Opinion

‘A Stirring of Democratic Hearts’: Three Writers Discuss a Transformed Midterm Landscape

Frank Bruni, a contributing Opinion writer, hosted an online conversation with Molly Jong-Fast, the writer of the “Wait, What?” newsletter for The Atlantic, and Doug Sosnik, a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton, to discuss whether the Democrats have shifted the narrative of the midterm elections.

FRANK BRUNI: Doug, Molly, an apology — because we’re doing this in cyberspace rather than a physical place, I cannot offer you any refreshments, which is a shame, because I do a killer crudité.

MOLLY JONG-FAST: The case of Dr. Oz is baffling. I continue to be completely in awe of how bad he is at this.

DOUG SOSNIK: He is a terrible candidate, but he is really just one of many right-wing and unqualified candidates running for the Senate and governor. Herschel Walker in Georgia and most of the Republican ticket in Arizona are probably even more unqualified.

BRUNI: Let’s pivot from roughage to the rough-and-tumble of the midterms. There’s a stirring of Democratic hearts, a blooming of Democratic hopes, a belief that falling gas prices, key legislative accomplishments and concern about abortion rights equal a reprieve from the kind of midterm debacle that Democrats feared just a month or two ago.

Doug, do you now envision Democrats doing much better than we once thought possible?

SOSNIK: I do. Up until the start of the primaries and the Dobbs decision overturning Roe, this looked like a classic midterm election in which the party in power gets shellacked. It has happened in the past four midterm elections.

BRUNI: Is it possible we’re reading too much into the abortion factor?

JONG-FAST: No, abortion is a much bigger deal than any of the pundit class realizes. Because abortion isn’t just about abortion.

BRUNI: Doug, do you agree?

SOSNIK: I am increasingly nervous about making predictions, but I do feel safe in saying that this issue will increase in importance as more people see the real-life implications of the Roe decision. So, yes, I agree that it will impact the midterms. But it will actually take on even more importance in 2024 and beyond.

JONG-FAST: One of the biggest things we’ve seen since the Dobbs decision is doctors terrified to treat women who are having gynecological complications. In 1973, one of the reasons Roe was decided so broadly was because some doctors didn’t feel safe treating women. We’re having a messy return to that, which is a nightmare for the right.

SOSNIK: For decades, the getting-candidates-elected wing of the Republican Party — which means people like Mitch McConnell — has had a free ride with the issue of abortion. They have been able to use it to seed their base but have not been forced to pay a political price. With the overturning of Roe, that has all changed. And polling shows that a majority of Americans don’t agree with their extreme positions.

JONG-FAST: I also think a lot of suburban women are really, really mad, and people who don’t care about politics at all are furious. Remember the whole news cycle devoted to the 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio having to go out of state for an abortion. Roe is seismic.

BRUNI: I noticed that in an NBC News poll released last week, abortion wasn’t one of the top five answers when voters were asked about the most important issue facing the country. Fascinatingly — and to me, hearteningly — more voters chose threats to democracy than the cost of living or jobs and the economy. Do you think that could truly be a motivating, consequential factor in the midterms? Or do you think abortion will still make the bigger difference?

SOSNIK: There are two issues in midterms: turnout and persuasion. I am quite confident that the abortion issue will motivate people to vote. The NBC poll shows that Democrats have closed the enthusiasm gap for voting to two points, which since March is a 15-point improvement. And for persuasion, those suburban women swing voters will be motivated by this issue to not only vote but to vote against the Republicans.

BRUNI: Is this election really going to be all about turnout, or will swing voters matter just as much? And which groups of Democratic voters are you most worried won’t, in the end, turn out to the extent that they should?

SOSNIK: Yes, this midterm will be primarily about turnout. For Democrats, I would start by worrying about young people turning out, which was no doubt on the administration’s mind when it released a plan on Wednesday to forgive student loans.

There is also a pretty sizable group of Democrats who have soured on President Biden. They are critical for the Democrats to turn out.

BRUNI: Molly, Doug just mentioned President Biden’s announcement that he was forgiving some college debt for some Americans. Is that decision likely to be a net positive for the party, drawing grateful voters to the polls, or a net negative, alienating some Democrats — and energizing many Republicans — who think he’s being fiscally profligate and playing favorites?

JONG-FAST: I grew up extremely privileged and for years grappled with the issue of fairness. In my mind, $10,000 was the floor for debt forgiveness. I am particularly pleased with the $20,000 for Pell grant recipients who qualify. I never thought America was a fair country, and it’s become increasingly unfair. Biden was elected with this promise, and he’s keeping it. I think that should help turn out the base.

SOSNIK: Student loan forgivenessis a Rorschach test for voters. If you believe in government and a progressive agenda, it is great news. If you think that the Democrats are a bunch of big spenders and worried about the elites — the 38 percent of the country that gets a four-year college degree — then it will work against them.

BRUNI: Will former President Donald Trump’s feud with the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. after the Mar-a-Lago search boost Republican turnout and work to the party’s advantage?

JONG-FAST: Trump has been fighting with parts of the government for years. I’m not sure how fresh that narrative is. The people who are Trump’s people will continue to be Trump’s people, but much of this persecution-complex narrative is old.

SOSNIK: The F.B.I. raid goes with several other items — Jan. 6, Roe, the Trump-endorsed right-wing nominees — that are driving this to be what I’d call a choice election.

There have been only two elections since World War II when the incumbent party did not lose House seats in the midterms — 1998 and 2002 — 2002 was an outlier, since it was really a reaction to 9/11.

