Democrats Might Avoid a Midterm Wipeout

If Democrats avoid the worst outcome in November’s midterm elections, the principal reason will likely be the GOP’s failure to reverse its decline  in white-collar suburbs during the Donald Trump era.

That’s a clear message from yesterday’s crowded primary calendar, which showed the GOP mostly continuing to nominate Trump-style culture-war candidates around the country. And yet, the resounding defeat of an anti-abortion ballot initiative in Kansas showed how many voters in larger population centers are recoiling from that Trumpist vision.

Democrats still face enormous headwinds in November, including sweeping voter dissatisfaction over inflation, low approval ratings for President Joe Biden, and the near unbroken history since the Civil War of the party that holds the White House losing seats in the House of Representatives during a president’s first two years.

Polls indicate that many college-educated center-right voters have soured on the performance of Biden and the Democrats controlling both congressional chambers. Yet in Tudor Dixon, the GOP gubernatorial nominee in Michigan, and Blake Masters, the party’s Senate selection in Arizona, Republicans have chosen nominees suited less to recapturing socially moderate white-collar voters than to energizing Trump’s working-class and nonurban base through culture-war appeals like support of near-total abortion bans. With Trump-backed Kari Lake moving into the lead as counting continues in the Arizona Republican gubernatorial primary, the top GOP nominees both there and in Michigan will likely be composed entirely of candidates who embrace Trump’s lie that he won their state in 2020.

In the intermediate term, most Democratic strategists believe that the party must find ways to combat the GOP’s strong performance during the Trump era with working-class voters, particularly its improvement since 2016 among blue-collar Hispanic voters. But with inflation so badly squeezing the finances of many working- and middle-class families, recovering much ground with such voters before November may be tough for most Democratic candidates. Those working-class voters “know the shoe is pinching,” says Tom Davis, the former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, quoting the late political scientist V. O. Key Jr.

The more realistic route for Democrats in key races may be to defend, as much as possible, the inroads they made into the white-collar suburbs of virtually every major metropolitan area during the past three elections. Although, compared with 2020, the party will likely lose ground with all groups, Democrats are positioned to hold much more of their previous support among college-educated than noncollege voters, according to Ethan Winter, a Democratic pollster.

An array of recent public polls suggest he’s right. A Monmouth University poll released today showed that white voters without a college degree preferred Republicans for Congress by a 25-percentage-point margin, but white voters with at least a four-year degree backed Democrats by 18 points.

A recent Fox News Poll in Pennsylvania showed the Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman crushing Republican Mehmet Oz among college-educated white voters, while the two closely split those without degrees. Another recent Fox News poll in Georgia found Senator Raphael Warnock trailing his opponent Herschel Walker among noncollege white voters by more than 40 percentage points but running essentially even among those with degrees (which would likely be enough to win, given his preponderant support in the Black community). The most recent public surveys in New Hampshire and Wisconsin likewise found Republicans leading comfortably among voters without advanced education, but Democrats holding solid advantages among those with four-year or graduate degrees. A poll this week by Siena College, in New York, found Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul splitting noncollege voters evenly with Republican Lee Zeldin, but beating him by more than two-to-one among those with a degree.

This strength among college-educated voters may be worth slightly more for Democrats in the midterms than in a general election. Voters without a degree cast a majority of ballots in both types of contests. But calculations by Catalist, a Democratic-voter-targeting firm, and Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who specializes in voter turnout, have found that voters with a college degree consistently make up about three to four percentage points more of the electorate in a midterm than in a presidential election. “When we see lower turnout elections,” like a midterm, “the gap between high-education and low-education voters increases,” McDonald told me. In close races, that gap could place a thumb on the scale for Democrats, partially offsetting the tendency of decreased turnout from younger and nonwhite voters in midterm elections.

Republicans have mostly counted on voters’ dissatisfaction with inflation and Biden’s overall performance to recover lost ground in white-collar communities. But as the polls noted above suggest, many voters in those places are, at least for now, decoupling their disenchantment with Biden from their choices in House, Senate, and governor’s races. “Voters have concerns about the direction of the country,” the Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson told me, “but they’re terrified of the direction it would take if these MAGA Republicans took power.”

