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The midterm elections won’t take place until November, but the primaries that begin in earnest on Tuesday will frame Americans’ choices on which direction the country takes.
Will Democrats move to the middle or the left?
Will a season of reinvention for critics of former President Donald Trump reassert his power over Republicans?
Here’s what to watch as election season kicks off on Tuesday.
What’s at stake this year?
All 435 US House members and about a third of senators are facing reelection in November. Control of both chambers is very much in play.
50-50 Senate: The Senate is evenly divided, but Democrats control the chamber with Vice President Kamala Harris’ deciding vote.
222-213 House: Democrats in the House hold a very slim majority. Republicans need to net just five seats to claim a House majority.
Where are the competitive races?
Let’s focus on the Senate. There are 14 Senate seats currently held by Democrats and 21 Senate seats currently held by Republicans that are up for election. Most of those races are not considered competitive.
In fact, according to Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, just three races – in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, all seats held by Democrats – are considered toss-ups. Two races, in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, tilt toward Republicans, and one race, in New Hampshire, tilts toward Democrats.
What’s happening in May?
While Texas conducted its primaries back in March, things speed up in May and primaries last through the summer.
Ohio and Indiana kick things off May 3. More key states, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina, hold primaries May 17. Bookmark this calendar.
I don’t live in Ohio or Indiana. Why would I care about these primaries?
CNN’s Simone Pathe writes the much-read and often-updated “10 Senate seats most likely to flip” feature.
Here’s why she says May is key to the election process:
May is by far the most important month for primaries – featuring some big-name candidates in races that will shape the fight for Senate control in November. By the end of the month, matchups in four of the races on our list of the 10 Senate seats most likely to flip will likely be set – in Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Georgia.
What’s different in House races this year?
The map! Congressional districts were redrawn after the every-10-years Census conducted in 2020.
Some states have tried to depoliticize the process, but Republicans used it to pad congressional majorities in states like Texas, Florida and Ohio. Democrats have tried to do the same in states like Illinois and New York (the latter effort failed).
What is Democrats’ strategy nationally?
President Joe Biden is said to be frustrated, according to new reporting by CNN’s Edward-Isaac Dovere and Kevin Liptak, and will shift to a more confrontational strategy that includes attacking the GOP.
This is a shift for a President who came to office promising to search for unity and acknowledging he will need Republican support in order to get big things done. Republicans haven’t bought into most of what Democrats promised, however. Unity didn’t deliver.
Democrats think they can be competitive in Ohio
Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan – who is running for the open Senate seat in Ohio – is pushing an old-school, populist message appealing to union members against a more progressive candidate, Morgan Harper, a former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau official.
CNN’s Eric Bradner writes that Ryan’s economy-focused populism, like Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown’s, is not the same as Trump’s. But Ryan’s and Brown’s populism is Trump-adjacent.
What is the Republicans’ strategy?
Before the general election in November, Republicans will focus on the US economy. But during this primary season, they are in competition for the kind of voters who show up to vote in Republican primaries. That means appealing to Trump.
Trump is trying to play kingmaker.
Here’s what Pathe told me about Trump’s role:
These primaries say a lot about Trump – but it’s too simplistic to say that the fate of his chosen candidates will be a referendum on his power. That’s because so many candidates, even those who didn’t earn his endorsement, twisted themselves into knots to appeal to him.
For example, the fact that David McCormick, a former hedge fund executive in Connecticut, transformed himself into a MAGA (Senate) candidate in Pennsylvania is a victory for the former President and his hold over the party.
Even if McCormick beats the Trump-backed (Mehmet) Oz, that would still be a win of sorts for Trumpism, if not for Trump himself.
The theme of Republicans reinventing themselves will be on display in Ohio
PATHE: In Ohio, J.D. Vance did a complete 180-degree turn from where he was on Trump in 2016, and it worked: He got the endorsement. (It’s not hard to see why House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has quickly tried to explain away more of his recently revealed Trump criticism.)
That kind of candidate self-restyling, regardless of whether Vance wins on primary night, is a win for Trump.
And if Vance doesn’t win, it’s likely that one of his opponents who bashed him for being a Trump critic wins instead; that too is a near win for the former President.
Candidates can change between May and November
Primaries can push candidates into positions that are harder to explain during a general election, when they theoretically have to appeal to more moderate and independent voters.
PATHE: Democrats have been gleeful spectators of the increasingly nasty and expensive Trump loyalty contests, but many of those will be over at the end of May, when those GOP nominees will be freed up to start tying their Democratic opponents to the current unpopular President.
How does the nation feel?
Inflation is real. Recession is possible. People don’t feel great about the direction of the economy, which is an important indicator in politics. Three-quarters of Americans in a recent Quinnipiac poll said the economy was in not so good or poor shape. Partisanship is playing an increasing role in Americans’ views on the economy, but people are also reacting to rising prices due to inflation.
What if the election was held today?
CNN’s director of polling Jennifer Agiesta pointed me toward a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that shows Republicans at 47% to Democrats’ 44% when voters were asked, generally, if they would vote for the Republican or the Democrat in their congressional district. That result is within the margin of error for the poll.
But Agiesta told me to look at Biden’s approval rating for an assessment of the national mood. It’s not good news for Democrats.
Most people don’t approve of Biden right now.
A CNN Poll of Polls average calculated on April 27 on Biden’s handling of the presidency finds that 41% of Americans approve of the job he’s doing, with 54% disapproving.
That’s relatively unchanged from previous Poll of Polls averages earlier in April and at the end of March. Those put Biden’s approval at a similar 39% and 40%, respectively.
In a recent Quinnipiac poll, only about a third of US adults approve of Biden’s handling of the economy. Nearly a third of Americans in that poll picked inflation as the most urgent issue facing the country.
And nearly every recent poll has found that Biden’s approval rating for handling the economy is even lower than his rating for handling the presidency overall. When combined with the increasing number of polls finding concern about the economy on the rise, it does not paint a picture of a President poised to rebound.
This could be a ‘cataclysm’ for Democrats
CNN’s Chris Cillizza, who has been watching and writing about the midterms for a very long time, writes that the way people feel in May could be hard to change by November:
There are only 194 days between today (April 28) and the November 2022 election. In political terms, that is a very short window to turn around peoples’ perception of the economy – particularly if inflation (and gas prices) remain anything close to their current levels.
If things stay roughly where they are today – in terms of economic measures like GDP (gross domestic product) and CPI (consumer price index) and Americans’ perceptions of the state of the economy – Democrats will experience a cataclysm at the ballot box this fall. The question won’t be whether they hold their paper-thin majorities in the House and Senate, but rather how big the electoral hole will be that they have to try to dig out from over the coming decade.
Senate majorities usually last at least four years
If Democrats, who barely took control of the Senate after 2020, lose control after 2022, it would be a historical rarity and a political embarrassment. With the exception of a weird party-switching situation in 2001, the last time a party controlled the Senate majority for just two years was 1953-1955.