Alexander Jones: Is a red wave on the way? Maybe not

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 18, 2022

The usual summer lull in political activity has turned out, this year, to be more of a spike. Democrats, having entered the humid season deep in a funk, now sense that because of a series of transformative events, their future political prospects may be far less dire than most of them had imagined before the summer began. Both in the state of North Carolina and from coast to American coast, the Democratic party looks as if it may just have the power to blunt Republicans’ midterm momentum and sustain a smaller blow to their majorities than almost everyone in the political class had confidently predicted last year.

Both Tar Heel and generic-elephant Republicans once were giddy over a wave election that they firmly believed was coming. For example, North Carolina GOP operatives have predicted for months that Republicans will “easily” reclaim the veto-proof majorities that allowed GOP legislators to transform the state in the last decade. Kevin McCarthy and other U.S. House Republicans adopted the swaggering bravado so familiar from their machismo-soaked party. For their part, Democrats did little to resist this narrative, because most had resigned themselves to believing it.

But since the political class collectively concluded that Democrats were doomed, circumstances have changed. The most challenging headwinds Democrats faced, inflation and the price of gas, have begun to abate, with gas prices falling by a full dollar in the last month-and-a-half and continuing to plummet daily. In a country where the vast majority of commuters rely on automobiles, the price of gasoline has an enormous effect on ordinary Americans’ political mood. It was $100-per-barrel oil that first allowed Barack Obama to build a lead over John McCain in 2008. Furthermore, Democrats have passed an agenda that made them look more effective and addressed the climate crisis in an effort that may revive some enthusiasm among their dispirited base voters. This reversal of key disadvantages has the potential to turn what could have been a devastating midterm into something that could be, at the least, tolerable for the party.

Holding the United States House may still be a longshot for Democrats. But the Senate majority looks eminently defensible. The greatest reason for this by far is that the debt Republicans’ Faustian bargain with Donald Trump is beginning to come due. Endorsed by the Donald with all his fascistic preferences, candidates like Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker down in Georgia, and the egregious J.D. Vance in Ohio are running snakebitten campaigns in key Senate races. Pennsylvania and Ohio would actually be pickup opportunities for Democrats, and it is almost impossible to conceive of a scenario in which Republicans lose some seats and win a majority. And here in North Carolina, Cheri Beasley has just about drawn even with Ted Budd in the polls.

What does all this mean for our state? Personally, I would be extremely cautious in trying to foretell the results in this purplish-red state. Over the last several cycles, the course of state elections has banked dramatically in unexpected directions, often at the last minute after conventional wisdom had congealed among state observers. But I do believe two tentative conclusions can be counted as valid. First, Cheri Beasley has a very legitimate chance of winning the first U.S. Senate election. And second, the veto-proof majorities Republicans so covet in the state legislature are looking increasingly unlikely. That said, North Carolina has eluded Democrats year after year, and progressive North Carolinians would be well served to remain cautious until the votes are counted.

Alexander H. Jones is a policy analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill. Have feedback? Reach him at alex@carolinaforward.org.

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