In November, the Democrats are widely expected to lose the House and probably also the Senate. Large defeats are the norm for a new president’s first midterm. A harbinger is a president’s approval rating, and President Biden’s stands at a lackluster 41.1 percent.
But standard political history may not be a good guide to 2022. The Democrats are facing long odds, but there are several reasons this could be an unusual political year.
For starters, Donald Trump is just as likely to hobble Republicans as he is to energize them. Mr. Trump will not be on the ballot, but many of his surrogates will. He has endorsed over 175 candidates in federal and state elections, and in his clumsy efforts to play kingmaker, Mr. Trump has promoted some badly compromised candidates and challenged party unity.
In the Georgia primary for governor, a Trump surrogate, Sonny Purdue, is polling well behind Mr. Trump’s nemesis, the incumbent Brian Kemp. In the Georgia Senate race, Mr. Trump’s endorsed candidate, Herschel Walker, is running away from his past and locked in a tight race against the incumbent Raphael Warnock. It may not happen again, but in 2020, Mr. Trump’s meddling backfired and helped Democrats take two Senate seats.
To hold the Senate, Democrats need to defend incumbents in New Hampshire, Arizona, Nevada and Georgia. But they have pickup opportunities in several states.
In Pennsylvania, the popular lieutenant governor John Fetterman, an economic populist, will run against the winner of a close Republican primary, either the celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz or the financier David McCormick. Mr. Oz, who was endorsed by Mr. Trump, has a very slight edge, as well as a very slight connection to Pennsylvania, having lived in New Jersey for many years. Either nominee would most likely alienate part of the Trump base, and neither is remotely populist.
In Ohio, Mr. Trump’s endorsement helped the author and venture capitalist executive J.D. Vance prevail. In the general election, we will get a test of the divisive culture-war populism of Mr. Vance versus the genuine pocketbook populism of Representative Tim Ryan — the kind that keeps re-electing Ohio’s Democratic senator, Sherrod Brown.
For Democrats to succeed in many of these races, their base will have to be energized — but at the moment, it is not. Still, there’s hope: Even if the ubiquitous lunacy of Mr. Trump doesn’t wake Democrats up, the likelihood of abortion being banned in half the country probably will.
If the leaked opinion in the Supreme Court abortion case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, becomes law in an official June decision, it will not just allow states to criminalize abortion, but will turn doctors into agents of the state when they treat women for miscarriages. This extremism on women’s health does not have the support of most voters.
The Democratic revival of 2017-20 began with the epic women’s marches of January 2017. If Democrats are more competitive than expected this year, it will be in part because women are galvanized, especially women in the Democratic base but also independent or “soft Republican” college-educated suburban women.
Something like this happened in 2017, when large numbers of liberals and moderates, appalled by Mr. Trump’s presidency, saw the 2018 election as a firebreak. That year, Democrats made a net gain of 40 seats in the House, and historic turnout gains in 2018, relative to the previous midterm, were a great benefit for Democrats.
All will depend on how closely 2022 resembles 2018. With the electorate so divided, there are relatively few swing voters — but potentially dozens of swing districts. How they swing depends entirely on turnout.
A Democratic effort reminiscent of grass roots groups in 2017 is beginning to gear up. For example, Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland sponsors a Democracy Summer for college students who want to get out and organize. This idea has been picked up in dozens of other congressional districts.
Senator Jon Ossoff of Georgia, in the January 2021 runoff election that won him a Senate seat, helped pioneer a technique called paid relational organizing. He hired some 2,800 Georgians to reach out to their own peer networks to win support for Mr. Ossoff. Now several people who worked with Senator Ossoff are taking this strategy national.
Other events this summer may have bearing on the fall. The House panel investigating the attack of Jan. 6, 2021, will hold public hearings in June. Closer to the midterms, it will release its final report, which will put Republicans on the spot to answer for their defense of an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Mr. Trump will surely continue to insist the 2020 election was stolen, but most Republicans will be whipsawed between the demands of Mr. Trump and his base and their wish to focus on more winning issues.
Mr. Trump’s own behavior is exposing all the latent fissures in the contradictory coalition that narrowly elected him. Democratic candidates will be reminding Americans of the potential menace of a second Trump term. If Mr. Trump rejoins Twitter, he will remind them himself.
Even so, Republican extremism is at risk of being overshadowed by economic conditions, none more than inflation. Federal Reserve economists project that inflation could begin to subside by fall. As with so much in politics, sheer luck and timing will play a role in the Democrats’ prospects and the future of our Republic.
Stranger things have happened than a Democrat midterm resurgence. A wipeout is still likely, but far from inevitable — if Democrats can get organized.
Robert Kuttner is a co-editor of The American Prospect and the author of “Going Big: FDR’s Legacy, Biden’s New Deal, and the Struggle to Save Democracy.”