“As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.” The phrase was originally coined for Maine. It’s no longer an apt phrase for Maine and it’s probably no longer an apt one for the Buckeye state. Joe Biden was the first candidate since John Kennedy in 1960 to win the presidency without carrying Ohio. He lost the whiter and less college-educated state to President Trump by eight points while winning the national popular vote by 4.5 points. Yet in this off-cycle August, Ohio was the center of US elections yesterday with primaries for two House special elections in the state’s 11th and 15th congressional districts, not as a bellwether indicator for the general election, but for Democratic and Republican Party dynamics. The primaries are the de facto general elections as both seats are not competitive in the general election come November 2nd. Biden won OH-11 by over 60 points and Trump won OH-15 by 14 points. In the race to replace the seat left vacant by now Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, the establishment-preferred candidate Shontel Brown beat out the leftist Nina Turner. The most expensive special election this cycle for a seat in a majority Black district that Democrats were going to keep, Turner’s well-known, anti-establishment past, including attacks on Hillary Clinton, President Biden, and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), brought the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) out in force, despite both Turner and Brown being Black women. Leftists are more often than not going to lose to more mainstream candidates. There are plenty of examples from special elections and primaries this year as well as the 2020 Democratic primary for president of this dynamic.
But the six-member so-called “Squad” in the House and leftists like Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are far from impotent. President Biden instituting a new temporary eviction moratorium yesterday was largely thanks to Rep. Cori Bush’s (D-MO) five-day protest and sleeping outside of the US Capitol. Her activism elevated the issue, bringing the establishment (including the CBC) to her side. Notably, Bush in 2020 defeated Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO) in a primary in which the CBC defended the incumbent. Clay’s father was a founding member of the CBC 50 years ago. In taking a victory lap, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) yesterday said, “When you have to play hardball, you have to play hardball. And we’re not afraid to do that.”
Meanwhile, the President Trump-endorsed candidate in OH-15, Mike Cary, won the Republican primary. This certainly slows the narrative of Trump’s waning influence over the Republican Party. But just like the TX-06 special election last week where the Trump-endorsed candidate lost to another Republican was overinterpreted, a Trump endorsement win yesterday should not be overinterpreted. Special election House races aren’t the pinnacle of Trump’s influence. Republican leaders in this race and the Texas one felt comfortable enough to endorse candidates that were not backed by Trump. But opposing Trump by proxy is not the same as opposing Trump directly. Until there are more direct challenges of Trump or Trump-endorsed candidates lose out in Republican primaries against GOP incumbents who voted to impeach or convict the president, there’s little to be gleaned from Trump’s power over the party by analyzing these special elections.
While the special election primaries say little about the general election, a new internal poll did. Politico yesterday reported that a July poll commissioned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) showed “a Democratic candidate falling behind a GOP candidate by 6 points in a generic poll in swing districts. The survey of 1,000 likely 2022 voters was conducted in more than four dozen congressional battleground districts and regions.” Rep. Sean Maloney (D-NY), the DCCC chair, said in a closed-door lunch last week that “If the election were held today, we would lose.”
The generic ballot is one of the better indicators for the national popular vote. The DCCC’s generic ballot was of undefined “swing districts.” A national generic ballot would be better for Democrats but probably not by a huge amount. Biden in 2020 won IL-14, his 218th congressional district, aka the majority House seat, by 2.4 points. He won the national popular vote by 4.5 points, making it about a two-point difference between the national vote and the median battleground district. An analysis from Sabato’s Crystal Ball in June showed that Democrats would need to be ahead in the generic ballot by 5–10 points in order to have a chance to maintain the House majority. This didn’t take into account the Republican redistricting advantage this cycle. In reality, Democrats may need to replicate something of a 1934 New Deal realignment midterm to keep the House. While it’s still early in the cycle, we are confident 2022 isn’t going to be a realignment election.
Yet even if the odds are long for Democrats, it isn’t stopping moderate Democrats from fretting that the Democratic agenda is a midterm loser for them. According to a CNN report yesterday, an anonymous moderate Democrat said, “There’s lot of anxiety about doing more tax and spending.” CNN noted that the source said, “liberals’ hopes of passing a $3.5 trillion plan to expand the social safety net will have to be pared back substantially, something that would enrage the left.”
This gets at the crux of the House Democratic dynamics for reconciliation over the next several months. For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), it was worth losing her speakership to pass the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010. She pushed hard after Scott Brown won the Senate special election to fill the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s (D-MA) seat, despite calls by many Democrats to ease up on healthcare reform. Pelosi got her way in the end. But was it worth it for House Democrats who lost reelection in 2010? There’s a similar dynamic at play today but with smaller Democratic margins (just three defections to spare) and a more homogenous and nationalized caucus. Of course, passing the ACA wasn’t the only driver for Democrats losing the House in 2010. The historical nature of the president’s party losing seats in the midterms + Tea Party movement + slow recovery and reverberations from the financial crisis/bailout all played a part. It’s doubtful moderates today will be in much better electoral position with a $1–2 trillion reconciliation bill vs. a $3.5 trillion one. Republicans will relentlessly attack them as tax and spend socialists regardless and an underwhelming bill risks low turnout from the Democratic base.
But Pelosi can’t just tell moderates to sacrifice their seats for some long-term policy legacies. That’s why there’s a $100 million campaign this summer by Democrats to make the case that the $3.5 trillion tax and spend agenda as part of the two-track infrastructure process is good politics. Biden, who the DCCC poll showed overperformed generic Democrats in swing districts, is going to make the big sell with Pelosi and her leadership team doing the arm twisting. They are going to make it as difficult as possible in the House to be the fourth Democratic defector to sink a $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. Leadership knows if they can’t arm twist enough moderates, they’d have to arm twist even more progressives on a smaller reconciliation bill. The leftists defeated in Ohio but victorious on Capitol Hill this week may not approve.