MILFORD, N.H. — Democrats and Republicans agree the midterm elections will turn on just a few key issues — but they disagree on what those will be.
Democrats believe they can win at least some of the fights in the final stretch over abortion rights and former President Trump. Republicans would rather battle it out on the margins over inflation and crime. And both sides want to claim victory in the immigration debate.
If polls are any indication, all these categories — a mix of economics, culture and personality politics — will help determine control of Congress in November.
Here are the five issues that could shape the elections’ outcome:
Republicans believe inflation will be the issue most top of mind for voters as they head to the ballot box and believe what they call President Biden’s economy gives them the edge.
They see Biden’s lackluster poll numbers and the stubbornly high prices as a sign they can win if they convince voters to trust Republicans to improve their financial situations.
While Biden’s standing has recently improved, many Americans are still wrestling with higher costs for basic daily needs, a reality that has privately worried Democrats who see their opposition making headway.
Inflation consistently polls as a top issue for Americans. A Reuters-Ipsos poll released Wednesday found that 30 percent named it as their top concern, and the party in power almost always gets the blame for economic woes.
Even more troubling for liberals, the majority of the voters believe the country is heading in the wrong direction — signaling a potential shift to GOP control in some critical places.
In an August speech, Biden said that his nationwide plan to reinvigorate the economy was “working,” a simple line Republicans seized on in campaign materials.
“As Biden insists his economic plan is ‘working,’ it’s worth asking, did he cause all of this economic pain on purpose?” Tommy Pigott, who runs the Republican National Committee’s rapid response effort, wrote in an email blast.
Biden is, of course, not on the ballot this year. But as both the leader of the country and chief campaign surrogate for the party in charge of both chambers of Congress, his aligned candidates could end up taking the hit.
Democrats saw the Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade as horrible and inhumane, so they got right to work trying to turn that anger into votes.
Democrats are “working to make sure voters hear every horrifying quote, see the antipathy they have for women” on the other side, said Julie McClain Downey, vice president of communications at American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic advocacy and lobbying firm that has focused heavily on reproductive freedom since the ruling in June.
Democrats like McClain Downey have been pointing out the GOP’s coordinated effort to reverse protections around choice. Her goal is to make sure voters “know exactly who wants to take the freedom to make medical decisions out of their hands and seize it for themselves: Republicans,” she said.
Polls have shown the issue has a strength that surprised many. Democrats have also won every special House election since the court’s ruling, and House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates across the country have centered their campaigns around convincing voters Republicans are working to take away reproductive rights.
At the same time, some polls have shown the issue falling in terms of importance to voters when compared to economic issues.
Republicans have struggled to defend the court’s ruling. Some candidates, including Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), have taken hard-line positions against abortion, while others have muddled or even softened their stances as they entered general election mode.
Most recently, one of Republicans’ top Senate candidates, Herschel Walker, a former football star who is running against Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), denied paying for an abortion for the mother of one of his children, as alleged in a bombshell series of reports by the Daily Beast. Walker has repeatedly said he is against abortion under any circumstance.
Republicans have made headway in recent weeks in two Senate battlegrounds by characterizing the Democratic candidates as crime apologists who are closely aligned with a party that wants to “defund the police.”
GOP operatives and national strategists have increased their attacks on Mandela Barnes, the Democratic Senate nominee in Wisconsin and a young Black progressive, and Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman.
In Wisconsin, Republicans have run ads seeking to tie Barnes to criminal justice reforms they characterize as soft on crime. In Pennsylvania, the GOP has highlighted crimes taking place around Philadelphia.
The tactic appears to be working. Barnes is now trailing Johnson after holding a lead this summer. And the race between Fetterman and Republican nominee Mehmet Oz has tightened significantly.
Democratic strategists told The Hill that the Wisconsin race is not happening in isolation and that crime will likely be a defining issue for future close contests.
In many Democrats’ views, the party needs to be on high alert to defend itself against the GOP’s critiques of liberal candidates as soft on crime, which many argue are rooted in racism and old tropes intended to divide regions of the country based on race and class.
If there’s one midterm issue likely to preview a big part of the 2024 presidential primary, it’s immigration. Look no further than Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) recent decision to move migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, a wealthy coastal area of Massachusetts.
DeSantis is one of the leading Republicans trying to make a national platform out of the country’s divided stance on immigration. His approach, which critics say amounts to political theater, shares some of the broad contours of Trump’s own policy platform, which included his signature support for building a wall across the U.S. border with Mexico.
In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott similarly ordered a bus filled with migrants from Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba and other countries residing in his state off to Washington, D.C., specifically to Vice President Harris’s residence.
The two Republican governors’ moves came just before a federal appeals court ruled that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was illegal. The decision, which happened this week, allows current recipients of the program to keep their status for now, but sent alarm bells to activist communities who said the move creates yet another uncertain pathway for immigrant children living in the U.S.
“A terrible and deeply disappointing decision,” said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, a pro-immigration advocacy group. “We will almost certainly see nearly 700,000 DACA recipients lose work authorization, lose protection from deportation and have their lives thrown into chaos in the very near future.”
The Trump effect is arguably both parties’ biggest head scratcher in November.
Trump saw many of his endorsed candidates win their primaries in key swing states and districts but there’s a debate among Republicans whether contenders who model themselves around his ideology are going to succeed in November.
Democrats have, in some cases, poured money into the candidates they think will be the easier to defeat: far-right Republicans who deny the results of the last presidential election and are sympathetic to conservative fringe groups.
But there’s a difference of opinion within Democratic circles about whether focusing on Trump is an effective tactic. Biden, for his part, has been highly critical of “ultra-MAGA Republicans,” a group he believes is a small but outspoken and potentially dangerous faction of the GOP. And some Democrats are trying to make the case the former president is a threat to democracy itself.
Others, however, maintain that sticking to policy is how to win the midterms.
Many Republicans, meanwhile, have continued to embrace Trump, appearing at rallies with him and counting on his still-intense popularity with the GOP base.
Trump, meanwhile, is embroiled in his own political woes. He’s up against a barrage of coverage of multiple ongoing investigations into his finances, including from New York’s attorney general, as well as near-daily headlines about the FBI raid of his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida.