An unusual thing happened back in June, when all signs portended unmitigated doom for the Democrats in this year’s U.S. midterm elections.
They were demoralized. Down in the polls. Destined for the kind of thundering defeat so often suffered by the party in power.
Then that strange thing happened: One phone call, after another, started flooding the office switchboard for Pennsylvania state senator Lindsey Williams.
“Hundreds,” she recalled in an interview just outside downtown Pittsburgh, where her district is. “It was just this deluge.”
She said that moment nearly smashed the record for calls she’d received in her four-year career, eclipsed only by requests for help accessing pandemic-related benefits.
The issue? Abortion.
The Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade. Even if Pennsylvania is not among the states with restrictions snapping into place, the issue resonates there, too, as Republicans have anti-abortion candidates and a bill that would weaken abortion rights in the state constitution.
Williams said there’d been a palpable drop in enthusiasm from 2018, when she narrowly won her first race in a swing district.
Events were smaller, crowds were thinner, voters weren’t spontaneously approaching her in public to talk politics as often; but that’s changed lately, Williams said.
Her observation is borne out by survey data: polls are finding Democrats more enthusiastic about voting than a few months ago when the numbers for them were catastrophic.
Another party official in Pennsylvania offered an anecdote.
He called door-knocking the most important campaign task yet a hard one to find volunteers to do. Suddenly, in June, he said, dozens of people in his community started offering their help.
“It was looking challenging [for us],” said Mike Giazzoni, the Democratic chair in Shaler Township, in the Pittsburgh area.
“The Dobbs [abortion] decision definitely put a lot of fuel back in the tank.… It will definitely still be challenging, though.”
Republican closing message: The three ‘Cs’
Republicans remain heavily favoured to win at least some additional power in the Nov. 8 elections at the federal, state and local level.
And they aren’t standing idle.
They’re working to steer the campaign back to their preferred topics, which could be summarized as the three Cs: crime, the cost of living, and culture wars.
Speakers at a Republican rally on the steps of the state legislature listed a string of examples where they feel they, not Democrats, are onside with the public.
Gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano blamed pandemic restrictions for crushing businesses, disrupting supply chains, and driving inflation.
He cited higher energy prices and blamed them on climate policies. Skyrocketing murder rates, which he blamed on soft-on-crime policies.
He lamented the quickness with which his opponents criticized the police while saying relatively little about anti-police rioting that caused hundreds of millions in damage to U.S. cities.
Numerous speakers at the rally denounced transgender athletes in women’s sports.
“They call us extreme and radical. Are you kidding me?” Mastriano said.
“Democrats don’t want to talk about so many things. They do have a rotten, stinking laundry list.”
Mastriano brushed off the idea that he’s the radical in the race, a national reputation he earned through efforts to help Donald Trump steal the 2020 presidential election.
That example from Pennsylvania is playing out nationwide.
Democrats are counting on an abortion backlash, while also talking up the jobs recovery and their recent legislative wins on drug pricing, energy funding, infrastructure, gun safety and advanced manufacturing.
Republicans are responding with the aforementioned issues and it could very well work: Poll after poll after poll lists inflation and the cost of living as the top voter priority.
The background on U.S. midterms
On Nov. 8, Americans will vote for the entire U.S. House of Representatives, for one-third of the U.S. Senate, in dozens of states and in thousands of local races.
It will allow a temperature-taking after a series of epochal events: the attack on the U.S. Capitol, pandemic-related economic turmoil and the war in Europe.
Even the state races have national implications: We all witnessed in 2020 the power that state officials have in certifying a federal election and pro-Trump election deniers could gain control of election administration.
Earlier this year, polls showed Republicans virtually guaranteed to win the House, and favoured to win the Senate.
Now it’s all tighter.
The Republicans have gone from certain to win the House to simply being strong favourites; from being favourites to win the Senate to having most forecasters (but not all) projecting they’ll lose; in the states, winnable gubernatorial races in Michigan and Pennsylvania are slipping away.
The tussle to control the campaign story manifested itself in dramatic fashion last week.
Republicans clearly want to avoid discussing abortion. They sidestep questions about what they plan to do in this post-Roe world. And that’s because the anti-abortion policies popular with their base are unpopular with the general public.
