September 26, 2022

Energized abortion-rights voters. Donald J. Trump back in the spotlight. Stronger-than-expected special elections, including a surprising win early Wednesday in New York.

Democratic leaders, once beaten down by the prospect of a brutal midterm election in the fall, are daring to dream that they can maintain control of Congress this November.

An unexpected victory by Pat Ryan, a Democrat, in a special House election to fill a vacancy in New York’s Hudson Valley offered Democrats solid evidence that their voters were willing to come out and that their message was resonating. It followed strong Democratic showings in other special elections, in Nebraska, Minnesota and upstate New York, since the Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade. Mr. Ryan placed abortion rights front and center while his Republican opponent, Marc Molinaro, sidestepped the issue to focus on the problems his party still believes will drive voters — inflation, crime, the economy. It didn’t work.

“Kevin McCarthy made a big mistake by measuring the drapes too early and doubling down on Trumpism, and it’s proving to be fatal,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, referring to the House Republican leader.

But the House map in 2022 favors Republicans, thanks to Republican-led redistricting and a slew of retirements of Democratic lawmakers. That means the shifting political winds are more likely to merely blunt any Republican wave in the House rather than save the Democratic majority.

Primary races and special elections, which fill seats that are vacated before the end of a lawmaker’s term, are not necessarily reliable predictors of general election turnout, Republicans note.

“Majorities are won in November, not August,” said Michael McAdams, the communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House Republicans’ official campaign arm. “We look forward to prosecuting the case against Democrats’ failed one-party rule that’s left American families worse off.”

That endeavor is becoming harder. Falling gas prices have robbed Republicans of the starkest visual evidence of inflation. Passage in recent weeks of legislation to control prescription drug prices, tackle climate change, extend health insurance subsidies, bolster domestic semiconductor manufacturing and impose tighter gun controls on teenagers and the mentally ill have given Democrats achievements to run on while countering accusations of a do-nothing Congress.

And the F.B.I.’s seizure of hundreds of highly classified documents from Mr. Trump’s Florida home has put the former president back into the spotlight as Democrats press their efforts to cast Republicans as extremists and make the November election a choice between the two parties, not a referendum on President Biden.

For the first time since the fall of 2021, polling averages indicate a narrow majority of voters who say they prefer Democratic over Republican control of Congress.

Even some Republicans own up to nervousness.

“It looks like troubling clouds on the horizon to me,” said Representative Billy Long, a Republican from Missouri. “The Republicans need to heed Satchel Paige’s advice of ‘Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.’”

And yet, for all the trend lines tilting toward Democrats, there is still the unavoidable math of the midterms.

Republicans need a mere five seats to win a House majority — and their candidates are in strong positions to win the bulk of nine districts that Mr. Trump would have won easily two years ago if the new maps had been in place. Seven of those nine seats do not have a Democratic incumbent to defend them. Republicans might have their pick of another seven Democratic seats that Mr. Trump would have won in 2020, though by narrower margins. Four of those have no incumbent to defend them.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates 10 Democratic seats as leaning toward or likely to be Republican, against three Republican seats that lean Democratic. That works out to a Republican majority.

“The Republicans don’t need a wave to win back the House,” said Nathan L. Gonzalez, a nonpartisan House election analyst. “There will be some Democrats who win in Trump districts, but they will be the exceptions, not the rule.”

Still, more than a dozen interviews with Democratic candidates illustrated the consistency of their optimism. They all saw Democratic and independent voters as newly energized by the abortion issue. They believed recent Democratic achievements had changed their image as an ineffectual majority to an effective one. And they detected real fear among voters of a resurgent, anti-democracy right wing, abetted by the Republican leadership.



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“You’ve got Democrats delivering and Republicans seemingly obsessed with banning abortion, attacking the F.B.I., prosecuting their culture wars and playing their grievance politics,” said Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey, whose redrawn district leans Republican but who insists he has the momentum in his bid for re-election.

Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan, whose redrawn district is more Republican and more rural, said she could not count the number of Republican women who had pulled her aside to express their fears of an abortion ban. That feedback, on top of the local projects she has won for Central Michigan and the general turmoil in the state’s G.O.P., has her confidence significantly up, she said.

“There is a path to holding the majority,” she said. “It’s a narrow path, but there is a path. If you asked me six months ago, I would have said there was no path.”

