Democrats and the White House are trying to flip the script on the midterms, turning an election that is traditionally a referendum on the party in power into a referendum on the party out of power.
President Biden and other Democrats have in recent weeks focused squarely on making November a choice election between their party and Republicans they believe hold extreme views on reproductive rights and threaten the pillars of democracy with their refusal to accept election results and willingness to embrace conspiracy theories.
On the latter issues, Democrats are also trying to make the election about former President Trump, whom they blame for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol that interrupted the congressional certification of the election and forced the evacuation of lawmakers.
Democrats are facing historical trends that the party in power almost always loses seats in the midterms as well as persistent inflation that has given Republicans a major issue to run on. But some strategists see Biden and Democrats as seizing the opportunity to make the elections about something else.
“Midterms are brutal on the party in power,” said Matt Bennett, co-founder of centrist think tank Third Way. “The main reason is they tend to be a referendum on the president, so trying to make it a choice instead of a referendum is smart.
“Two things are making that possible this time: the Dobbs decision [to end Roe v. Wade] and Trump,” Bennett added. “The GOP is firmly in the thrall of Trump, but he doesn’t care about them at all and is not modifying his behavior to prevent this from becoming a choice election. So this strategy is available and it’s smart.”
Because the midterms are often viewed as a referendum on the party in power, that party tends to lose seats in Congress. The last time the party in the White House gained seats was in 2002, when Republicans rode a wave of support in the aftermath of 9/11 to pick up eight House seats.
Biden and Democrats appeared headed for a wipeout earlier this year as the cost of gas, groceries and other goods soared, due in part to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But gas prices have declined steadily for the last three months, and while inflation remains a top concern for voters, it is has come down from the highs of the spring and early summer.
The president has delivered speeches in recent weeks that frame November’s elections not as a referendum on the economy or his job approval, which sits in the low 40 percent range, but as a choice on whether to support a GOP that poses a threat to democracy.
“MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards — backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love,” Biden said in a speech earlier this month in Philadelphia. “They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country.”
Democrats have elevated Republican candidates who still dispute that Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, who have pushed for limits on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy or earlier, and who attack law enforcement over the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol or the FBI’s August search of Trump’s home in Florida.
“History would suggest [Republicans] should easily be favored to regain full control of Congress. But unlike any other midterm in recent memory, this one is more focused on the extreme agenda the party out of power is pushing,” Navin Nayak, president of Center for American Progress Action, wrote in a memo last week on the midterms.
Democrats believe that putting Trump and abortion — two hugely motivating issues for their voters — front and center could help close a turnout gap that typically hampers the party in power in the midterms.
Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on MSNBC that making Trump a factor is beneficial for Democrats both because of their own dislike of the former president and because he tends to turn off independent voters.
“The more he engages himself in the race, the more he puts himself out there, the more it’s a reminder of what’s at stake to people,” Psaki said. “Having Trump on the ballot is a hugely energizing factor.”
Some political consultants remain skeptical that the strategy will be enough to overcome historical trends, the focus on inflation and newly drawn congressional districts that give Republican clear opportunities to take back the House majority.
“I think it’s a losing strategy electorally. It’s a winning strategy from a small-donor argument,” said John Thomas, a Republican strategist, arguing that the abortion debate and Trump’s return to center stage in the news cycle have been a boon to fundraising that could keep some candidates from becoming vulnerable.
Trump, the former president who has been at the center of Democratic attempts to frame the midterms around Republicans, was asked during an interview last week whether the elections would be about him and the many investigations into his conduct or about the economy and crime.
“Well, I think that we’re going to have a very big victory based on the economy. I think it’s about the economy,” Trump told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “It’s about the horrible inflation. It’s cutting people’s lifestyle. It’s cutting people’s — it’s ruining people’s lives, what’s happening.”