(The Hill) — Republicans are looking for a new sense of unity amid concerns that recent infighting, a series of divisive primaries and several high-profile Democratic political victories could erode what should otherwise be a promising chance at recapturing the House and Senate majorities this year.
Despite GOP leaders’ push to make the 2022 midterm elections a referendum on Democrats’ handling of everything from inflation to immigration, a messier picture has unfolded in recent weeks. High-profile primaries have yielded some deeply polarizing Republican nominees, while the party has been consumed by debates over the best way to counter Democrats’ recent political wins.
“I don’t think the message has been as sharp as it needs to be,” one longtime Republican strategist said. “It’s about drawing a clear contrast. Now, I think there are folks trying to do that. But some of the other stuff — the election denial stuff, abortion — it all kind of muddles the argument.”
Republicans are still favored to win back control of the House this year. While inflation cooled somewhat in July, it’s still abnormally high, and an economic recession remains a looming possibility. At the same time, Democrats are haunted by President Joe Biden’s dismal approval ratings and the underlying reality that the party in power tends to lose ground in Congress in midterm elections.
But there are also signs that the political landscape of 2022 may not be as bleak for Democrats as it once looked.
Recent polling shows Democrats making gains on the generic ballot, a key metric of voter preference. There’s also improving news on the economic front: U.S. employers added 528,000 jobs in July, erasing the losses from the COVID-19 pandemic, while there are signs that inflation may be beginning to ease.
Democrats also got a jolt of encouragement this month after Kansas voters rejected a proposed amendment clarifying that abortion rights are not protected in the state constitution, lending credence to Democrats’ hopes of making reproductive rights a pivotal midterm issue.
“It should help Democratic enthusiasm, and it should give Republicans some pause to ask themselves what’s going on in the rest of the country,” Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said.
Democrats got another positive data point on Tuesday, when Democrat Jeff Ettinger came within 4 percentage points of beating Republican Brad Finstad in the special election to replace the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-Minn.) in a district that former President Trump won by 10 points.
The loss was still a disappointment for Democrats. But special elections are often seen as bellwethers for which party has momentum leading up to the November elections, and Democrats saw a similar result in the special election in Nebraska’s 1st District earlier this summer, giving the party hope that the political landscape may be shifting in its favor.
“… [What it] tells me is this idea that there is a lack of enthusiasm among Democrats, I think that’s a false narrative that is floating out in the ecosystem,” Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright said about the close primary race in Minnesota.
“But it also tells me is that there is a tremendous opportunity for us to expand our voting bloc in this election, and bring in some, I would say nontraditional allies and partners this election cycle and build on that,” Seawright added.
Seawright also pushed back against the idea that Democrats should anticipate “doom and gloom” with several months to come before the midterms.
He said that “most of the time when people anticipate these major waves in politics in the midterms, it’s because the other party have not been able to deliver on things that moved the needle with voters.”
He noted the American Rescue Plan as an example, where he said “there was not one single Republican who voted for it. But every single Republican around the country at the state and local level were taking credit for it. The old vote no and take the dough concept.”
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The abortion issue, meanwhile, has driven a wedge between Republicans, many of whom have urged the party to shift away from hard-line positions and strike a more compromising tone out of concern that failing to do so could isolate the moderate voters who will play a critical role in deciding control of Congress this year.
The hope is that Republicans can shift the conversation away from the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the seminal 1973 abortion rights case, and keep the focus on so-called kitchen-table issues, like inflation, gas prices and the threat of a looming recession.
“It’s not to say that critical issues like abortion won’t be central. But it’s going to be a collective understanding of these issues,” said Matt Terrill, a GOP strategist and former aide to ex-Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. “It’s about message discipline. You stay focused. It goes back to the economy, it goes back to inflation, it goes back to skyrocketing gas prices.”
Republican strategist Colin Reed acknowledged that Republicans are facing issues over the quality of their candidates, including some on the Senate side, some of whom are being out-fundraised by their Democratic opponents. He also advised candidates against focusing on the 2020 election.
“I’d say the biggest challenge is candidate quality … at least on the Senate side, and you’ve got lots of big and legitimate questions around a number of the leading Senate candidates in some of these key states,” Reed said.
“As it relates to the messaging, you know, elections need to be about the future, not the past,” he added. “And the Republicans need to be relentlessly prosecuting the first few years of the Biden administration, not rehashing or relitigating the events of the previous administration.”
It’s not as if Republicans haven’t found a clear rallying point. The FBI’s Monday raid on former President Donald Trump’s South Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, was met with near-universal condemnation and skepticism by Republicans, including Trump’s critics.
And every one of the Senate’s 50 Republicans voted on Sunday against a sweeping climate, tax and health care package that had long been pursued by Senate Democrats.
But that doesn’t mean that the primaries haven’t broadcasted divisions within the party, some of which have played in recent weeks in the gubernatorial primaries in Wisconsin and Arizona.
The GOP primaries for both races have been seen as a proxy war between former President Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence. The two men have backed opposing candidates in both races, forcing Republicans to choose sides between the two.
Bill McCoshen, a GOP strategist in Wisconsin, voiced concerns last week about the negative nature of the state’s gubernatorial primary between candidates Tim Michels and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, which featured negative campaigning.
“There’s five days left to go, and folks are getting concerned about whether we’ll be able to put the party back together next Wednesday,” he told The Hill ahead of the primary.
At the same time, Republicans have also shown that they can set aside their differences after turbulent primaries to focus on gaining momentum ahead of the general election.
In Pennsylvania, eight of nine GOP House lawmakers in the state said they would endorse gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano (R), who has been considered a controversial pick given that he’s pushed dubious claims about the 2020 election and has been subpoenaed by the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot.
After Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake won her primary last week, Gov. Doug Ducey (R), who had supported her primary opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson, said he would be supporting Lake’s election heading into November.
And over in Michigan, Rep. Peter Meijer (R) congratulated and wished his opponent, former Housing and Urban Development official John Gibbs (R), well during a GOP unity event in the state after losing his primary. Meijer was one of 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach the former president, while Gibbs received Trump’s endorsement.
Instead, some Republicans are projecting confidence ahead of November even as Democrats seize key wins, like a sweeping reconciliation bill on health, climate and tax reform that is expected to be passed in the House and signed by President Biden.
Lauren Claffey Tomlinson, a GOP strategist, doesn’t see the legislation as a total slam dunk for Democrats.
“Democrats are going to be messaging on a long-term result that they say this will make an impact next year, this will make an impact in the long-term. But what Americans care about is what’s being done right now, what is the impact to my wallet right now because I can’t make rent. I can’t feed my family because of the grocery bills,” Tomlinson said.
“And until those basic needs of Americans are met, you know, being able to afford a home, being able to feed their family, being able to drive to work — they’re not going to care much about anything else.”