Nineteen ninety-eight was a choice election: We were in the middle of impeachment when the country largely felt that the Republicans were overreaching; 2022 could be only the second choice midterm election since World War II.

BRUNI: Democratic hopes focus on keeping control of the Senate or even expanding their majority there. Is the House a lost cause?

JONG-FAST: The result of the special election in New York’s 19th Congressional District on Tuesday — widely considered a bellwether contest for control of the House in November, and in which the Democrat, Pat Ryan, beat a well-known, favored Republican, Marc Molinaro, by two points — makes people think that it is possible for Democrats to keep the House.

I know that Democrats have about dozens of fewer safe seats than Republicans. And they hold a very slim majority — Republicans need to pick up a net of five seats to regain the majority. But I still think it’s possible Democrats hold the House.

SOSNIK: It will be very difficult for the Democrats to hold the House. They have one of the narrowest margins in the House since the late-19th century. Because of reapportionment and redistricting, the Republicans have a much more favorable battlefield. There are now, in the new map, 16 seats held by Democrats in districts that would have likely voted for Trump. Expecting a bad cycle, over 30 Democrats in the House announced that they would retire.

The Cook Report has the Republicans already picking up a net of seven seats, with the majority of the remaining competitive races held by Democrats.

BRUNI: I’m going to list Democratic candidates in high-profile Senate races in purple or reddish states that aren’t incontrovertibly hostile terrain for the party. For each candidate, tell me if you think victory is probable, possible or improbable. Be bold.

John Fetterman, Pennsylvania.

SOSNIK: Probable.

JONG-FAST: Probable.

BRUNI: Raphael Warnock, Georgia.

SOSNIK: Probable.

JONG-FAST: Probable.

BRUNI: Cheri Beasley, North Carolina.

SOSNIK: Possible.

JONG-FAST: Possible.

BRUNI: Val Demings, Florida.

SOSNIK: Possible.

JONG-FAST: Ugh, Florida.

BRUNI: Mark Kelly, Arizona.

SOSNIK: Probable.

JONG-FAST: Probable.

BRUNI: Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin.

SOSNIK: Possible.

JONG-FAST: Probable.

BRUNI: Tim Ryan, Ohio.

SOSNIK: Possible.

JONG-FAST: Possible.

BRUNI: Catherine Cortez Masto, Nevada.

SOSNIK: Possible.

JONG-FAST: Probable.

BRUNI: ​​ Name a Democratic candidate this cycle — for Senate, House or governor — who has most positively surprised and impressed you, and tell me why.

JONG-FAST: Fetterman is really good at this, and so is his wife. Ryan has been really good. I think Mandela Barnes is really smart. I’ve interviewed all of those guys for my podcast and thought they were just really good at messaging in a way Democrats are historically not. Val Demings is a once-in-a-lifetime politician, but Florida is Florida.

SOSNIK: Tim Ryan.I don’t know if he can win, but he has proved that a Democrat can be competitive in a state that I now consider a Republican stronghold.

BRUNI: OK, let’s do a lightning round of final questions. For starters, the Biden presidency so far, rated on a scale of 1 (big disappointment) to 5 (big success), with a sentence or less justifying your rating.

JONG-FAST: Four. I wasn’t a Biden person, but he’s quietly gotten a lot done, more than I thought he could.

SOSNIK: Four. They have accomplished a lot under very difficult circumstances.

BRUNI: The percentage chance that Biden runs for a second term?

JONG-FAST: Fifty percent.

SOSNIK: Twenty-five percent.

BRUNI: If Biden doesn’t run and there’s a Democratic primary, name someone other than or in addition to Kamala Harris whom you’d like to see enter the fray, and tell me in a phrase why.

JONG-FAST: I hate this question. I want to move to a pineapple under the sea.

SOSNIK: Sherrod Brown. He is an authentic person who understands the pulse of this country.

JONG-FAST: I also like Sherrod Brown.

BRUNI: What’s the one issue you think is being most shortchanged, not just in discussions about the midterms but in our political discussions generally?

JONG-FAST: The Supreme Court. If Democrats keep the House and the Senate, Biden is still going to have to deal with the wildly out-of-step courts. He will hate doing that, but he’s going to have to.

SOSNIK: I agree with Molly. On a broader level, we have just completed a realignment in American politics where class, more than race, is driving our politics.

BRUNI: Last but by no means least, you must spend either an hour over crudité with the noted gourmand Mehmet Oz or an hour gardening with the noted environmentalist Herschel Walker. What do you choose, and briefly, why?

JONG-FAST: I’m a terrible hypochondriac, and Oz was an extremely good surgeon. I would spend an hour with him talking about all my medical anxieties. Does this mole look like anything?

SOSNIK: The fact that you are raising that question tells you how bad the candidate recruitment has been for the Republicans this cycle.

Other than carrying a football and not getting tackled, Walker has not accomplished much in his life, and his pattern of personal behavior shows him to be unfit to hold elected office.

BRUNI: Well, I once spent hours with Oz for a profile and watched him do open-heart surgery, so I’m pulling weeds with Walker, just out of curiosity. And for the fresh air.

Frank Bruni (@FrankBruni) is a professor of public policy at Duke, the author of the book “The Beauty of Dusk” and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter and can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Molly Jong-Fast (@MollyJongFast) writes the “Wait, What?” newsletter for The Atlantic. Doug Sosnik was a senior adviser in President Bill Clinton’s White House from 1994 to 2000 and is a counselor to the Brunswick Group.

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