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Is the Red Wave Back?

In the dog days of summer, as President Joe Biden’s average approval rating plummeted to historic lows amid an intense flurry of national setbacks, policy blunders and rhetorical “gaffes” (otherwise known as palpable senility), most in the punditry class began to predict an imminent “red wave” of Republican electoral dominance in November’s midterm elections. The midterms that take place two years after a new presidency typically favor the opposition party, after all, and certain data—such as the four-decade-high inflation rate that was, and still is, raging like wildfire—pointed in the direction of a strong ballot-box backlash to one-party Democratic rule. At that time, we could also add in an “eyeball test” of sorts: Uncle Joe was (and still is), quite simply, way too old and way too bad at this.

Then, from late July through Labor Day weekend in early September, the momentum seemed to shift a bit toward the incumbent party. Democrats largely outperformed expectations in special elections in Nebraska, Minnesota, and New York State, and the culturally conservative state of Kansas resoundingly rejected a pro-life attempt to amend the state’s constitution to democratize the abortion issue and let the state legislature decide Kansas abortion policy. In general, for about four to six weeks, we began to see enough data trickle in to suggest that a “Dobbs backlash”—whereby the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade would have the effect of energizing and mobilizing progressive voters—might really be in the offing. Some promising Republican Senate candidates in reliably Trump-y states, such as J. D. Vance in Ohio, seemed to be failing to gain polling traction. The punditocracy switched gears: The “red wave” might simply be a shapeless “purple drip.” (Some of us, it must be said, suggested that little had actually changed.)

Now, two and a half weeks before Election Day, we are right back to where we started earlier this year, as spring moved into summer. The red wave appears to be coming back.

Republicans now consistently lead Democrats on the generic congressional ballot. As of this writing, the RealClearPolitics average has Republicans up 3.3 percent in the generic congressional ballot polling average; only one of the past 10 polls shows a Democratic lead. The data gets even more interesting when one peeks a bit under the hood into the polling cross-tabs; in the most recent New York Times/Siena College poll that had a R+4 top-line number on the generic ballot, independent women shifted a whopping 32 points toward Republicans (from D+14 to R+18) over the span of just one month. (Polling cross-tabs of that nature, due to the necessarily smaller sample size, should be taken with a grain of salt.) Meanwhile, Biden’s job approval rating has stabilized in the low 40s, placing him double-digits underwater; at least three major polls taken this month have his job approval in the high 30s.

Individual races across the country are bearing this out. In no less a bright-blue Democratic bastion than New York State, incumbent Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul is clinging to a narrowing single-digit lead over Republican challenger Rep. Lee Zeldin. In neighboring Connecticut, incumbent Sen. Richard Blumenthal appears to be nourishing a similarly shocking single-digit lead over Leora Levy. In Georgia, incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp is cruising to victory over inveterate election-denier challenger Stacey Abrams; in Arizona, rising Republican superstar Kari Lake appears very well-positioned in her own gubernatorial race. In both the Peach State and the Grand Canyon State, then, ascendant Republican governor campaigns may well drag across the finish line Republican Senate candidates—Herschel Walker and Blake Masters, respectively—who have been neck-and-neck in the polls against their well-funded incumbent Democratic foes.

The map, moreover, is expanding—the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC affiliated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has been dropping millions of dollars to try to retake New Hampshire. At the same time, based on the candidate funding, national Democrats are scrambling to secure the Oregon gubernatorial mansion, while all but abandoning the Ohio playing field to Vance and the GOP. In neighboring Pennsylvania, the criminal-mollycoddling and stroke-addled John Fetterman is slipping, and the Keystone State Senate race against Dr. Mehmet Oz is now a dead-heat. Nevada, which broke for both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, is now looking like a likely Republican pickup.

In such an environment, when a huge plurality of 44 percent of voters (according to the Times/Siena poll) are voting on economy-related issues and when Republicans are trusted so much more than Democrats on those particular issues, it is reasonable to anticipate that the GOP will win the vast majority of the high-profile, toss-up races. Biden, earlier this week, tried to rekindle the “Dobbs backlash” magic by suggesting a statutory Roe national codification as his leading agenda item come January if Democrats hold Congress, but even that abortion centrality now appears to be woefully misguided: According to a survey this week from WPA Intelligence, voters believe the mainstream Democratic position on abortion is “more extreme” than the mainstream Republican position by an almost two-to-one margin.

The question as always, for Republicans, is what will they possibly do if—perhaps when—they do reacquire congressional power. That question is doubly relevant with two more years of guaranteed Democratic White House control. And it is to that question that Republican leaders, with any luck, will soon turn.

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