“I want you to take good care of all the furniture and ornaments in the house, for I want to find everything just as it is now when we come back again four years from today.” — Frances Cleveland, the first lady to President Grover Cleveland, to the White House staff upon departing the premise after Cleveland lost his 1888 reelection (they returned four years later)
“We’re going to take back the Senate, take back the House, we’re going to take back the White House, and sooner than you think. It’s going to be really something special.” — President Donald Trump in a video last month to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, obliquely referring to the conspiracy theory that he’ll be reinstated as president in August (he won’t, but TBD on 2024)
For an ex-president who lost re-election and has a favorability rating around 40 percent, Donald Trump still carries remarkable power. He may not be done with campaigns as he looks ahead to 2024. But both Republicans and Democrats aren’t sure what role they want President Trump to play in the upcoming 2022 midterms. More importantly, Trump’s role probably won’t not make a difference in determining whether Democrats maintain their tenuous hold on Congress.
Trump and Republicans
In many ways, the GOP is still the party of Donald Trump. But what Trump wants out of the Republican Party and the power he actually wields may be limited for the midterm elections.
Trump is still popular with the Republican base that thinks the 2020 election was stolen from him. For Republican politicians, it pays to have a “thumbs-up” photo with Trump at Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster for fundraising and winning primaries. Trump is still the frontrunner for the 2024 nomination if he so chooses to run.
But Trump’s relevance today is diminished. There are fewer Republican voters today who support Trump over the Republican Party compared to last year. Since being banned from social media in January, daily social media mentions of stories about Trump declined over 90 percent. His short-lived blog was a bust. Most news networks have not aired his speeches since he left office. It was this free earned media, estimated in the billions of dollars, that put him front-and-center first as a candidate and then as president. He isn’t expected to make a decision on 2024 until after the midterm elections. When midterms are often referendums of the current president, the ex-president, who is neither directly or indirectly on the ballot, is unlikely to be a defining feature of 2022.
Even Trump’s influence on the Republican primary process is measured. Trump’s team knows that his political power moving forward comes from not just endorsing candidates who win the primary but also who win the general election. One of Trump’s primary focuses is on personal grievances and exacting vengeance on Republicans who impeached and voted to convict him, as well as those he saw as insufficiently supportive in trying to overturn election results. That has led to a missed opportunity for the GOP in getting a top recruit like Governor Doug Ducey to enter the Arizona Senate race. It also is creating headaches in the Alaska race where Trump is going to actively campaign against incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski.
But there are plenty of Republican candidates who fit the mold of being acceptable to both Trump and the Republican establishment. This includes potential top recruits like New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt. Trump’s endorsement of Rep. Ted Budd in the competitive North Carolina Senate primary is not completely out of step with the establishment. Where there could be a clash of Trump vs. the establishment is in safe or fairly safe Republican states and districts, like the Alabama, Missouri, and Ohio Senate races and Rep. Liz Cheney’s seat in Wyoming.
When it comes to political messaging, House Republican leaders are looking to be more “Trump-aligned” and Senate Republican leaders are looking to be more “Trump administration-aligned” in embracing the past accomplishments of Trump and his administration rather than his election conspiracy theories. That alignment is in conjunction with a greater focus on attacking Democrats. Rep. Elise Stefanik, the newly installed GOP messaging leader, has cozied up to Trump, but her messaging platform for the midterms is focused on the multiple crises caused by President Biden — an economic crisis, a national security crisis, a border security crisis, an energy crisis, and a budget crisis. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy released a letter last week focusing on these so-called crises.
Trump and Democrats
Democrats won back the House, Senate, and presidency in just one term of the Trump presidency, but the party remains weary of bringing the ex-president back in the spotlight even if they are eager to focus on Trumpian elements of the GOP.
Democrats don’t want to make Trump the focus of 2022. In the blue wave of the 2018 midterms, Democrats made it a point to focus on healthcare and other policy issues rather than Trump. Senator Ben Ray Luján, who in 2018 was leading the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), recently said, “Even when President Trump was president, people got tired of hearing about him. …Let him do the talking.” Rep. Sean Maloney, the current DCCC chairman, shares a similar mentality for 2022. “When Trump’s name is not on the ballot, there’s no evidence that Republicans’ current message, which is divisive and reckless, will be able to recreate the turnout Republicans saw in 2020,” Maloney said. “It might in fact hurt them.” The DCCC recently came out with a 2020 postmortem concluding the focus on Trump boosted GOP turnout that hurt Democrats down ballot in competitive House races.
At the same time, Democrats are focusing on Trump-related incidents, like the January 6th insurrection, and Trumpist elements of the Republican Party, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Democrats are looking to make McCarthy seem beholden to these elements, calling the GOP the party of QAnon conspiracists and extremists.
Midterm messaging centered on individual members of Congress are rarely successful, especially when they represent the minority party. Republicans have long focused campaign attacks on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi but to little effect. The Democratic attacks on certain members of the GOP could make a marginal difference in certain races and regions but it’s a secondary storyline in national midterms.
The Republican Midterm Advantage
While it remains too early to forecast with certainty what will be the issues that matter for 2022 midterm voters, the historical, geographical, and redistricting advantages the GOP provides a plausible path to breaking the Democratic unified control of government in DC.
Democrats can only afford to lose four seats in the House and zero seats in the Senate to maintain control of both chambers of Congress. Since WWII, the average midterm loss for the president’s party is 27 House seats and four Senate seats. Democrats could overperform the midterm average performance and still lose control of one or both chambers. Losing just one chamber dashes the entire Democratic legislative agenda.
The Republican geographical advantage is likely to only grow due to redistricting. Republicans lost the House popular vote by 3.1 points in 2020 but ended up netting 12 seats. With Republicans in control of changing the lines of 187 congressional districts compared to 75 for Democrats, redistricting alone could put Republicans in the majority without a change to their popular vote deficit.
Democrats are looking to seize upon changing voter coalitions. Biden won 54 percent of college-educated white voters in 2020, an increase of four points from 2016 and eight points from 2012. When midterms are more about turning out the base than persuading new voters, the Democratic Party could benefit from a cohort that has one of the highest voter turnout rates. Still, non-college educated white voters make up a much larger share of the electorate even with lower turnout rates. They even made up the largest share of Biden voters, despite Biden only winning 37 percent of them overall.
Biden’s approval rating will matter more than Trump’s for midterm elections that are increasingly nationalized. Right now, Russian President Vladmir Putin has a better net favorability rating than Biden among Republicans. This leaves Democrats relying on the support of their own voters as well as independents. The latest Monmouth University poll had Biden’s approval rating decline from 54 percent to 48 percent. The decline was all due to decreasing support among Democrats (95 percent to 86 percent) and independents (47 percent to 36 percent).
One poll over a year out from the midterms isn’t indicative of anything, but it speaks to the challenge in a polarized era that anything less than near total approval from Democrats could leave him with middling approval that would make it hard for Democrats to maintain the majority. As a comparison, the one midterm since WWII where the president’s party gained seats in both the House and Senate was 2002. President George W. Bush at the time had an approval rating above 60 percent that helped Republicans gain eight seats in the House and two seats in the Senate.