What’s this? A Democratic political winning streak? First came the riveting January 6 hearings, with more promised in the fall. Followed by a sweeping, surprising—if tentative—Senate deal on climate change, taxes, and health care. Then the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leader of al-Qaida and a key plotter of the September 11 attacks. And on Tuesday night, the resounding rejection by Kansas voters of a proposed amendment that would have allowed state legislators to ban abortion.
The run of good policy and national security news has yet to lift President Joe Biden’s poll numbers (and the huge budget reconciliation bill won’t be done until it is done, as Jon Stewart can testify after his recent adventure in congressional procedural fuckery, while pursuing health care coverage for military veterans exposed to toxins). But the more immediate, high-stakes question is whether Democrats can convert the new momentum into midterm electoral victories.
John Anzalone is President Joe Biden’s pollster; he and his firm are also working key congressional and gubernatorial races around the country this fall, and his candidates are eagerly emphasizing reasons to vote for them, and not simply against Republicans. “In the last six weeks or eight weeks, we’ve really had these contrasting messages on abortion and guns and January 6,” Anzalone says. “It’s a combination of things that America is seeing that makes voters uncomfortable with Republicans and how detached they are from reality. But it’s nice to also have a positive frame about what Democrats are doing for America.” Anzalone believes the portion of the budget bill that would reduce prescription drug costs is politically potent for two reasons: It is of passionate interest to seniors, and not a single Republican will have voted in favor of the measure.
Potent, that is, if Democrats can effectively sell it as a promise kept. Recent history on that front is not encouraging: The president and Democrats have gotten little credit for one of the biggest wins of Biden’s presidency, the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. “We haven’t been able to message anything correctly from the jump,” says a Democratic strategist who is involved in one of this year’s pivotal U.S. Senate contests. “Who knows what the fuck ‘Build Back Better’ is? Democrats can’t get credit for something called the bipartisan infrastructure plan, you know? We’ve got to message these things clearly and drive them home. I don’t know why it’s so hard. But if you can pass this budget bill quickly and it’s smartly called the Inflation Reduction Act and then we run on it, that’s different.”
There’s other provisionally good news on the logistical side. Strategists say that Christie Roberts, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is running a tight and effective ship. On the House campaign side, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director Tim Persico has assembled an operation that has, among other things, closely tracked the January 6 hearings, assembling footage and other research that can be deployed on behalf of Democratic frontline candidates. “We’ll be using that information in everything from the scripts we’re using on the phone to what canvassers say when they knock on doors to what we’re putting up on TV,” Persico says. One example he cites: trying to make sure Ohio congressional voters know that Republican candidate J.R. Majewski attended the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally and raised money for others to be there.
Yet Democratic strategists are betting that abortion will be the issue that most drives turnout. “The old adage that good policy makes good politics is true,” Persico says. “Bad policy makes bad politics too.” With the Supreme Court’s June ruling overturning Roe, antiabortion crusaders won a 50-year legal battle. Yet the Kansas vote seems to have demonstrated the large gap between the ideologues and even many Republican voters, especially women. Whether that backlash is big enough to overcome internal Democratic disgust over the failure to codify Roe is one of this fall’s biggest questions. “Democrats might feel frustrated with their own party. I’m not discounting that,” Persico says. “But what happens in places like Omaha and suburban Philly and even Las Vegas when you’ve got a Democrat on one side with a record of accomplishments against a Republican that wants to ban abortion in all 50 states?”
The results in Kansas on Tuesday night only underscore that thinking and will embolden that messaging. Yet the defeat of a constitutional amendment on a single issue in one state—even a deep red state—is very different from winning dozens of matchups between competing candidates spread across starkly different districts and regions. That’s one reason Democratic strategists keep pushing a broader agenda, even as they grow more confident in highlighting abortion and Republican extremism as key midterm issues. “The more positive news, the better,” a House campaign operative says. “Gas prices are coming down, and Republicans are doing us a solid with all their crazy shit. But the political environment is still not great. We’re certainly not measuring the drapes.”