Did the Democrats peak too early?

Welcome to Yahoo News’ Politics Briefing: Midterms Edition. Every week between now and Election Day, Yahoo News’ team of political journalists will pull together everything you need to know about the November midterm elections. And it will all be in one place: your inbox.

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THE BIG IDEA: Did the Democrats peak too early?

At the start of the year, it looked as if Democrats were headed toward catastrophe in the November midterms. Then summer came, and it suddenly seemed that Republicans were in trouble.

In Congress, Democrats had a string of legislative victories. President Biden’s approval rating started to improve. Gas prices went down. And the Supreme Court’s deeply unpopular decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in June motivated Democrats to go to the polls, allowing them to score upset wins in bellwether contests, like the special election in New York’s 19th Congressional District.

President Joe Biden listens to doctors speak during a meeting of the reproductive rights task force in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. (Susan Walsh/AP)

President Joe Biden listens to doctors speak during a meeting of the reproductive rights task force in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Yet since September, it’s Republicans who appear to have gained the momentum. Issues where they have an advantage, such as crime and the economy, have once again taken center stage. GOP candidates in some marquee contests have inched up in the polls, and even deep-blue Oregon looks as if it might elect a Republican governor.

“The question is whether or not Democrats peaked too early” is how one veteran reporter, Chad Pergram, summed it up recently on Fox News.

So have the Democrats lost their edge? We asked Andrew Busch, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of “Horses in Midstream: U.S. Midterm Elections and Their Consequences,” what he makes of the situation.

“It is too early to say for sure what will happen, but there is a pattern that this year might fall into, if Republicans actually make big gains. In 1994, 2006, 2014 and 2018, the president’s party looked like it was heading to a disaster earlier in the year, then appeared to improve its position in late summer, then fell apart at the end,” Busch said.

“It is not actually clear whether any of them ‘peaked,’ as opposed to being in trouble all along, but enjoying a deceptive comeback that wasn’t really grounded in the fundamentals of the election.”

Republicans have an advantage when it comes to those fundamentals. Unemployment is low, but inflation remains red-hot. Biden is still rather unpopular. Thanks to a recent decision by OPEC+, gas prices might soon be on the rise again. A substantial majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

It’s still possible that Democrats have a pretty good November. But if they don’t, it wouldn’t be the first time that the party in power benefited from a surge of optimism over the summer, only to get walloped in the fall.

POLLS, POLLS, POLLS

Incumbent Democratic Senate candidate, U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) speaks during a campaign canvas kickoff event on September 10, 2022 in Dover, New Hampshire.  (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Incumbent Democratic Senate candidate, U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) speaks during a campaign canvas kickoff event on September 10, 2022 in Dover, New Hampshire. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Yahoo News’ Chris Wilson rounds up some of the latest polls:

Democrats breathed a sigh of relief when Don Bolduc, a former general who had been a staunch 2020 election denier, won the Republican Senate primary in New Hampshire. This week, polls showed the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Maggie Hassan — who won her seat by less than a point six years ago — holding a substantial lead: A St. Anselm survey showed her leading by 6 points, the Republican polling firm Trafalgar showed her up 3 points and the Democratic polling firm Data for Progress showed her up 7. The St. Anselm poll also showed Democrats leading by at least 8 points in the state’s two toss-up House races.

This week was also a good one for incumbent governors of both parties. Chief executives enjoying double-digit leads in at least one poll included Democrats Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan (Detroit News) and Gavin Newsom of California (Los Angeles Times), as well as Republicans Ron DeSantis of Florida (Mason-Dixon), Phil Scott of Vermont (UNH) and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire (St. Anselm).

SOUND LIKE A NERD

President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Fort Peck, Montana., on August 8, 1934 as he made one of his numerous addresses from the observation platform of his train during his journey over the parched plains of the Northwest. (AP Photo)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Fort Peck, Montana., on August 8, 1934 as he made one of his numerous addresses from the observation platform of his train during his journey over the parched plains of the Northwest. (AP Photo)

If you’re looking for an example when the party in control of the White House scored a big midterm win, 1934 is probably your best bet.

As Busch recounts in “Horses in Midstream,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democrats did not go into the election with a great deal of confidence. The economy had improved somewhat since his election in 1932, but the Great Depression continued. Conservative opponents of FDR’s New Deal were energized and organized. John Nance Garner, FDR’s vice president at the time, predicted that Democrats would lose a whopping 37 House seats. Other Democrats predicted even bigger Republican gains.

