WASHINGTON (AP) — Not long ago, the the Republican Party was hitting bottom.
The GOP had lost the presidency and House in November 2020 and would soon squander its Senate majority early in 2021 — then watch with horror as supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol last Jan. 6.
What a difference a year makes.
A resurgent GOP is now poised to reclaim one or both congressional chambers in 2022, while retaining its lock on dozens of state legislatures and governor’s offices. Republican confidence is fueled by President Joe Biden’s underwhelming poll numbers, a Democratic economic and social agenda that’s faltering, intensifying concerns about inflation, and deepening frustration with the pandemic now unleashing yet another infection surge.
At its most basic level, though, GOP optimism is born of the same political headwinds that have shaped U.S. politics for decades. The party that controls the White House has a tremendous disadvantage in the first election of a new presidency.
“We’re going to have a hell of a year,” said Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who leads the national GOP’s Senate campaign arm.
Republicans dominated last fall’s elections across Virginia, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, even in areas Biden easily carried in 2020.
Democratic strategists acknowledge being concerned about a wave of Democratic congressional retirements, Republican-controlled state legislatures reshaping House districts, a struggle to enact Biden’s leading campaign promises, and a disengaged political base.
Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison attributes the pessimism to lingering anxiety from a pandemic that will soon enter its third year.
“We know that the economy is roaring is some aspects. But it’s about how you feel at this moment,” Harrison said, noting that many people are still grappling with fear and anxiety.
Republicans face their own significant challenges. A Supreme Court decision expected next summer that could dramatically erode or dismantle abortion rights could galvanize Democratic supporters.
But Trump himself is an even bigger wild card.
The former president has waged war against fellow Republicans whom he deems insufficiently loyal. Some GOP operatives also fear that Trump’s lies about election fraud could depress turnout among is loyalists.
“We just have to limit the damage that he’s causing,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a member of the Republican Governors Association’s executive board.
“If we have big battles in primaries, either we’re going to nominate people who are unelectable in purple states or swing districts, or we’re going to beat up our incumbents so bad that they lose the general election,” added Hogan. He isn't seeking reelection because of term limits and plans to travel the country promoting Republican officeholders in Trump’s crosshairs.
That includes Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. The most vulnerable may be lawmakers such as Herrera Beutler, among the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inspiring last January’s attack on the Capitol.
Two of the 10 have already aren’t seeking reelection.
With the midterm primary election season running March through September, GOP infighting is likely to persist for months. Trump has endorsed 60-plus Republican candidates and plans to weigh in on dozens more.
But even if Trump’s divisive politics hurt his party over the coming months, history is on the GOP’s side. Just once this century has the party holding the White House not lost congressional seats in the first midterm election of a new presidency; that was in 2002, after attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Republican-controlled legislatures have aided the Republicans’ potential House fortunes by drawing new congressional districts that are even more favorable to the party.
Many Republican legislatures have also enacted laws making it more difficult to vote in response to Trump’s false claims of voter fraud. That’s expected to disproportionately affect Democratic-leaning African Americans and Latinos.
Prominent Black leaders, meanwhile, are concerned with the Democratic-controlled Congress’ inability to enact federal legislation to supersede restrictive state laws.
Representing the Democratic Party’s most reliable base of support, many Black voters are equally frustrated by the party’s inability to enact policing overhauls in response to the national outcry that followed George Floyd’s murder more than a year ago.
“We have to do more, and we want it to be faster,” said Stacey Abrams, a Democrat making her second bid for Georgia governor.
At the same time, top national Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, his party’s only Black senator, are leading a national GOP effort to prioritize electing more women and candidates of color to state-level offices.
“The winning formula is getting people who are from Main Street,” said Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, head of the House Republican campaign arm.
Some Democrats insist there is cause for optimism. The pandemic, the economy and inflation aside, no issue may be bigger than a looming Supreme Court decision on abortion rights. The conservative-leaning court will weigh whether to weaken or even overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion nationwide.
Democrats are hopeful that a major shift on the politically charged case would help rally suburban women — voters who lifted the party during the 2018 midterms.
“We are the tortoise and they are the hare,” said New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, head of the House Democratic campaign arm.
Polls nonetheless indicate an uphill fight for Democrats. Just 33% of Americans say things in the country are on the right track in a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll. Still, John Anzalone, the pollster for Biden’s presidential campaign, said frustration doesn’t mean Amercians “love Republicans.”
“This isn’t people defaulting to Republicans because they like them,” Anzalone said. “And that can catch up to them as the environment changes.”
Peoples reported from New York. Associated Press writers Jeff Amy in Decatur, Georgia; Jill Colvin in New York; Hannah Fingerhut in Washington; and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.
Steve Peoples And Will Weissert, The Associated Press