Blake Masters, the Republican Senate candidate in Arizona, once called abortion "demonic" and a "human sacrifice." His website now says he favors "common-sense regulation" of the procedure. Masters also called the last election a "rotten mess" and said "America would be so much better off" with Donald Trump in the White House. That line is now completely gone from his platform.
As Labor Day approaches, Masters' desperate attempt to revamp his campaign profile reflects a critical change in the political landscape. Democrats are now playing offense, and the Republicans have been thrown on the defensive. A likely blowout has turned into a nail-biter.
"The long-predicted GOP 'wave' election may be crashing on an offshore reef, as abortion and Donald Trump energize Democrats," writes the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, which skews conservative.
Republicans still retain huge advantages. The president's party generally loses seats in midterm elections. Redrawn House districts favor the GOP in many states, and key Democrats have retired. While Biden's approval rating has crept upward, he remains mired in the low 40s. Gas prices have drifted downward, but inflation is still strangling American families, and fewer than 1 in 4 voters say the country is headed in the right direction.
But that is not the whole story. The election is no longer just a referendum on a sputtering presidency. It's now a choice — between calmness and chaos, between the extreme positions Masters once espoused and the "common-sense" approach he's so frantically trying to embrace. Trump is now on the ballot.
"This November's election will still be a reckoning for President Biden and the Democrats, given inflationary pressures and disapproval with the incumbent's job performance," sums up Dan Balz, The Washington Post's astute analyst. "But Republicans cannot escape the reality that Trump and his Make America Great Again, or MAGA, movement are also part of the reckoning that will take place."
Signs of that reckoning are multiplying. A referendum challenging abortion rights was crushed in the red state of Kansas. In four special elections for House seats this summer, Democratic candidates consistently outperformed Biden's 2020 pace.
When voters are asked who they want to control the next Congress, Democrats have moved from a small deficit to a tie with Republicans. Last March, Republicans were 17 points more likely to express a "high level of interest" in the next election, according to NBC. Now that level is equal; the "enthusiasm gap" has closed.
Enthusiasm has practical consequences, and one is the number of new voters registering as Democrats — especially women. Another result: Most Democrats are pummeling their GOP rivals when it comes to fundraising.
Why? Democrats have gotten a boost from legislation that could eventually limit the cost of prescription drugs and the impact of climate change. And Biden has turned feisty lately, vigorously denouncing Trumpism as "semi-fascism."
But two other reasons stand out, and the first is the abortion issue. Not only did the Supreme Court revoke a woman's constitutional right to manage her own health, several justices in the majority strongly hinted they could use the same reasoning to abrogate other rights, from access to contraception to interracial and same-sex marriages. Plus high-decibel voices in the GOP called for a national ban on abortion.
These messages that galvanized the hard-right wing of the party badly backfired, alarming more moderate women and crystalizing their concerns about what a return to Republican rule would really mean.
"Republicans are on the backfoot because they're talking about abortion as if Roe were still the law, when it was easy to favor a total ban because it didn't matter," wrote the Journal. "Now the policy stakes are real, and Republicans will have to make clear what specific abortion limits they favor and why."
The court's decision did not come in a vacuum. It came as Trump's past actions — and future threats — loom ever larger. Congressional hearings highlighted Trump's role in instigating the Jan. 6 insurrection and also amplified his personal intemperance and instability (remember the dishes he threw against the wall?). The FBI raid on his estate in Florida illuminated his ongoing legal troubles.
Trump himself continues to seize the spotlight — holding rallies, promoting candidates, launching broadsides on social media and teasing about his own future. The result has been to a gift to Democrats: a demon, a target to run against. A chance to change the question from "Do you favor Biden?" to "Do you fear Trump?"
The final answers won't be known until November. But Republicans are worried. Just ask Blake Masters.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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