaign. DeSantis’s fundraising haul and Democrats’ bleak polling numbers have led many of the party’s national organizations and donors to abandon Florida candidates, in effect declaring a pre-emptive defeat.

In the battle for the House, Republicans are poised to recapture the majority, as districts that Biden easily won less than two years ago now appear to be up for grabs. According to Politico, a recent internal poll conducted by the campaign of Julia Brownley, whose California district went for Biden by 20 points in 2020, showed the Democratic incumbent leading her Republican opponent by just one point.

Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who is overseeing the party’s efforts to maintain control of the House, now faces the risk of being ousted himself. Earlier this week, the Cook Political Report changed the rating of Maloney’s race from “lean Democrat” to “toss-up”. If Maloney cannot hold his seat, the defeat would mark the first time since 1992 that a sitting House campaign committee chair lost re-election. Republicans are gleeful at the prospect of toppling the DCCC chair, dumping several million dollars into Maloney’s district.

Maloney has remained optimistic about his chances, telling CBS News, “I’m going to win this election, and when I do, they’re going to wish they had that $9m back.”

But if the national environment is as dire as it appears for Democrats, a Republican wave could soon sweep Maloney and many of his colleagues out of office.


Joan E Greve in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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