Has the political environment changed? The mid-term alums of the 2010 and 2018 waves urge caution.


For Ken Spain, the moment of doubt came just after Labor Day 2010, when a former Democratic House speaker remained politically strong despite a barrage of attack announcements from the GOP.

For Meredith Kelly, the moment of fear came in early 2018, just after Republicans passed a massive package of tax cuts.

But none of these fears ended up coming true.

Instead, the two agents, who worked for the party trying to overthrow House control, learned that it is difficult to overturn a political environment ahead of the midterm elections. Recent presidential campaigns have presented big surprises – think of a certain letter from the FBI in late October 2016 or the fall of Wall Street in the fall of 2008 – but midterm campaigns have tended to stay on track. once voters get an overview of the ruling party.

Spain, first communication aid for the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2010, recalled that the veteran Democrat in question had ended up losing part of the 63-seat gain that had propelled the Republicans into the majority, despite his apparent resilience in mid-September.

And in the spring of 2018, GOP campaign committees stopped running ads touting the tax cuts, realizing they were unpopular and Democrats were headed for a gain of more than 40 House seats.

“We knew we had won that argument,” recalled Kelly, the communication master help in 2018 for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Veterans of those 2010 and 2018 midterm elections now find themselves looking back to the 2022 campaign and considering how much things have changed from just a few months ago, when there was consensus bipartisan that the Democrats were going to be wiped out in November.

Instead, mass shootings in New York and Texas made gun violence a major issue for voters, followed by a Supreme Court ruling reversing nearly 50-year-old precedent on the right to abortion, and then a flurry of federal legislation in late summer that energized liberals who previously felt let down by the Democratic legislative majority.

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All this while gas prices have fallen more than $1 a gallon throughout the summer. And then came Tuesday’s upset victory for Democrat Pat Ryan in a swing congressional district in upstate New York after Republicans had a big early lead.

“The question now is not whether the environment has changed,” 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 is not turning in circles. It’s like the tide. Ultimately, inflation is likely to remain the defining issue.

He takes a long-term view of the issues and believes that history has shown that the only change that is happening is that the environment keeps deteriorating for the majority.

This is how it has gone in the past four midterm elections, with the Democrats losing twice as big and the Republicans losing twice as big. President’s the party defied history in 1998 and 2002 by winning House seats – the only such results in the last 100 years.

In 1998, the midterm elections had unique moments. President Bill Clinton was hugely popular due to a booming 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 of all time after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Biden does not have a booming economy and is not a popular wartime president, which makes some agents think that in the current environment, Ryan’s victory on Tuesday was temporary political sugar.

Kelly’s Republican counterpart in 2018 compared Ryan’s victory in New York to a famous scene from ‘I Love Lucy,’ when the title character tries to eat chocolates on a treadmill 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 there are six more that come on the treadmill,” NRCC communications director Matt Gorman said in 2018.

Gorman knows the feeling: He felt some relief in June 2017 when Republicans narrowly won a special election outside Atlanta that became the most expensive home race ever, while Democrats were testing their medium-term strategy by targeting former GOP-leaning suburban neighborhoods.

Yes, the race was incredibly close, but his team 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 sense 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 over high unemployment and disenchantment with the Obama administration’s emphasis on passing the Affordable Care Act. In May 2010, the Democratic candidate focused on accusing Republicans of supporting big business that sent jobs overseas.

But, Ferguson said, this question resonated deeply in western Pennsylvania – an area that had been hit by the decline of the steel industry – but over the next few months it waned and found no resonance in other parts of the country.

“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 hasn’t emerged in other recent midterm elections; as evidence of the decision’s effect on abortion, he points to four special elections in July and August in which Democrats fared significantly better than Biden in those districts in 2020.

Ferguson is quick to note that Democrats still face an uphill battle to retain the U.S. House, given Republicans need a net gain of just five seats and belated legal battles over redistricting erupted in favor of the GOP.

“There’s no more strong wind in our face,” he said of the Democrats’ outlook.

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A recent public poll shows Republicans no longer hold a clear advantage over Democrats in voter enthusiasm, something the ruling party did not see in 2010 or 2018. Additionally, the generic voting question now has voters essentially tied when asked if they intend to vote for a Democrat or a Republican in the House, according to the RealClearPolitics average.

On the eve of the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans held a lead of more than nine points on this question, while just before the 2018 election, Democrats held a lead of more than seven points.

Spain believes the Democrats are enjoying a brief uptick because disgruntled liberals who were always likely to rally behind their candidates returned home earlier than usual.

“Partisan meltdown usually happens after Labor Day,” a time that offers a “last gasp of hope” to avert political disaster, he said. “It’s accelerated.”

After Labor Day 2010, Spain couldn’t believe House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) had withstood weeks of GOP ads and held on to a lead.

Later in September, Skelton fell, as did the position of Democrats everywhere, reassuring Spain that the political direction had not changed. “You started to see the bottom drop,” he said.

Gorman also recalled a brief ray of hope after Labor Day 2018 as border security became more important. Then, in early October, Republicans just couldn’t seal their races.

“It was the opposite,” he said. “Races were happening that we didn’t expect.”

Kelly recalled feeling confident of a big win at the same time, after a publicity crush played out in the races as Democrats had expected. Now, she said, Democrats need to learn from this summer and go all out on how a Republican majority would mean less abortion access and more gun freedom in schools.

Voters need to know, she said, that “their freedoms will be further threatened.”

Spain argues that even a neutral environment will lead to a GOP majority in the House — and that the Senate can remain in Democrat hands — but he’s also a reminder of how things continued to turn their way in 2010.

The day before the midterms, NRCC staff members gathered in his office to make their predictions. Most thought they would win around 40-50 seats.

They unrolled Spain’s piece of paper to see it was predicting a 61 siege again, prompting laughter at its bold call. He admitted it was weird and threw the paper away. He only had two seats.

“I would like to keep this paper,” Spain said.

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