Forget Hot Girl Summer. We just came off Hot Primary Summer, which featured fewer tequila shots than the Megan Thee Stallion-inspired original — unless, maybe, you were partying with Dr. Oz — but still packed way more drama than you’d expect in a midterm election cycle.
Republican voters in Georgia stiff-arming Donald Trump? Democratic House members in New York savaging one another over redrawn districts? John Fetterman winning the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania just four days after suffering a stroke? Sean Parnell exiting the Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary after accusations of domestic abuse? Herschel Walker and Eric Greitens sticking with their Senate runs despite accusations of domestic abuse? Democrats capturing a House seat in Alaska, defeating Sarah Palin in the process? Abortion rights supporters winning big in [checks notes] Kansas?
It has been quite the ride.
With Mr. Trump out of office but still desperate to wield influence over his party like an incumbent president, these 2022 elections were fated to be more edge-of-your-seat than usual. The unofficial Labor Day kickoff of the fall campaign season will only push anxiety levels higher as the parties scramble to game out and shape where the electoral circus is headed.
In terms of the Big Picture, the primaries confirmed some things we already knew, and revealed others that now loom large for the fall.
The summer certified that Donald Trump still has his tiny hands wrapped around the throat of the G.O.P. He meddled mightily in the midterms, doling out endorsements and anti-endorsements with promiscuity, and wound up with an impressive win-loss record. Even looking only at the cases where Mr. Trump backed a non-incumbent in a contested primary, his success rate was 82 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight.
It was unsurprising, if still depressing, to witness how thoroughly the G.O.P.’s moral compass has been shattered. Today’s Republicans will snuggle up with even the creepiest of characters, so long as those characters are Trump-approved. (See: Gaetz, Matt.)
In the category of not so much depressing as horrifying: Republican voters elevated legions of election-denying conspiracymongers. In Michigan and Nevada, the party’s nominees for secretary of state are so far down the Stop the Steal Rabbit hole they may never see daylight again, while Pennsylvania Republicans’ choice for governor is so disturbing that some former party officials there are lining up to endorse his Democratic opponent. But for overall wingnuttery, it is tough to beat Arizona, where G.O.P. voters went all in on reality-challenged MAGA ravers up and down the ticket.
There were isolated pockets of sanity. Georgia Republicans showed sense and spine in rejecting Mr. Trump’s revenge campaign to oust Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, for having refused to help Mr. Trump steal the 2020 election. And Nebraska Republicans shunned Mr. Trump’s preferred pick for governor there, yet another prince of a guy accused of — you guessed it! — sexual misconduct.
On the Democratic side, the big reveal turned out to be that the party isn’t as dead as everyone thought. Democrats overperformed in multiple special elections. The party’s voters are feeling more energized. President Biden’s job approval ratings have ticked up. The political handicappers have tweaked their predictions in Democrats’ direction. November could still go badly for Team Blue, but the once-forecast red wave seems to have lost momentum.
There are many reasons for this: gas prices easing, Congress finally passing at least part of the president’s domestic agenda, mediocre-to-awful Republican nominees struggling to find their groove. But perhaps the biggest unforeseen factor: It turns out that American women don’t like being told that they don’t have a right to bodily autonomy.
Despite Americans’ overwhelming support for at least some abortion access, the Republican Party has long found it useful to exploit social conservatives’ intense passion on the issue. For decades, the G.O.P. has whipped voters to the polls with promises of killing Roe v. Wade, even when the party’s true priorities were slashing taxes and regulations and pursuing other non-culture-war matters. But with the Supreme Court’s decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June, Republicans are the proverbial pooch that finally caught the car — a car now threatening to turn them into a greasy patch of political roadkill. Which would absolutely serve them right.
Post-Dobbs, the political outlook has brightened for Democrats. Motivation among their voters has shot up, shrinking the crucial “enthusiasm gap” between the parties. A recent Pew poll found a 13-point jump since March in the number of people who said abortion rights would be “very important” in their midterm vote — a rise driven overwhelmingly by Democrats. The party’s candidates did better than expected in the five federal special elections held since the ruling. In deep red Kansas last month, voters smacked down a measure aimed at stripping abortion protections from the state’s constitution — by a 59-to-41 margin that stunned the nation. Democrats have also gained ground on the generic congressional ballot, where pollsters ask voters which party they prefer.
The Democratic Party is still sharply divided between its center, left and far-left factions, with the capacity for rowdy progressives to hurt moderate Democrats in battleground states. But for now, the combination of Dobbs and Trumpism on the march is acting as a pretty potent glue.
Republicans are scurrying around, trying to avoid getting hit by the backlash over the end of Roe. Multiple candidates are claiming more nuanced positions and softening their rhetoric as they tiptoe away from the more aggressive stances of their past. At least a couple have scrubbed their websites of anti-abortion statements. (Blake Masters, the MAGA choice for Senate in Arizona, has been particularly slippery.)
Democrats, meanwhile, are learning to love their inner culture warrior, going hard at their Republican opponents on the issue. Even Republicans who express support for limited abortion rights are getting hit as Democrats seek to paint the entire G.O.P. as a threat to women’s bodily autonomy — which it mostly is.
Multiple states have abortion-related measures on the ballot in November. Typically the anti-abortion side is the one that drives such efforts, as in Kansas. But this year, for the first time in two decades, a smattering of measures are aimed at securing reproductive rights. Other states are eyeing similar efforts for the future, including Arizona, which narrowly missed the deadline for getting something on the ballot this year. Democrats hope these measures will help turn out their voters and boost their candidates — much like the anti-gay-marriage ballot measures in 2004 aided President George W. Bush’s re-election.
All of this is a striking departure from the conventional political wisdom, in which Republicans have long been seen as having the upper hand at culture warring. When Team Red spun up conservatives over hot-button topics like abortion and gay marriage, Team Blue struggled to keep the focus on things like health care and the economy. That dynamic has been flipped on its head.
The reproductive rights side has long had the numbers, just not the intensity. If Democrats can keep the pressure on, abortion politics could prove increasingly painful and destructive for Republicans, stretching well beyond this crazy election season.
Couldn’t happen to a more deserving party.
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