WASHINGTON -- This time last year, the Republican Party was hitting bottom.
Having already lost the presidency and House, the GOP would soon squander its Senate majority and watch with horror as thousands of Donald Trump's supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a violent attack last Jan. 6 that will be forever linked to the Republican president's legacy.
What a difference 12 months make.
Entering a pivotal election year, a resurgent GOP is poised to reclaim one, if not both, chambers of Congress and retain its lock on dozens of state legislatures and governor's offices. While victory is far from assured, the GOP's confidence is fueled by President Joe Biden's underwhelming poll numbers, a Democratic economic and social agenda that's faltering, intensifying concerns about inflation, and deepening frustration with the pandemic, which is unleashing yet another wave of infections upon an exhausted nation.
But at its most basic level, the Republican Party's optimism is born of the same political headwinds that have shaped U.S. politics for decades. The party that controls the White House — Democrats, in this case — has a tremendous disadvantage in the first election of a new presidency. Adding to that challenge, Democrats are struggling to prevent a far-reaching Republican campaign to make voting more difficult for core Democratic constituents while installing a slate of election officials allied with Trump.
GOP leaders are brimming with confidence.
“We’re going to have a hell of a year,” said Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who leads the national GOP’s Senate campaign arm. “Every state that Biden won by less than 10 is now a battleground state.”
Lest there be any doubt, Republicans dominated the off-year elections this fall across Virginia, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, where Democrats in races from governor to county recorder of deeds were defeated — or barely held on — in regions that Biden had comfortably carried by more than 10 percentage points a year earlier. Perhaps most disturbing for Democrats, suburban voters and independents who fled Trump's Republican Party in recent years shifted back — without him on the ballot.
Democratic strategists privately concede that the party will be lucky to hold either congressional chamber in November, although the House may be in the most immediate peril.
They point to the surge of recent Democratic congressional retirements, dozens of Republican-controlled state legislatures that are actively reshaping House districts in the GOP's favor, a struggle to enact all of Biden's campaign promises, and a disengaged political base — especially African Americans. Their priorities on policing and voting rights have gone unfulfilled in Democratic-controlled Washington, even after last year's supposed national awakening on race.
Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison said too many Americans believe the country is moving in the wrong direction. But he attributes the pessimism to lingering anxiety from a pandemic that will soon enter its third year. With new COVID-19 medication coming onto the market and expanded vaccine access for children, he predicted the country would return to a sense of normalcy by the end of March.
“We know that the economy is roaring is some aspects. But it’s about how you feel at this moment," Harrison said, noting that many people are still grappling with fear and anxiety. “I believe in the midst of the first quarter, end of the first quarter, that feeling will start to shift.”
While Republicans believe the dynamics work in their favor, they face their own formidable challenges. Democrats believe that GOP efforts to curb access to the ballot, combined with a Supreme Court decision expected next summer that could dramatically erode or dismantle abortion rights, could suddenly galvanize Democrats' most loyal supporters.
But for the GOP, perhaps no challenge is bigger than Trump himself.
The former president has waged an unprecedented war against fellow Republicans whom he deems insufficiently loyal, encouraging primary challenges against sitting members of Congress and governors in more than a dozen states. At the same time, some Republican operatives fear that Trump's continued lies about election fraud could depress turnout among the millions of loyalists who believe his baseless conspiracy theories.
“We just have to limit the damage that he’s causing,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who sits on the executive board of the Republican Governors Association.
“If we have big battles in primaries, either we’re going to nominate people who are unelectable in purple states or swing districts, or we’re going to beat up our incumbents so bad that they lose the general election,” added Hogan. He isn't seeking reelection because of term limits but plans to travel the country promoting Republican officeholders in Trump's crosshairs.
That includes Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington State, and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. The most vulnerable may be officeholders such as Herrera Beutler, who was among 10 House Republicans voting to impeach Trump for inspiring the January attack on the Capitol.
Two of the 10 have already announced they're not seeking reelection.
Republican officials tasked with leading the GOP's 2022 election efforts are disturbed by Trump's sustained attacks on fellow party members, although few are willing to speak out publicly against him. Instead, Republican candidates in Arizona, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and elsewhere are battling each other in increasingly nasty primary contests for Trump's favor.
With the primary election season running from March through September, GOP infighting is likely to dominate the narrative for months even as Trump's role in national politics probably still continues to grow.
He considers himself his party’s kingmaker. He's expected to play a more active campaign role next year after shying away from high profile governor's races this past fall in Virginia and New Jersey, where he's less popular with suburban voters. Already, Trump has endorsed 60-plus Republican candidates and plans to weigh in on dozens more contests. That including Missouri's combative Senate primary in which conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt recently begged Trump not to endorse Eric Greitens, a divisive former governor.
HISTORIC HEADWINDS FOR DEMOCRATS
Even if Trump's politics hurt his party over the coming months, history suggests it may not matter. Just once this century has the party holding the White House not lost congressional seats in the first midterm election of a new presidency. That was in 2002, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Democrats lost 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate under President Bill Clinton in 1994. They lost 63 House seats and another six Senate seats under President Barack Obama in 2010. In 2018, Republicans lost 40 House seats under Trump, while gaining a pair in the Senate.
