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Larry Donnelly: Are we seeing rays of hope for Democrats?

Our columnist says surprising abortion votes and the fact that Republicans have an issue with Trump could sway things for Democrats.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

FOR SOME MONTHS, the picture has been bleak for President Joe Biden and his Democratic Party with congressional midterms and state and local elections looming in November. I wrote here in May that either a tough day or a bloodbath lay in store.

Biden himself remains mired in the doldrums; aggregated polling data in early August on realclearpolitics.com shows that less than 40% of the electorate in the United States approves of the job he is doing. Questions abound with respect to the 79-year-old’s capacity to execute the duties of the office. There is widespread doubt that he will run again in 2024.

But when it comes to generic surveys on who Americans intend to cast ballots for in political dogfights for seats in the House of Representatives and Senate, there has been a small, yet potentially quite significant, movement. In early summer, Republicans held a lead of approximately three percentage points. That advantage has dwindled to .3%.

It’s the economy

Extraordinary inflation persists globally, and the US is no exception. The price of gasoline, though, which had been sky high by American benchmarks, has fallen for 50 consecutive days, according to the Wall Street Journal. It is an uncomfortable truth that, even as the world reckons with the increasingly tangible impact of climate change, the car is still king stateside. And the relatively exorbitant cost of filling up the tank hasn’t been helping Biden and his party colleagues.

Moreover, the chances of getting far-reaching legislation – among other things, it is purposed to address climate change, raise corporate tax and reduce the price of certain medicines – passed on Capitol Hill improved greatly as mercurial West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin abruptly announced his support for it recently.

This so-called climate and tax bill is one of the president’s signature initiatives. If the admittedly watered-down package were approved before November, it would be a good win that Democratic candidates could tout before Election Day.

Lastly, politics is ultimately a numbers game. While opinion polls and follow-on conjecture are fascinating, what matters most is who is standing up and celebrating when the people have exercised their sacred right. It may seem an odd assertion initially, but Democrats have legitimate cause for rejoicing at the results of some Republican primary contests.

The problem with Trump

Any way one slices the evidently mutable state of play, it is still unlikely – not impossible – that Nancy Pelosi will serve another term as Speaker of the House. On the other hand, some of the GOP’s standard bearers for seats in the Senate are very weak candidates. For example, Dr Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania must overcome the reputation as a snake oil salesman he earned for pitching and then profiting from selling a range of “miracle” drugs and supplements.

As well as their own limitations, several had to kiss Donald Trump’s ring and concur with his ludicrous arguments that the New Yorker turned Floridian was robbed in 2020 in order to garner his crucial endorsement. Singing from the same frayed hymn sheet as the 45th president or declining to rebuff QAnon adherents might have helped get them over the line in the primary. Lurching that tremendous distance from the mainstream will be akin to heavy weight around their necks in general.

In short, at this juncture, Democrats have a genuine reason to believe that they can hold or expand their narrow majority in the upper house.

And when evaluating the prospects for the two parties in an overarching sense, Kansas has delivered the biggest jolt. After its supreme court found a right to abortion in the state constitution and in the wake of the controversial overturning of Roe v Wade by the US Supreme Court at the federal level, residents of the jurisdiction that twice backed Trump overwhelmingly were asked “should there be no Kansas constitutional right to abortion” with the law-making on the topic instead to be reserved “to the people of Kansas, through their elected state legislators.”

Pro-choice activists, dismayed by the evisceration of Roe, mobilised and brought in an enormous amount of money to defeat the proposal. A victory for the Yes side was anticipated. Nonetheless, in an unexpected outcome and by an absolutely stunning margin, Kansans rejected the anti-abortion referendum: 59% to 41%. Turnout was massive and lots of new voters registered for the first time; some of them did not bother to pick a favourite in the legislative races that also appeared on the ballot.

Notwithstanding the legitimate points that conservatives have made since – in particular, that pro-lifers were outspent in Kansas and that abortion isn’t the sole issue that women and men will consider in November – this decisive verdict in a red state is indicative of how angry and motivated pro-choice advocates, especially women, are at present. It would be foolhardy to extrapolate excessively here, but Republicans are privately concerned and are posturing cautiously.

Hope for Democrats

The situation now isn’t as gloomy as it once was for Democrats. That said, much is going against them, not least of which is the historical reality that a first-term president’s party nearly invariably suffers substantial losses on the next occasion the nation is able to have a say.

With apologies for reiterating a tired, glaringly obvious maxim, turnout – usually low in the midterms – will tell the tale for Democrats as they endeavour to buck the trend. Their efforts must focus on ensuring Black Americans either vote early or get to their polling places on Tuesday, 8 November. Republicans have succeeded in making it more difficult to take part in elections, even if most external condemnations of US democracy in this specific regard are overwrought.

I have been and will continue to be critical of my Democratic Party for embracing hard-left positions on “hot button” social issues and putting less emphasis on the “bread and butter” stuff that traditionally united us. I believe it is a terrible mistake; we have lost the support of millions of Americans as a consequence.

Conversely, the “Kansas shocker” suggests that the Supreme Court has gone too far for a broad swathe of the citizenry and that its ruling in Dobbs has galvanised not only progressives but also politically disinterested people who don’t think abortion is any of the government’s business.

That, coupled with the fact that many GOP nominees are shackled to the worst elements of Trump and Trumpism, means that Democrats just might (key word!) avert the tough day or bloodbath in the midterms I had foreseen. But there’s plenty of road ahead.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a law lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with The Journal. His book – “The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family” – is published by Gill and available online and in bookshops.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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