For months, Democrats’ polling gains, strong special-election performances and surprising leads in key Senate races have come with important caveats.
Those caveats? The party that holds the presidency loses the vast majority of midterms, and the fundamentals — both President Biden’s approval rating and perceptions of the economy — still pointed to a tough 2022. What’s more, the polls have been off in recent elections (usually overestimating Democrats’ prospects when they are) — and what happens if and when Republican-oriented voters come home to candidates they might not love?
It appears to be happening. And those caveats now appear in effect, with the GOP’s chances of winning both chambers growing.
A Monmouth University poll released Thursday is the latest to suggest the 2022 election is moving in the GOP’s direction. It shows Republicans with a four-point lead on the question of which party American adults prefer to run Congress. That’s the GOP’s best showing since May — before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Republicans also lead by six points among registered voters, specifically.
And it’s not the only one. Other high-profile media polls which test the generic ballot — that is, would you prefer a generic Democrat or a generic Republican — have also shown a modest shift in the GOP’s direction. And FiveThirtyEight’s average of generic ballot polls now favors Republicans for the first time since early August.
The GOP’s lead is narrow, but both history and the setup of our political map indicate even a neutral environment favors Republican gains. That could well mean GOP takeovers of both the House and the Senate, given the razor-thinness of the margins in each chamber.
Perhaps most troublesome for the GOP right now, though, is how polls are trending in some key Senate races.
Holding the House has long been seen as the taller task for Democrats: Not all states are holding Senate races, and several GOP Senate candidates have seemed to underperform. A big reason for the latter: Voters just didn’t really like those GOP nominees.
But, as we’ve noted before, that gave those GOP candidates room to grow. Voters who perhaps didn’t like them but were predisposed toward the GOP and against Biden might ultimately close ranks.
There’s evidence that’s precisely what has happened.
In Pennsylvania, a new AARP poll this week showed Republican Mehmet Oz closing to within two points in a race that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) once led by double digits.
A big reason? Oz’s favorability rating rose from 30 percent in June to 38 percent today. Republicans viewed Oz favorably by just a 15-point margin back then, but they now view him favorably by a 44-point margin.
In Ohio, Republican J.D. Vance has asserted a lead in the polling average after trailing previously. And again we can look to image ratings. As recently as last month, a Suffolk University poll showed his opponent Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) had a surprisingly solid image rating among Republicans, at negative-26 (19 percent favorable to 45 percent unfavorable). The same poll now shows Republicans dislike Ryan by a 56-point margin, while Vance’s image has improved modestly.
There’s similar movement in a third race in which Democrats seemed to have hope of a pickup: Wisconsin. Polling from Marquette University Law School has shown Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) moving from down seven in August, to virtually tied last month, to now leading by six points among likely voters. During that span, he’s gone from an image rating of plus-55 with GOP-leaning voters to plus-74.
In Georgia, Herschel Walker hasn’t benefited from a similar shift. But that’s in part because his image was already strong in the GOP, and it doesn’t appear to have suffered much despite an allegation that he paid for an abortion more than a decade ago. The race remains tight, with perhaps a slight edge for Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.).
The evidence is less compelling in Arizona, where we just don’t have as much high-quality polling. But a recent CBS News/YouGov poll showed Republican Blake Masters within three points of Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) despite 63 percent of voters disliking Masters personally.
Masters remains an underdog, but all of these races appears to be in play for the GOP, and winning four or even just three of them could translate into a GOP Senate majority. That seems very possible if things continue to close in the GOP’s direction in the final two-plus weeks of the campaign — particularly if gas prices don’t drop and if abortion is indeed waning as a campaign issue, as some indicators suggest it could be.
Democrats were never really favorites to hold both chambers; it was always about whether they had a shot to beat history, particularly in the Senate. Their odds of doing that appear to be declining.