Red wave or blue line? Biden, Trump start sprint to midterms as Democrats hope to defy history

No wonder Joe Biden had a broad smile on his face when he walked back and forth across the stage at Henry Meier Festival Park in Milwaukee on Monday, microphone in hand, as he started a two-month sprint to the midterms that Democrats now hope will defy history.

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A perfect storm of developments during the summer has upended the predictions of strategists in both parties that Republicans would easily capture the House and probably the Senate in an election that would leave Biden weakened.

Instead, as the campaign enters its final chapter, Democrats have realistic hopes of holding off the big losses in midterm elections that typically befall the party in power. That outcome would bolster Biden's standing while raising questions about former President Donald Trump's political acumen.

At stake is not only control of Congress but also the contours of the 2024 presidential election and beyond.

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Trump put himself at the center of the campaign Saturday night – and aimed his fire at Biden – with the first of what is expected to be a crowded season of rallies by the former president.

"He's an enemy of the state, you want to know the truth," Trump said of his successor in a speech in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, where Biden on Thursday delivered an address depicting Trump and the "MAGA Republicans" who back him as threats to democracy. Trump called those remarks "the most vicious, hateful and divisive speech ever delivered by an American president."

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.

By Trump's side in Wilkes-Barre were two candidates he has championed, Senate nominee Mehmet Oz and gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano. In statewide polls over the past month, Oz has steadily trailed Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in what has become the Democrats' best hope of picking up a Republican-held Senate seat. Mastriano, a state senator and key supporter of Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election, has trailed Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee.

But in a speech at the Mohegan Sun Arena that stretched for nearly two hours, the former president focused more on his past grievances than on the candidates' selling points. He denounced the FBI search of his home in Mar-a-Lago for sensitive government documents as "a travesty of justice" and declared, "The FBI and the Justice Department have become vicious monsters, controlled by radical-left scoundrels, lawyers and the media."

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Another speaker at the rally sparked particular controversy. Activist Cynthia Hughes offered a full-throated defense of her nephew, Tim Hale-Cusanelli, and others who participated in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Hale-Cusanelli gained notoriety by photographing himself dressed as Adolf Hitler and, according to law enforcement officials, once remarking of the Holocaust that Hitler "should have finished the job."

He was convicted of obstruction of an official proceeding and other charges by a jury in May. Sentencing is set for this month.

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Republican strategists wanted the midterm campaign to focus on high inflation and what they see as Biden's weak leadership. The president's job approval rating is still dismal, although it has ticked up to an average of about 42%. But Trump has complicated those plans by using his megaphone to complain instead about his false claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent.

His endorsement of Republican primary contenders who backed his argument that the election was "stolen" helped nominate Senate candidates who are now struggling in general-election matchups, not only in Pennsylvania but also in Georgia, Arizona and perhaps Ohio. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell dryly described that as an issue of "candidate quality."

With the Senate now split 50-50, Republicans need a net pickup of a single seat to regain control. Since World War II, the party in power has lost Senate seats in 13 midterm elections and gained them in five.

Biden addresses Labor Day rally

At his rally in Wisconsin, another battleground state, Biden didn't mention Trump's name but he did repeat the theme from his official speech last week that "the soul of America" was at stake in the midterms. "I believe we're at an inflection point in American history," he said. "Are we going to build a future, or are we going to obsess at the past?"

By Biden's side at Milwaukee Laborfest were Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, running for a second term against Republican Tim Michels. But the state's Democratic Senate nominee, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is challenging Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, didn't appear with Biden.

Later, the president was scheduled to fly to Pittsburgh to address Local 2227 of the United Steelworkers of America at its union hall.

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To stem losses in November, Democrats will have to defy the past.

In the 19 midterm elections since World War II, the party that holds the White House has lost seats in the House of Representatives in 17 of them, from a low of four seats in 1962, when John F. Kennedy was president, to a high of 63 seats in 2010, when Barack Obama was president.

The only two exceptions were in 2002, when George W. Bush was president and Republicans gained eight seats in an election defined by the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks a year earlier. And in 1998, when Bill Clinton was president and Democrats gained five seats, generally viewed as a rebuke of Republican efforts to impeach him after the Monica Lewinsky affair.

President Joe Biden speaks with attendees after addressing the Milwaukee Area Labor Council's annual Laborfest at Henry Maier Festival Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 5, 2022.
President Joe Biden speaks with attendees after addressing the Milwaukee Area Labor Council's annual Laborfest at Henry Maier Festival Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 5, 2022.

That's a model Democrats hope to emulate this fall, portraying their candidates as focused on pocketbook issues rather than a political debate over the 2020 presidential election. In his Milwaukee speech, Biden touted legislation passed by Democrats during his administration to protect workers' pensions, lower prescription prices for seniors, and replace lead pipes to ensure clean water.

With Democrats' 221-214 margin in the House, Republicans need to flip a net of only four seats to gain control. Independent analysts calculate the GOP is still likely to do that, but they say that outcome is no longer guaranteed. Republicans are no longer expected to score the big gains that would make a statement and strengthen their hand.

Asked whether they would vote for the Democratic or Republican congressional candidate if the election were today, voters in public polls over the past month averaged by are split: 44.6% for the Democrat, 44.5% for the Republican.

"Three months ago, it looked like a Category 5 hurricane was heading for President Biden and House Democrats," David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report said last week. "Today, not only has it weakened to a tropical depression, but GOP primaries have thrown Democrats enough sandbags to give them a plausible, if still unlikely, scenario to stave off a Republican majority."

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The top factor boosting Democratic prospects, he said, was the Supreme Court decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade. Since then, about a dozen states have banned or severely limited access to abortion services. Significant restrictions in another 10 states have been blocked or partly blocked because of court challenges.

The loss of a constitutional right to abortion, which had been in effect for a half century, has energized the Democratic base and prompted a disproportionate number of women to register to vote. It has helped Democrats do better than expected in a series of special elections in recent weeks.

That said, the most experienced political hands offer a final word of caution: There are still 64 days to go.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden, Trump start two-month sprint in an unexpected midterm campaign