Republican-controlled legislatures have aided the GOP’s potential House fortunes by drawing new congressional districts that are even more favorable to the party, including in Iowa, Texas and North Carolina, where — with legal challenges still pending — at least two new districts will be safely Republican.
Democratic legislators could pad their own advantages in places such as New York, but the GOP is positioned to help its standing elsewhere far more.
Redistricting will not affect the Senate landscape, where Republicans have to defend 20 seats compared with 14 for the Democrats. That's a positive for Democrats, but six of the top Senate contests are playing out it states Biden won by no more than 2 percentage points or lost, including Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina.
Beyond congressional races, the stakes are especially high for Democrats in statehouses. Republican-run legislatures from Texas to Georgia have enacted laws making it more difficult to vote in response to Trump's false claims of voter fraud — a shift that's expected to have a disproportionate effect on Democratic-leaning African Americans and Latinos.
Democratic governors will be playing defense in much-watched Michigan and Wisconsin, and trying to hold an open seat in Pennsylvania. All three races are probably Democrats’ best chance to slow the GOP’s years-long ascendancy in the industrial heartland. But the GOP currently controls the governor’s office in 27 states, compared with Democrats’ 23, with 36 up nationwide in 2022.
If Republicans win in Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin while holding those state legislatures, the GOP would take total control of state government in those critical Midwestern battlegrounds that Biden narrowly won. That could give Republicans the power to change voting procedures in the next presidential contest, as their colleagues have in other states.
Prominent Black leaders have become increasingly concerned with the Democratic-controlled Congress' inability to enact federal legislation to supersede restrictive state laws. Senate Republicans have effectively blocked such efforts, while Democrats have resisted calls to bypass Senate rules that require at least 60 votes to advance legislation.
Many Black voters, a group that represents Democrats' most reliable supporters, are equally frustrated by the party's inability to enact policing reform in response to the national outcry that followed George Floyd's murder more than a year ago.
‘WE HAVE TO DO MORE’
“Yes, we have to do more, and we want it to be faster,” said Stacey Abrams, a Democrat making her second bid for Georgia governor. She said Democrats must have “deep conversations” with the Black community — “not preaching, but having conversations about what’s being done and what it’s going to take to get more done.”
“I understand why people are despondent right now. This has been a terrible two years," Abrams said of the broader political landscape. "It’s been hard for so many. And the promise of hope can be sometimes disappointing. But this is going to take a while. It took four years to get us where we are. It’s going to take a little longer than a year to get us out of it.”
At the same time, top national Republicans, including South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, his party’s only Black senator, are leading a national GOP effort to prioritize electing more women and candidates of color to state-level offices.
Republicans made unexpected gains with Latino voters in many parts of the country in 2020, and Virginia provided hints that some minority voters are sticking with the party even without Trump running. Republican Winsome Sears, who is Black and a former Marine, was the first woman of color elected as the state's lieutenant governor. Jason Miyares will become the state’s first Latino attorney general.
While Democrats will feature far more minority incumbents and candidates on 2022 House and Senate ballots, former NFL running back Herschel Walker, who is Black, has been endorsed by Trump in Georgia's Republican Senate primary — despite allegations of a violent past, including threatening his former wife with a gun.
“The winning formula is getting people who are from Main Street. We look for the best candidates that are out there and we allow the districts that they want to represent select them," said Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, head of the House Republican campaign arm. "I think that’s what’s changed around here, rather than having Washington say, ‘This is the right person for the seat.’”
Despite disturbing signs as 2022 begins, some Democrats insist there is cause for optimism. The pandemic, the economy and inflation will be critical factors to the party's success. But no issue may be bigger than a looming Supreme Court decision on abortion rights. The conservative-leaning court is considering whether to weaken or even overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion across America.
Democrats are hopeful that a major shift on the politically charged case would help rally suburban women to their side — voters who lifted the party in 2018, though polling this year hasn't been conclusive
“We are the tortoise and they are the hare,” said New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, head of the House Democratic campaign arm. “I don’t want to do anything to deprive them of the overconfidence that will lead them to take a nap while we go slowly chugging by them.”
For now, however, the numbers are daunting for Democrats.
Just 33% of Americans say things in the country are on the right track, according to a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll. Sixty-six percent say things are headed in the wrong direction. That's a stark departure from the first few months of Biden’s term, when roughly half said things were going the right way.
About one-third of Americans call national economic conditions “good,” down from roughly half last March. Only 41% say they approve of Biden's stewardship, down from 60% in March.
“Even though the diagnostics are pretty tough for the president and Democrats, it’s not because they love Republicans. The Republican Party has terrible standing with the American people,” said John Anzalone, the pollster for Biden’s presidential campaign. “This isn’t people defaulting to Republicans because they like them. And that can catch up to them as the environment changes.”
“I have to remind people that there will probably be, what, $6 billion spent on this election cycle, and we’ll spend $3 billion,” Anzalone continued. “We have something to say.”
Peoples reported from New York. Associated Press writers Jeff Amy in Decatur, Georgia; Jill Colvin in New York; Hannah Fingerhut in Washington; and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.