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Beyond approval numbers: GOP's midterm prospects aren't a sure thing

Fundraising, candidate recruitment and voter enthusiasm complicate the picture for Republicans hoping to capitalize on historical trends.

WASHINGTON — One of the most reliable rules of American politics is that a president’s first-term midterm elections are bad for the president’s party. Since 1950, the president’s party has gained seats in the first midterm only once, in 2002, the first national election after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

That rule is likely to hold in this fall’s midterms with Republicans making gains, but some numbers are raising eyebrows among analysts this summer. Around the country, in notable races, Democratic candidates hold a sizable advantage in money raised through contributions thus far.

Contributions are often viewed as a measure of support for the candidate. And Democrats are feeling especially good about U.S. Senate races in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Those races are in the spotlight for a long list of reasons. Georgia and Pennsylvania both flipped Democratic in the 2020 presidential race. Ohio and Pennsylvania both have retiring Republicans leaving open seats. And Georgia has a Democratic senator, Raphael Warnock, who won in a special election in 2020 and will run again this year.

Considering that the Senate is currently 50/50 in its partisan makeup, both parties are fighting hard for these seats, and yet, in each race, the Democrat holds a big lead in fundraising.

In Georgia, Warnock leads his challenger, former University of Georgia football star Herschel Walker, by more than $9 million. In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman leads former TV doctor Mehmet Oz by about $7 million (and that is after Oz contributed $14 million to his own campaign). And in Ohio, Rep. Tim Ryan has raised about $18 million more than his opponent, author J.D. Vance.

If those big discrepancies hold, they could lead to crucial homestretch advantages for the Democrats in what look to be close races. And the fund-raising trend continues beyond those individual races. Taken together, the major Democratic and Republican committees (the DNC and RNC as well as the congressional and senatorial committees) are almost even in terms of funds raised. That’s very different from 2020 and even 2018 when the GOP held big advantages at this time.

So, good reason for the Democrats to be excited, right? Well, maybe, but there are other factors to consider when you think about 2022.

For instance, there is a simple tally of how many people are running for Congress from each party. If one party is feeling better than the other, more candidates from that party tend to seek office and the GOP holds a big edge there.

The Federal Election Commission reports during this election cycle (through March of this year) there were 1,277 Republican candidates trying to win seats in the U.S. House and Senate. That was 320 more candidates than the Democrats had at that time.

Democrats might want to write some of that difference off to the current fractured state of the GOP, but more Republicans saw 2022 as a good year to try their luck at Congress, revealing something about the excitement in the two parties about the coming election.

Another data point that suggests Republicans have reason to feel good about 2022: measures of voter enthusiasm. Polls have consistently shown Republican voters are more excited to vote in this year’s midterms than Democrats. A recent poll from Marquette University showed a more fired-up GOP.

The survey of registered voters found that 88% of Republicans said they were very or somewhat enthusiastic about voting in 2022. In the same survey, Democrats clocked in at 76%. That’s a 12-point edge for Republicans and in close races it could give Republican candidates an advantage.

In many ways, however, the 2022 midterms remain difficult to fully understand.

The historical rules, a weak president and a bad economy suggest this should be a very good year for the GOP. But the ghosts of January 6 and Roe v. Wade also linger over this year and seem to be helping the Democrats somewhat. And the “generic ballot,” a measure of whether people plan to vote Republican or Democrat without getting into specifics about candidates, swings from poll to poll.

One recent Economist/YouGov survey had the Democrats with a six-point advantage. A recent poll from Trafalgar Group, a Republican firm, gave the GOP an eight-point edge. And overall, the latest average from 538 gives the Republicans a very narrow .2-point edge on the generic ballot.

In some ways, splits on all these indicators probably shouldn’t be a surprise. The calendar may say 2022, but both parties are still tied to 2020, a close election. Democrats are linked to President Joe Biden because he is in the White House and most Republicans still view former President Donald Trump as their leader.

Normally, the party that loses in a presidential election leaves the losing candidate behind and moves on to new faces and voices, but that has not happened with the GOP. And for all the negative headlines regarding Biden’s approval rating, Trump isn’t viewed warmly by most voters either.

Consider voters' personal feelings about the two men in the last NBC News Poll.

Only 37% of those surveyed said they had positive feelings about Biden. That’s pretty bad. But for Trump, the figure was 36%. In short, neither party’s standard bearer is popular and that may be having a big impact on the 2022 vote.

Midterms are supposed to be referenda, a measure of whether voters are happy with the people in power. But right now, Biden and Trump and 2020 all loom over the year’s midterms. It may be that some voters see this midterm not as a referendum but as a choice between two not very palatable alternatives.

Add in a complicated issue environment and newly drawn congressional district lines and you have a recipe for a November that right now looks confusing and harder than usual to predict.