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Democrats Sense New Optimism for Blunting GOP’s Midterm Gains

(Bloomberg) -- Democrats are increasingly optimistic they can limit Republican gains in the House and even keep control of the Senate as a raging national debate on abortion crowds inflation as an issue and the tumult around former President Donald Trump drags on the GOP.

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The House is almost certain to flip to Republican control after the November midterm elections. Democrats now have only a nine-seat advantage, and independent analysts forecast a net gain of as many as two dozen seats or more for the GOP, helped by partisan redistricting in Republican-controlled states.

The Senate, now split 50-50, is increasingly looking like a toss-up, with Democrats’ prospects enhanced by inexperienced GOP candidates in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia and Arizona who’ve underperformed in polls despite Trump’s backing and President Joe Biden’s dismal approval ratings. Wisconsin and Nevada also are battlegrounds.

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell has been lowering expectations in recent weeks.

“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” he told reporters at an event Thursday in his home state of Kentucky. “Senate races are just different, they’re statewide. Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”

The one result of the November vote that’s likely baked in is legislative gridlock and an end to Biden’s hopes of advancing his agenda through Congress in the final two years of his first term. If congressional control is split between the parties, the House and Senate are unlikely to agree on any major new initiatives. If Republicans take control of both chambers, they won’t have a big enough majority to overcome a Biden veto of legislation.

Analyst Nathan Gonzales of the non-partisan Inside Elections newsletter said he still gives a slight edge to Republicans in the Senate contest. But he said there are recent signs Democratic voters are more energized after the Supreme Court in June overturned the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

In recent House special elections in Nebraska and Minnesota, Republican victors eked out surprisingly narrow wins in districts that supported Trump by double digits, he said. And Kansas voters’ rejection this month of a constitutional amendment allowing state lawmakers to further restrict abortion access showed the issue’s potency.

“We’re still waiting to see if the reversal of Roe v. Wade is enough to help Democrats buck the typical midterm trend,” Gonzales said. Although the president’s party typically suffers significant losses in midterm elections, “there is some evidence in recent weeks that Democrats are over-performing.”

He is projecting a GOP net gain of 12-30 seats in the House. Given the shifts in the political climate, Gonzales said, the prospects for GOP House seat pickups could be toward the lower end, “the difference between Republicans having a great year or just having a good year.”

Republicans are still counting on inflation to outweigh abortion and other issues as a decision point for voters. Consumer prices are seeing a slight improvement in recent weeks, though, as gasoline and other energy prices decline. In July, the consumer price index increased 8.5% from a year earlier, cooling from a June 9.1% advance that was the biggest in four decades.

“I still think the wind is at our back and that our chances are better than 50-50,” said T.W. Arrighi, national press secretary for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Democrats see some glimmers of hope after a string of recent legislative victories, including a bill to boost US semiconductor manufacturing, gun safety legislation, a major veterans health measure and a prized $437 billion climate and healthcare package.

“I do think the environment has improved, but it’s summertime and we have a long way to go,” said JB Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, a super-PAC allied with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Trump, who continues to be engulfed in controversy and legal peril, is another wild card. His hold over the Republican Party is evident in the primary victories by candidates he’s endorsed. The most recent came Tuesday in Wyoming, when conservative lawyer Harriet Hageman beat incumbent GOP Representative Liz Cheney, one of Trump’s most vocal critics.

But in general election contests in some of the biggest Senate battlegrounds, Trump’s candidates are struggling.

In Georgia, Trump backed University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker, who is facing off against incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock. Walker’s campaign has been beset by a series of controversies about his personal history and statements on the trail.

Warnock, the first Black senator from Georgia, has been leading in recent polls, with a 4.4% edge in a RealClearPolitics average of recent surveys. He also has vastly out-raised Walker and has $22.2 million left to spend in his campaign coffers at the end of June, while Walker has $6.8 million.

Arizona Democratic Senator Mark Kelly is seeking a full six-year term after winning his Senate seat in a special election in 2020, facing off against venture capitalist Blake Masters. Masters is backed by Trump and billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel. He’s repeated the former president’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, taken a hard line on illegal immigration and embraced a national abortion ban in the primary.

Kelly, a former astronaut, has distanced himself from Biden somewhat on issues, including immigration. A Fox News poll released this week found him leading Masters 50% to 42%.

Pennsylvania’s Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman is consistently leading in polls against Trump-endorsed celebrity physician Mehmet Oz, as the two battle it out for the seat of retiring GOP Senator Pat Toomey.

Fetterman suffered a stroke in May that kept him off the campaign trail. But Fetterman has managed to make Oz’s wealth and his residency status into campaign issues. Every poll taken in the last month shows Fetterman with a lead of between nine and 18 percentage points, though a significant number of voters remain undecided.

The open Ohio Senate seat has been largely viewed as the GOP’s to lose. JD Vance, a venture capitalist, author and political newcomer, prevailed in a bitter Republican primary contest and was seen as a strong candidate for a state Trump easily won in 2020.

But Democratic Representative Tim Ryan has deep Ohio roots and has distanced himself from Biden and run a populist campaign to directly compete for some Trump voters. Ryan has collected vastly more in donations than Vance, although outside groups also are spending heavily. The result is a race that polls indicate is deadlocked three months before the election.

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