Even Democratic candidates who many thought did not have a chance earlier this year are campaigning hard and expressing confidence. Representative Tom O’Halleran, Democrat of Arizona, whose vast new district includes more than half the state and is solidly Republican, emerged from a town-hall meeting on Tuesday night to scoff at the prognosticators who put his seat in the Republican column.

“The level of enthusiasm is comparable to the last cycle, when we had a huge turnout,” Mr. O’Halleran said. “My name recognition is extremely high, I have the power of incumbency and the majority of the new district was where I was a state legislator for six years.”

For House candidates like Mr. O’Halleran, broader political forces may be lifting them up. Senator Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat, was expected to have one of the toughest re-election races in his country, but his huge war chest and centrist campaign have given him a measurable lead over Blake Masters, a Trump-backed political newcomer who overtook more experienced Republicans.

A heated governor’s race has also supercharged the Arizona electorate. Katie Hobbs, the Democratic secretary of state who certified Mr. Biden’s 2020 victory in Arizona, is facing Kari Lake, a Trump-endorsed former television news personality who ardently denies Mr. Biden’s victory and falsely claims that Mr. Trump was the winner.

Similar statewide races may be helping Democratic House candidates in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida and possibly Texas, where Trumpism and abortion have raised the stakes and boosted voter enthusiasm in usually sleepy midterm elections.

“It’s palpable, certainly in the base, but it goes beyond that,” said Representative Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat who won the Florida primary on Tuesday to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis in November.

Data backs that feeling up. A poll released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center found that 56 percent of registered voters said the issue of abortion would be very important in their midterm vote, up from 43 percent in March, with nearly all of that increase coming from Democrats. Virtually the same percentage of Democrats — 69 percent against 72 percent of Republicans — now say it “really matters” which party controls Congress. That is up nine percentage points for Democrats and barely changed among Republicans.

None of that surprises Simon Rosenberg, the founder of New Democrat Network who helped propel Democratic candidates in the wave election of 2018. Republican leaders made two starkly bad decisions this year, Mr. Rosenberg said. They rushed to embrace Mr. Trump’s political movement, even after it had suffered consecutive losses in 2018 and 2020, and they opted against putting out a platform to run on, believing the 2022 election would hinge on an unpopular president and Democratic control.

“It’s the MAGA hangover,” he said. “A lot of people are disappointed in Joe Biden, but that doesn’t mean they’d turn around and vote for Republicans, a party that has been overtaken by extremism.”

Republican voters have helped the process. When the Republican-controlled legislature in Ohio redrew congressional maps, the party hoped to oust Representative Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat, by turning her blue-collar manufacturing district red with rural voters west of Toledo. Then those voters nominated J.R. Majewski, a conspiracy theorist who has repeatedly shared material related to the outlandishly false QAnon movement. Even Republicans give Ms. Kaptur a fighting chance.

A redrawn district around Grand Rapids, Mich., had already turned a longtime Republican seat into a tossup. But then primary voters ousted Representative Peter Meijer for his vote to impeach Mr. Trump and chose a Trump acolyte instead, John Gibbs.

“We’re running against someone who will not admit that Joe Biden is the duly elected president of the United States,” said Hillary Scholten, the Democrat now favored in that race in November. “It’s deeply, deeply concerning for many, many voters in this district.”

Republican legislators in Tennessee redrew Representative Jim Cooper’s long-held district around Nashville to dilute the power of the growing Democratic city, chasing him into retirement while hoping to bequeath the newly Republican district to Beth Harwell, the first female speaker of the State House of Representatives. Then she was beaten in the primary by a much more Trump-aligned conservative, Andy Ogles.

On Monday, the Democrat in the race, State Senator Heidi Campbell, released an internal poll indicating that if the election were today, she would win 51 percent to 48 percent. Many have dismissed it, but almost no one thought there would be a race at all.

“People are tired of the divisive politics,” Ms. Campbell said Wednesday.

Regardless of the dynamics in individual races, control of the House will still be shaped by district lines, many of which simply may not be winnable for Democrats.

Representative Al Lawson, a veteran Black Democrat in North Florida, saw his solidly Democratic district turn bright red after the governor, Mr. DeSantis, pushed the state legislature and the courts to win approval of an aggressively gerrymandered map that could cost Democrats four seats. Mr. Lawson appealed to the courts to save the one district that would represent Black Floridians in the state’s north, but he was unsuccessful.

Mr. Lawson said Wednesday that he was campaigning hard, but even he did not predict he could beat another incumbent, Representative Neal Dunn, a Republican who has the strong backing of Mr. Trump.

“I look forward to the challenge,” he said.

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