GOP numbers have improved markedly in several 2022 midterm battleground states.
by Karl Rove, The Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2022
Democratic midterm prospects are bad not only because of inflation, a slowing economy, rampant crime, the southern border crisis and culture clashes. The party also has to contend with President Biden’s lousy approval numbers, a Republican generic ballot advantage, and a growing sense that Mr. Biden is weak, incompetent and too old.
Then there are voter-registration trends in battleground states. Take Florida. In 2016, Democrats held a registration edge of 330,428 over Republicans but Donald Trump still won, as did Sen. Marco Rubio. The Democratic advantage dwindled to 257,175 in 2018 and to 97,215 in 2020. Today, there are 175,911 more Republicans than Democrats—the first time in Florida history the GOP has led in registrations.
Consider two other battlegrounds, where incumbent Democratic senators could face challenges. In Arizona in 2016, the GOP registration edge stood at 148,291. It narrowed to 136,587 in 2018 and 130,454 in 2020. This year, however, the Republican margin has grown back to 144,780. In Nevada, the GOP lagged Democrats by 88,818 registrations in 2016. Republicans cut that deficit to 74,923 in 2018 but it bounced back in 2020 to 86,723. Since then, the GOP has reduced the gap to 51,351 voters, the smallest election year difference since 2004, the last time Nevada voted Republican for president.
There’s similar good news for the GOP in two states where the party is defending open seats. Mr. Trump carried Pennsylvania in 2016 by 44,292 votes and Sen. Pat Toomey won re-election by 86,690 even though Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 916,274. The Democratic advantage has narrowed since then, to 840,443 in 2018, 685,818 in 2020 and 550,147 today. This gives Senate hopeful Mehmet Oz a better starting position than any Keystone State Republican since 2004.
In North Carolina, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in 2016 by 645,435, yet GOP Sen. Richard Burr won re-election by 267,211 votes and Mr. Trump prevailed by 173,315. The Democratic registration advantage narrowed to 576,791 in 2018, 391,414 in 2020 (as Mr. Trump carried the state by 74,483) and 283,392 today. This gives Republican Rep. Ted Budd the upper hand in the race to replace Mr. Burr.
There’s a less certain yet still suggestive pattern in primary turnout in battlegrounds that don’t have partisan registration. In Georgia, 530,598 more voters participated in the 2016 GOP primary than in the Democratic primary. In 2018, the GOP advantage shrank to 52,352. Democratic primary voters outnumbered Republicans by 139,377 in 2020. But this year Republicans rebounded to a 447,031 advantage. In Ohio, 747,482 more voters participated in the 2016 GOP primary than the Democratic one. The Republican edge declined to 146,149 in 2018, then flipped to a 180,837 Democratic advantage in 2020, before returning to a 570,937 GOP margin this year, as Republican turnout more than doubled the Democrats’.
While the GOP benefits from better registration and primary turnout numbers, independent voters are likely to be a major factor in deciding each of these states. Registered independents make up 27% of voters in Florida, 33% in Nevada, 34% in Arizona, and 35% in North Carolina, where they outnumber both Democrats and Republicans.
It’s important for Republicans to remember that the messages that help them win primaries don’t necessarily attract independent voters in general elections, especially if a candidate has said things that are cringe- or fringe-worthy. Georgia Senate nominee Herschel Walker is a case in point.
To that end, it’s helpful that Mr. Trump is getting his battleground-state rallies out of the way now so GOP candidates can make him less of a presence this fall. Republican victories might depend on his being in the background as the election nears. Independents have real problems with Democrats. Only 26% of them approve of Mr. Biden’s handling of the economy, according to a June 22 Quinnipiac poll. That same poll found that independents see inflation as a serious issue. Fifty-nine percent of them consider rising prices “a crisis,” and 39% think it’s a “problem but not a crisis.” Only 2% think it’s “not a problem at all.” But while dislike of Mr. Biden’s performance unites independents with the GOP, Mr. Trump pushes a significant number of them away. Forty-three percent told Quinnipiac that the former president “committed a crime” in trying “to change the results” of the 2020 election, while 48% said he hadn’t.
What would battleground-state Republicans rather have be their central message to swing voters: the economy and inflation or the unsupported claim that the 2020 election was stolen? It’s easy to see the right answer, but will be hard to make it reality.
Mr. Rove helped organize the political-action committee American Crossroads and is author of “The Triumph of William McKinley” (Simon & Schuster, 2015).