Instead, voters gave the New Deal their ringing endorsement, with Democrats winning a supermajority in the Senate and adding to their majority in the House. The contemporary columnist Arthur Krock called it “the most overwhelming victory in the history of American politics. … There has been no such popular endorsement since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.”

The next several years saw FDR and congressional Democrats use that mandate to pass some of the most ambitious and transformative New Deal legislation, such as Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Midterms matter, folks.

SLEEPER RACE ALERT

Sen. Mike Lee and Evan McMullen. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: George Frey/AP, Rick Bowmer/AP)

Sen. Mike Lee and Evan McMullen. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: George Frey/AP, Rick Bowmer/AP)

Sen. Mike Lee, a conservative Utah Republican, might have a real race on his hands. A Deseret News poll from late last month found him barely leading his opponent, Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer who is running as an independent. Democrats do not have a candidate in the contest and have instead rallied behind McMullin.

We asked Hal Boyd, the executive editor of Deseret News, whether McMullin could be able to eke out a win.

“It appears that Evan McMullin’s strategy is to capture a coalition spanning Democrats and independents while carving off moderate Republicans. This isn’t an easy coalition to build in a conservative state like Utah. But the good news for McMullin is that he was able to convince many Trump-averse conservatives in Utah to vote for him when he ran as an independent presidential candidate in 2016,” Boyd said.

“Whether those same Republican voters will break for him again has yet to be seen. And even Sen. Mike Lee in 2016 protested Trump’s presidential nomination but eventually found a way to support and work with then-President [Donald] Trump. It’s hard to say how many moderate Republicans in Utah have gone through a similar political arc, but the answer to that question may end up determining the outcome of the race.”

Boyd added: “If McMullin pulls off an upset — and I do think upset is the right word — it will be because he’s successfully built this unlikely coalition united over a single issue: aversion to Donald Trump. This would be quite an accomplishment, especially given that Trump is no longer in office and midterms are typically referendums on sitting presidents rather than past ones.

“Additionally, inflation and economic concerns are top of mind for voters, both of which are issues that tend to play better for Republicans. If McMullin wins, it will be because enough voters in Utah, across parties, no longer want Trump-supportive representation in Washington.”

WHAT TO WATCH

Republican Senate candidate for Georgia, Herschel Walker speaks at a campaign event on September 9, 2022 in Gwinnett, Georgia. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Republican Senate candidate for Georgia, Herschel Walker speaks at a campaign event on September 9, 2022 in Gwinnett, Georgia. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Candidates in three top-tier Senate contests will debate next week.

On Oct. 10, Republican J.D. Vance and Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan will face off in Ohio. On Oct. 7 and Oct. 13, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson debates his Democratic opponent, Mandela Barnes, in Wisconsin.

And in Georgia, Republican Herschel Walker will debate Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock on Oct. 14. Walker’s campaign recently received a body blow in the form of a story in the Daily Beast alleging that he secretly paid for a girlfriend’s abortion, despite professing hard-line opposition to the procedure on the campaign trail.

Expect the Georgia debate to make some headlines. For his part, Walker has spent weeks trying to lower expectations about his performance. “I’m a country boy. I’m not that smart,” the former college football hero told the Savannah Morning News last month.

“He’s a preacher. [Warnock] is smart and wears these nice suits. So, he is going to show up and embarrass me at the debate Oct. 14, and I’m just waiting to show up, and I will do my best.”

YOUR WEEKEND READING

Republican nominee Christine Drazan speaks during a gubernatorial debate. (Jaime Valdez/Pamplin Media Group/Pool via AP)

Republican nominee Christine Drazan speaks during a gubernatorial debate. (Jaime Valdez/Pamplin Media Group/Pool via AP)

Yahoo News’ Jon Ward takes a look at why Oregon might elect a Republican governor and at the fallout from the Walker allegations, and Yahoo News’ Tom LoBianco explores the friction between Donald Trump and some leading conservative media personalities.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Senator Raphael Warnock in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. in May. (Tom Williams/Pool via Reuters)

Senator Raphael Warnock in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. in May. (Tom Williams/Pool via Reuters)

“What we are hearing about my opponent is disturbing. And I think the people of Georgia have a real choice about who they think is ready to represent them in the United States Senate.” — Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., when asked by Yahoo News’ Marquise Francis about allegations that his rival in the Georgia Senate race, Herschel Walker, had paid for a girlfriend’s abortion.