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The Sweep: GOP Still in the Driver’s Seat
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The Sweep: GOP Still in the Driver’s Seat

New polls push back on the narrative that the Democrats will win the midterms.

Quote of the Week

“We often think about wave elections, but this year, we may think instead about a ‘waves’ election where unprecedentedly strong crosscurrents push voters in different directions, with an end result that may not be what we expected.”  Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt told NBC’s Mark Murray. 

GOP Still in the Driver’s Seat

The “Dems are winning everything” narrative came on strong a few weeks ago, but as plenty of us have pointed out, it was more wishful thinking combined with an uptick in Democratic voter enthusiasm than an actual change on the ground. The Senate has been and still is a coin flip for Republicans in a cycle in which they’re defending a lot of open seats in swing states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina), but the fundamentals haven’t changed:

The Dallas Morning News has Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott 9 points ahead of Democrat Beto O’Rourke—up two points from last month.

A new poll from the Utah Debate Commission shows Republican Sen. Mike Lee with an 11-point lead over his independent challenger Evan McMullin.

Wisconsin’s Marquette Law School poll has Republican Sen. Ron Johnson leading his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, by 1 point—an 8-point swing from where they had the race just last month in a poll that showed Barnes up by 7.

Republican Eric Schmitt is leading Democrat Trudy Busch Valentine by 11 points in Missouri, according to a SurveyUSA poll.

I love FiveThirtyEight’s polling graphics this cycle. Here’s the latest from their Senate averages:

There’s plenty of bad news for Republicans in these numbers, but factor in a 2.7 percent polling error with a little luck and Republicans flip the Senate by losing Pennsylvania and picking up Georgia and Nevada.

Trump vs. GOP

Two years ago, an NBC poll found that more than half of Republican voters said they considered themselves more of a supporter of Donald Trump than the Republican Party. Now, the numbers have flipped. Only a third of Republicans say they consider themselves primarily Trump supporters, and 58 percent view themselves as supporters of the Republican Party. But  it’s hard to decipher what these results mean when it’s hard to say exactly what the Republican Party stands for these days. Free trade? Limited government? Balanced budgets? Less spending? Judicial modesty? It’s not as if this is good news for some specific wing of the Republican Party or conservative movement. But it is bad news for Trump’s 2024 ambitions. Voters have seen a post-Trump GOP … and they like it. Or at least half of them do.

Inflation Beat

National measures of inflation are still high—the consumer price index is 8.3 percent higher than this time last year—but it’s even worse in some cities. Phoenix and Atlanta have both seen double-digit inflation. And they’ve got something else in common too: races that Republicans hope will be their key to flipping control of the Senate. Hans Nichols of Axios noted that gas prices have come down more than a dollar from their $5.02 national average in June, but it’s still $4.92 in Nevada and $4.02 in Arizona—two more states that Republicans have their eyes on.

Hard Dollars vs. Soft Dollars

If you want to understand campaign lingo, one of the first things to know is the difference between hard dollars and soft dollars. “Hard dollars” refers to donations raised under the federal limits—$2,900 from an individual to a candidate’s campaign committee this cycle, for example. “Soft dollars” refers to money raised outside the federal limits. So in California, an individual can give $32,400 to a gubernatorial candidate, or in Georgia, an individual can give $7,600 to a statewide candidate. Lots of states (Texas, Oregon, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Virginia to name a few) have no limits. Before the law changed in 2002, national political parties could raise soft dollars too, but not any more.

As a general matter, federal hard dollars can be used in these state races, but soft dollars can’t be intermingled with hard dollars for federal races. Because soft dollars by definition are less restricted, no well-trained operative would ever spend hard dollars in a soft-dollar race. But has this universally accepted wisdom gone stale? 

As of now, the Democratic National Committee has given zero dollars to the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, according to The Daily Beast. This makes perfect sense—the DNC is a hard-dollar committee and the DLCC is a soft-dollar committee. 

But while a hard and fast rule may be easy to teach each generation of operatives and made sense in a world of high-dollar donors, it’s silly in the current small-dollar donor world. That’s because higher-profile races suck up the attention of online donors, starving out down-ballot races regardless of the likelihood of success or the importance of the race.

Last cycle, Amy McGrath raised $94 million in federal hard dollars in her race against Mitch McConnell. McConnell won by 20 points. Yet the budget for the Democratic Party committee responsible for winning every state legislative race around the country was $51 million—and things didn’t go well. After losing nearly 1,000 seats during the Obama years, Democrats once again failed to flip a single statehouse. State legislatures, of course, decide redistricting every 10 years and will be the epicenter of the abortion fights this cycle. 

It’s time to think about hard dollars differently. A dollar spent by a super PAC supporting a candidate is worth maybe 50 to 75 cents given to the candidate directly (i.e., money given to a candidate is always a better investment—for one, they get cheaper rates to buy advertising), but an operative would never tell a maxed out donor not to give to a super PAC. 