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One reason for this decoupling may be that, although all families are feeling the effects of inflation, for white-collar professionals, it generally represents something more like an inconvenience than the agonizing vise it constitutes for working-class families.

That doesn’t mean white-collar voters are unconcerned about the economy, but with less worry about week-to-week financial survival, they are more likely to be influenced by the trifecta of issues that have exploded in visibility over the past several months: abortion rights,  gun control, and the threats to American democracy revealed by the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection.

As last night’s Kansas result showed, abortion rights may be an especially powerful weapon for Democrats in white-collar areas. Polls, such as a recent survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, have generally found that about two-thirds or more of voters with at least a four-year college degree believe abortion should remain legal in all or most circumstances. That support is evident even in states that generally lean toward the GOP: Recent public surveys found that strong majorities of voters with college degrees supported legal abortion in Georgia and Texas, and another survey showed majority backing among more affluent voters in Arizona.

In deep-red Kansas, two-thirds or more of voters have just supported abortion rights in four of the state’s five largest counties. Particularly noteworthy was the huge turnout and massive margin (68 percent to 32 percent at latest count) for the pro-choice position in Johnson County, a well-educated suburb of Kansas City that demographically resembles many of the suburban areas that have moved toward Democrats around such cities as Philadelphia, Detroit, Atlanta, Austin, and Phoenix.

Republican candidates this year have ceded virtually no ground to the pro-abortion-rights or pro-gun-control sentiments in those suburban areas. With the national protection for abortion revoked by the Supreme Court, almost all Republican-controlled states are on track to ban or restrict the practice. In swing states that have not yet done so, GOP gubernatorial candidates are promising to pursue tight limits. Dixon, the GOP’s Michigan nominee, said recently that she would push for an abortion ban with no exceptions for rape, incest, or the health of the mother (while she would allow them only in cases that threaten the mother’s life). Asked during a recent interview about a hypothetical case of a 14-year-old who had been impregnated by an uncle, Dixon explicitly said the teenager should carry the baby to term because “a life is a life for me.”

Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican consultant, told me that the magnitude of the pro-abortion-rights vote in Kansas was “unexpected,” but it does not guarantee Democratic candidates’ suburban domination in November. “This was a rare up or down vote on this issue,” he told me in an email. “November will be different, as voters will have lots of reasons to vote and lots of issues to consider … Polls consistently show the economy trumping this issue in the minds of the voters.”

But Democrats believe that the contrast on abortion will be highly consequential, especially in governor’s races, where Democrats such as the incumbent Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan and the nominee Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania are presenting themselves as a last line of defense against Republicans intent on banning the procedure. Suburban “voters might have been thinking about voting Republican because they are unhappy with the direction of country and inflation, and they might decide to back Whitmer because of abortion,” Winter, the Democratic pollster, told me.

The choice may not carry such immediate implications in House and Senate races, but leading Democrats are running on promises to pass legislation restoring the national right to abortion, while Republicans are either opposing such a bill or signaling openness to imposing a national ban. The two top Democratic challengers for Republican-held Senate seats (John Fetterman in Pennsylvania and Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin) have both called for ending the filibuster to pass legislation codifying national abortion rights.

Davis, the former NRCC chair who represented a suburban Northern Virginia district, believes that even in white-collar communities supportive of abortion rights and gun control, Democrats won’t escape discontent over inflation. If Republicans could frame the election simply as a referendum on Biden’s performance, Davis told me, “that’s their path to victory and a path to an electoral landslide.” But, he added, the choice by GOP voters in so many states to nominate “exotic candidates” mostly linked to Trump has provided Democrats with an opportunity, particularly in higher-profile Senate and governor contests, to make this “a choice election.” And that, he said, gives Democrats a shot at winning enough “white ticket-splitters” to at least hold down their losses.

Given the headwinds, Democrats would take a November outcome in which they narrowly lose the House but hold their Senate majority and preserve control of the governorships in the key swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, while perhaps adding some others, such as Arizona. With Biden’s approval rating still scuffling, that outcome is hardly guaranteed. But it remains a possibility largely because, as yesterday’s primaries showed, Republicans have responded to their suburban erosion by betting even more heavily on the policies and rhetoric that triggered their decline in the first place. In November, white-collar suburbs may be the deciding factor between a Republican rout and a split decision that leaves Democrats still standing to fight another day.