For Ken Spain, the moment of doubt came just after Labor Day 2010, when a veteran House Democratic chairman remained politically strong despite a barrage of GOP attack ads.
Instead, both operatives, who were working for the party trying to flip control of the House, learned that it is hard to turn a political environment around ahead of midterm elections. Recent presidential campaigns have featured big surprises — think of a certain FBI letter in late October 2016 or Wall Street’s collapse in fall 2008 — but midterm campaigns have tended to stay on course once voters get a baked-in view of the party in power.
Spain, the top communications aide for the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2010, recalled that the veteran Democrat in question ended up losing, part of the 63-seat gain that propelled Republicans into the majority, despite his seeming resilience in mid-September.
And by spring 2018, GOP campaign committees stopped running ads touting the tax cuts, realizing that they were unpopular and that Democrats were heading for a gain of more than 40 seats in the House.
“We knew we had won that argument,” recalled Kelly, the top communications aide in 2018 for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Alumni of those 2010 and 2018 midterm elections now find themselves looking at the 2022 campaign and considering how much things have changed from just a couple months ago when there was bipartisan consensus that Democrats were going to be wiped out in November.
Instead, mass shootings in New York and Texas made gun violence a top issue for voters, followed by a Supreme Court ruling overturning a nearly 50-year precedent on abortion rights and then a late-summer flurry of federal legislation that energized liberals who previously felt let down by the Democratic legislative majority.
Buyer’s remorse could be creeping in for GOP on abortion
All this while gas prices fell by more than $1 a gallon throughout the summer. And then came Tuesday’s upset victory by Democrat Pat Ryan in a congressional swing district in Upstate New York after Republicans had held a big early lead.
“The question now is not whether the environment has shifted,” Kelly said, “but whether it can stay that way for 70 days, an eternity in politics.”
Not so fast, according to Spain. “The political environment does not turn on a dime. It’s like the tide. At the end of the day, inflation is likely to remain the defining issue.”
He takes the long view on issues and thinks history has shown that the only change that occurs is that the environment just keeps getting worse for the majority.
That’s how it has played out in the past four midterm elections, with Democrats twice losing big and Republicans twice losing big. The president’s party defied history in 1998 and 2002 by gaining House seats — the only such outcomes of the past 100 years.
In 1998, the midterm elections had unique moments. President Bill Clinton was widely popular because of a soaring economy, and House Republicans decided to nationalize their campaigns against his sex scandal, a move that backfired politically. In 2002, President George W. Bush remained one of the most popular presidents ever after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Biden does not have a soaring economy and is not a popular wartime president, which makes some operatives think that in the current environment, Ryan’s win Tuesday was a temporary political sugar high.
Kelly’s Republican counterpart in 2018 compared Ryan’s win in New York to a famous scene in “I Love Lucy,” when the lead character tries to eat chocolates coming down a conveyor belt but is quickly overwhelmed — it’s easier to win a single race now than to defend dozens in November.
“You can eat one chocolate, but then there’s six more coming down the conveyor belt,” Matt Gorman, the NRCC’s communications director in 2018, said.
Gorman knows the feeling: He felt a level of relief in June 2017 when Republicans narrowly won a special election outside Atlanta that became the most expensive House race ever, as Democrats test-drove their midterm strategy by targeting formerly GOP leaning suburban districts.
Yes, the race was incredibly close, but his side had won, Gorman said. “We went to war and we won.” Until November.
Jesse Ferguson, who ran the DCCC’s media operation for Southern congressional districts in 2010, recalled a similar misleading feeling of positivity after Democrats won a special election that spring in western Pennsylvania.
Democrats had spent months trying to find the right message as voters grew angry about high unemployment and disenchantment with the Obama administration’s focus on passing the Affordable Care Act. By May 2010, the Democratic candidate focused on accusing Republicans of supporting big corporations that sent jobs offshore.
But, Ferguson said, that issue resonated deeply in western Pennsylvania — a region that had been battered by the steel industry’s decline — but over the next few months, it lost its potency and didn’t resonate in other parts of the nation.
“Sometimes special elections are isolated and sometimes they are indicative of future outcomes,” he said.
Ferguson thinks the Supreme Court’s abortion decision is a sea change of the type that did not emerge in other recent midterm elections; as evidence of the effect of the abortion ruling, he points to four special elections in July and August in which Democrats performed much better than Biden did in those districts in 2020.
Ferguson is quick to note that Democrats still face a tough fight to keep the U.S. House, given that Republicans need a net gain of just five seats and that late legal fights over redistricting broke in the GOP’s favor.
“There’s no longer a gale-force wind in our face,” he said of Democrats’ prospects.
In fiery midterm speech, Biden says GOP’s turned toward ‘semi-fascism’
Recent public polling shows that Republicans no longer hold a distinct advantage over Democrats in voter enthusiasm, something that the party in power did not see in 2010 or 2018. Also, the generic ballot question now has voters essentially tied when asked whether they intend to vote for a Democrat or Republican for the House, according to the RealClearPolitics average.
On the eve of the 2010 midterms, Republicans held a more than nine-point edge on that question, while just before the 2018 elections, Democrats held a more than seven-point lead.
Spain thinks Democrats are enjoying a brief uptick because disaffected liberals who were always likely to rally to their candidates have come home earlier than usual.
“Partisan coalescing typically happens post-Labor Day,” a moment that provides a “last gasp of hope” to avert political disaster, he said. “That’s accelerated.”
After Labor Day 2010, Spain couldn’t believe that the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), had withstood weeks of GOP commercials and maintained a lead.
Later that September, Skelton plummeted, as did the standing of Democrats everywhere, reassuring Spain that the political direction had not changed. “You started to see the bottom fall out,” he said.
Gorman also recalled a brief glimmer of hope after Labor Day 2018 as border security became more prominent. Then, by early October, Republicans just could not seal their races.
“It was the opposite,” he said. “Races were coming on line we weren’t expecting.”
Kelly recalled feeling confident of a big win at that same moment, after a crush of advertising played out in races the way Democrats expected. Now, she said, Democrats have to take the lessons from this summer and go full throttle on how a Republican majority would mean less access to abortion and more freedom to carry guns in schools.
Voters need to know, she said, that “their freedoms will be put further at risk.”
Spain contends that even a neutral environment will lead to a GOP majority in the House — and that the Senate can remain in Democratic hands — but he also recalls how things just kept turning his way in 2010.
The day before those midterms, NRCC staffers gathered in his office, making their predictions. Most guessed they would gain about 40 to 50 seats.
They unrolled Spain’s piece of paper to see that he predicted a 61-seat again, prompting laughter at his bold call. He agreed it was outlandish and threw the paper away. He was off by just two seats.
“I wish I kept that paper,” Spain said.