By that same logic, operatives should think about hard dollars as an exchange rate with soft dollars. There are diminishing returns to ever-increasing sums of money in statewide races, which is why fundraising is no longer the best—or even a good—predictor for who will win these Senate races. But even small investments in state legislative races can still flip seats. So over a certain number, every hard dollar raised becomes significantly more valuable to the DLSC even if it means a more restricted dollar is given to a less restricted race. 

But it’s always hard to convince an industry that the thing they’ve been doing their whole careers doesn’t make sense. Just ask Billy Beane.

Is Abortion Driving Votes?

Kristen Soltis Anderson did a deep dive on one poll to show why the answer is more complicated than headline writers would have you believe and why good, correct polls can still be misleading if you don’t know what you’re looking at. 

The Wall Street Journal recently found that abortion was now ranked as the most important issue by 13 percent of voters—coming in second only behind the economy. But as she smartly notes, this was an open-ended question in which the researchers “code” answers on the back end. And that matters a lot in this case because they coded “economy (general)” separately from “inflation” separately from “jobs.” If you add all of those responses together, they blow abortion out of the water, but if you code them separately (which makes perfect sense depending on what you’re trying to learn), then economy gets 16 percent, abortion gets 13 percent, inflation gets 11 percent, etc. And suddenly abortion is the No. 2 issue.

Their poll also found that abortion was the top answer to the question: “Which of these [five options] has made you more likely to vote in the upcoming midterms.” Here’s how KSA broke it down:

Let’s pump the brakes for a moment and look at the question. The five choices the WSJ polling team offered respondents were: Inflation and rising prices, the Supreme Court overturning Roe, illegal immigration and border security, gun violence, and the FBI’s search of Mar-A-Lago.

Here’s my problem with using this question alone to fuel The Takes. Respondents can only pick one on the list. Of the five choices given, two of them are things that are absolutely going to pick off chunks of the Republican electorate: immigration and the FBI search. But for Democrats, there’s no “passage of climate legislation” or equivalent to split up the Democratic electorate. (Gun violence is there and arguably something Democrats might be more inclined to choose, but came in relatively low overall.) So Democrats cluster around the Roe item, which we know from other polls has really been galvanizing for them, while Republicans on this question get split up a few ways.

But let’s say hypothetically you added a “climate legislation” option to the mix; I doubt it would be in the top three overall, but I bet it’d peel away a few points worth of Democrats, enough to knock the Supreme Court ruling down closer to 28 percent, maybe even putting it just below inflation.

A lot of people like to criticize issue polling by saying, well, this stuff is all so subject to wording, you can make a poll say whatever you want it to say. Here, the WSJ’s polling team wrote a perfectly good question! I do not believe they are trying to noodle with things by providing a certain slate of options to engineer an outcome. But this is exactly why you should not let the Take Train blast out of the station without taking a closer look at all the available data and consider how and why a question got the result it did. 

Don Bolduc: D.C. Democrats’ Dream GOP Senate Candidate 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer got the GOP candidate he’d hoped for in the general election race for unpopular New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan’s seat: Don Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general who spent the primary campaign telling voters the 2020 presidential election was stolen. 

Now that Bolduc is the nominee, he’s letting voters know that he’s “done a lot of research on this” and “[wants] to be definitive about this, that the election was not stolen.” But Bolduc’s 2020 election flip-flop took place after the Chuck Schumer-aligned Senate Majority PAC (SMP) spent more than $3 million ahead of the primary hitting Bolduc’s moderate challenger Chuck Morse in television ads that accused him of being “another sleazy politician” who’s in the pocket of  “Mitch McConnell’s Washington establishment.” 

It’s hard to know what if any impact the ads had on New Hampshire’s Republican primary voters. Some polls had Bolduc ahead by more than 20 points in the weeks before the election, but Bolduc barely squeaked out a win by just over a point. Did the ads backfire? Or did they pull Bolduc over the finish line? Regardless, Schumer got what he wanted. Polls now have Hassan leading Bolduc by double digits.

SMP’s multimillion-dollar investment in New Hampshire is part of a broader strategy on behalf of national Democrats to bolster the conservative credentials of far-right candidates whom they see as less viable general election candidates. Now that primary season has come to a close, Democrats can bask in their moderate success: Of at least 13 Republican congressional and gubernatorial primaries they spent money in this cycle, per Axios, Democrats got their preferred general election candidates in at least six races nationwide.

Not all Democrats approve of the strategy. “I don’t think we should be doing that,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Chairman Gary Peters told The Dispatch this summer when asked about similar efforts in Colorado’s GOP Senate primary, when the SMP failed to boost 2020 election-denying GOP candidate Ron Hanks over moderate Republican Joe O’Dea.

Pressed in the U.S. Capitol again yesterday whether he’s brought any of those concerns to Schumer, particularly with respect to the New Hampshire GOP primary, Peters demurred: “They do their things,” he said of the SMP. “What I have the ability to have a say over as the DSCC and it’s very clear that I’m just focused on making sure that we elect Democrats.”

Presented Without Comment

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.