WASHINGTON — The day after Donald Trump’s election, the phones at the San Francisco and Washington offices of Emerge, a national organization that recruits women to run for office, started to ring and would not stop.
Women wanted to run for office in a 2018 midterm election still two years away after watching the first woman to ever secure the nomination of a major US party lose to a man who had casually boasted of grabbing women by their genitals.
“They saw a lot of elected officials were failing them and doing events for Trump,” Emerge president A’shanti F. Gholar said of the women who powered Democrats’ “blue wave” election in 2018. “It really made them know that they needed different representation.”
Four years later, President Biden hasn’t proved as galvanizing a force as Trump was for Democrats in 2018, or as former president Barack Obama was for Republicans in 2010, when conservative activists formed the Tea Party movement to oppose him. But with Democrats clinging to a tiny majority in Congress, Republicans don’t need a mass protest movement or a wave election to seize back a majority in the 2022 elections — and a slew of worrisome signs for Democrats suggest the GOP has the momentum they need to do so.
Democrats hold only a six-seat advantage in the sharply divided House chamber, and a bevy of Democratic retirements in critical swing states will make it more difficult to retain control. Historical trends also show that the party in the White House tends to lose House seats in the midterms.
What’s more, the redistricting process will favor Republicans. The GOP will wield power over the redrawing of maps in 20 states — as compared to 11 controlled by Democrats — including Texas and Florida, each of which will add congressional seats.
In a show of confidence, the National Republican Congressional Committee on Tuesday moved 10 more House seats held by Democrats to its list of now 57 pickup targets.
Odds may be better for Democrats in the Senate, where each party holds 50 seats and at least five Republicans have announced their departures.
“Democrats have to expect that these midterms are going to be difficult,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who advised Senator Marco Rubio on his 2016 presidential bid. “Normally, waves don’t crest until closer to the election, but we are already seeing signs of a rising tide for Republicans.”
The favorable political environment appears to have boosted recruiting for Republicans, who are now following the lead of Democrats in 2018. “We have more people contacting us now than we ever have before,” said Sarah Chamberlain, the president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a PAC of centrist Republicans that includes more than 60 sitting members in Congress. “We are not even going out. They are coming to find us.”
Michael McAdams, a National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman, attributed the energy to “the atmosphere” — knowledge that the House majority is within reach, the historical odds are in favor of Republicans, and what he described as anger over “a far left, socialist” Democratic policy agenda.
So far, the national committee counts 431 Republicans running for Congress, higher than the 330 Republicans who had launched their bids at this point last cycle — and more than double the number who had done so in 2010, when it also faced redistricting and Democrats held control of the House, Senate, and White House.
The Republican Party’s list of candidates also is much more diverse than in past years, including 99 women, 100 veterans, and 77 candidates of color.
But national Democrats brushed aside these worrisome signs, pointing to a Republican Party in turmoil over its direction after the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection fueled by Trump. This week, House Republicans are feuding over whether to kick out Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming from its leadership team, following her critique of former president Donald Trump’s lies claiming fraud in the 2020 election.
Chris Taylor, a DCCC spokesman, contrasted that disorder to Democrats, who he argued are well-positioned for the challenging cycle, heading in with strong grass-roots fund-raising and a successful vaccine rollout and COVID relief bill to run on.
“Meanwhile, House Republicans are being led by QAnon conspiracy theorists, and are dead set on ripping apart our democracy with suppressive voting laws and unfair maps,” Taylor said. “American voters know Democrats are focused on helping the economy recover and protecting the integrity of our democracy.”
Ian Russell, a former DCCC national political director, said Biden wasn’t the “recruitment chairman” that Trump had been for Democrats and called the surge in GOP enthusiasm overblown, recalling how on Tax Day in April 2009, “there were already people on the streets” as Republicans harnessed the anger and energy of the Tea Party movement. That same energy is not apparent now.
“You are not seeing a disciplined strategy from the Republicans right now,” he said, adding that Trump’s domination of the party meant the focus was on “keeping Trump happy as opposed to keeping voters happy.”
But he and other Democratic analysts said Democrats should be concerned by the unfair playing field and Republican legislative efforts in 43 states to make it harder for people to vote. Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director of The Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive advocacy group, said Democrats needed to urgently start mobilizing voters now, as well as the advocacy and community groups that can help fully implement and explain Biden’s plans to curb the pandemic, create jobs, and help women, families, and people of color.
“We have to make sure that these victories are real and meaningful to people,” she said.
Republicans’ confidence was boosted over the weekend after Democrats failed to get a candidate among the top two contenders in a special election in North Texas, where 23 people vied to replace the late Republican representative Ron Wright of Arlington. Democrats had targeted the blue-trending district after Trump barely won it by only 3 percentage points in 2020 and had waded into the race. But Trump’s pick topped the field.
Other races closely targeted include those of Democratic Representative Cheri Bustos, the former head of the DCCC, who announced her retirement last Friday after she narrowly won reelection in a rural Illinois district; and those to replace outgoing Representatives Filemon Vela Jr. in Texas and Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona. But in Ohio, where Republican Senator Rob Portman is retiring and Democratic Representative Tim Ryan plans to make a bid for his seat, leaders from both parties claim they hold advantages.
The president’s party has won House seats in a midterm only three times since 1910. In 1934, the Democrats picked up seats after the election of President Franklin Roosevelt, who dramatically expanded the role of government amid multiple crises. Biden invoked FDR last month in his first joint address to Congress.
The others came in 1998, when President Bill Clinton’s impeachment became a major midterms issue; and in 2002, as President George W. Bush responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Political analysts said that they don’t know how a global pandemic and a mob attack on the nation’s most iconic building of democracy will factor into voters’ decisions.
At Emerge, Gholar said they haven’t seen a drop in momentum — not even as women have carried the brunt of the pandemic and it threatened to derail their training and organizing camps. More Democratic women are now running for office inspired by those women who ran in 2018 and who have watched Vice President Harris’ rise, she said.
To Republicans boosting their recruitment efforts, she said, “Welcome to the club — we’ve been doing this a long time.”