Yet, last week, abortion catapulted back to the fore in Georgia.
Republican celebrity Senate candidate Herschel Walker came under attack, even from his own family, amid reports he, supposedly an abortion opponent, paid for his girlfriend to have one.
Then the favourite Republican theme roared back: gas prices inched up again. The OPEC cartel cut oil production, and fuel prices rose, and Republicans blamed anti-oil policies for the pain at the pumps.
TV ads: crime, crime, crime
And there’s crime.
The politics of the issue has shifted in the last two years with gun killings rising. And while Democrats might have been eager to talk about criminal justice reform in 2020, they’re now being pummeled with ads about it.
Wisconsin offers one of several examples: the Democrats’ Senate candidate there, Mandela Barnes, is being bombarded with ads about him wanting to end cash bail.
His polling lead has evaporated. And he’s just launched a statewide tour aimed at turning the focus back to abortion.
It’s the same in Pennsylvania, although the ads there have been less successful against Dr. Oz’s Democratic opponent in the Senate race: John Fetterman is being hit with constant soft-on-crime ads, while Fetterman’s own ads are calling that attack unfair.
Pennsylvania’s biggest man child, <a href=” doesn’t want voters to know about his soft on crime record. <br><br>Here’s the ad Fetterman REALLY doesn’t want you to see. <a href=”https://t.co/gnt4g3oft7″>pic.twitter.com/gnt4g3oft7</a>
One self-described former Democrat described crime as her top priority in an interview on the margins of a Republican campaign rally
Casey Felin, a nurse from Philadelphia, said she switched parties during the pandemic over what she viewed as excessive and counter-productive lockdown policies.
But she said what most animates her now is the skyrocketing rate of murder and other crime in her city which she blames on its progressive policies.
She said she works in a prison and hears criminals speak with impunity about getting out quickly, with few consequences for their acts.
“People shoot in Philadelphia like they’re stepping on somebody’s foot. They don’t care. They’re not afraid of consequences. We need to bring back consequences,” Felin said in Harrisburg, Penn., having traveled there for the Mastriano rally.
“First [issue for me is] safety. Because you can have 100 plans – you might wanna do this, that, and the other thing, then a bullet lodges in you. And you’re done. So. So safety is Number One.”
At that rally, Mastriano called his wife to the stage in a tangible demonstration of how Republicans are trying to pivot away from the abortion topic.
Rebecca Mastriano insisted her husband’s campaign cares about women’s rights – then she listed a string of issues like the right to live in a safe community, where crime is prosecuted; the right to access baby formula; and the right to women’s sports.
WATCH | Democrats are playing defence on crime issues:
Democrat in tight race: We have solutions
Democrats have tried inoculating themselves against the crime attacks.
They’ve proposed law-enforcement funding bills in the Congress to defend against the constant (if questionable) charge they plan to defund the police.
Democrats also suggest their rivals have few solutions to the issues they’re talking about: the Republicans’ national platform is light on details.
A Democrat running for the U.S. Congress in a Pittsburgh-area swing district ridiculed the notion that the other party, the one constantly blocking gun control, is serious about gun crime.
“It’s crazy,” said Chris Deluzio, a lawyer, military veteran and university official involved in a tight U.S. House race.
“I don’t think you can be a serious candidate or person talking about safety if you aren’t talking about gun safety.”
He conceded that abortion changed the midterms. But he also attributed the closer race to other factors: Democrats getting popular bills passed in Washington, and Republicans nominating more extreme candidates, including Mastriano.
“[He] participated in the January 6th insurrection,” Deluzio told CBC News outside a Saturday morning food drive organized by his party.
“We’re seeing people who are election deniers who continue to doubt that Joe Biden won our presidential election…. So that extremism is turning off lots of independents, lots of Republicans.”
Then there are the issues we can’t predict, the so-called October surprises. Thursday afternoon offered a classic case study in how quickly they can occur.
Within an hour of each other, reports surfaced that Hunter Biden, the president’s son, risks facing criminal charges; moments later, the president made marijuana a headline issue.
Joe Biden promised to issue pardons for pot possession and relax enforcement, which could affect people in states without legal recreational use — and it just so happens that five such states have close-fought Senate races.
More surprises are inevitable. There’s still a month to go.