Major Themes of the Midterms
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Voters are about to get a respite from the political attack-ad onslaught: Election Day is tomorrow. That means no more messages from Democrats attacking Republicans over abortion rights or the future of Medicare; no more Republicans blaming Democrats for inflation or crime. At least for a little while.
Before the 2022 midterms are all over, we summarize these and other themes we’ve seen this election cycle and explain how the top talking points have distorted the facts.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court cast aside 49 years of precedent when it overturned Roe v. Wade, declaring the “Constitution does not confer a right to abortion.” As a result, jurisdiction over abortion returned to the states — some of which have begun to enact abortion bans and restrictions.
The Democrats have sought to capitalize on the abortion issue. From Labor Day through Nov. 5, the Democrats have run more than 600 ads that mention abortion in Senate, House and gubernatorial campaigns, according to Kantar Media, an ad-tracking service.
But sometimes the Democrats and their allies have gone too far in their statements and ads, as we found they did in Nevada and Pennsylvania.
An ad from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee falsely claimed that Nevada Republican House candidate April Becker supports a nationwide abortion ban and “taking away a woman’s right to abortion with no exceptions.” Becker has said she opposes a national ban. And, while she opposes abortion, Becker said she supports exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother.
Also in Nevada, a TV ad from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee showed a woman being handcuffed and arrested, while the ad narrator said that Senate Republican candidate Adam Laxalt, if elected, “would let states …. criminalize” abortion. But the DSCC couldn’t provide any examples of Laxalt supporting criminalizing abortion for the mother, and the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights, said there are no state laws or pending state legislation that would criminalize abortion for the mother.
Similarly, the liberal FF PAC claimed in a TV ad that Dr. Mehmet Oz, who is running for the Senate in Pennsylvania, will “let politicians take away the right to choose, with no exceptions,” even though Oz has consistently said he supports exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. Oz describes himself as “100% pro-life,” but he has not been endorsed by the National Right to Life.
Both Senate ads were carefully worded. DSCC said Laxalt “would let states … criminalize abortion,” and FF PAC said Oz would “let politicians take away the right to choose, with no exceptions.” And it’s true both men have said that states should decide the issue. But viewers may be left with the mistaken impression that Oz does not support any abortion exceptions or that Laxalt says he wants to lock up women who have an abortion. (See all of our articles on abortion here.)
Inflation and Gasoline Prices
The Consumer Price Index rose 13.2% in Joe Biden’s first 20 months as president — giving Republicans a potent issue in the midterm elections. Since Labor Day, the Republicans have run more than 500 TV ads that mentioned inflation, according to Kantar, which tracks political advertising.
In June, for example, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and the National Republican Senatorial Committee aired a TV ad that misleadingly claimed “Joe Biden’s inflation tax” cost Wisconsin families $5,000 a year. That figure was lifted from a report by Bloomberg Economics, which in late March estimated the impact of inflation on U.S. households. But the estimate did not tease out how much of that increase could be attributed to Biden’s policies or take into consideration how rising wages have helped offset higher costs.
More recently, the Senate Leadership Fund launched a TV ad this month that claims “Joe Biden’s reckless spending” is “crushing Ohio with inflation and higher prices on everything from groceries to gas,” citing stimulus spending in the American Rescue Plan Act that became law in March 2021 with no Republican votes.
As we’ve written, the American Rescue Plan did contribute to inflation, but it wasn’t the sole or even primary reason for rising costs. Economists cite several reasons for high inflation, particularly the economic disruptions created by the COVID-19 pandemic and later the Russian war in Ukraine. Also, the San Francisco Federal Reserve and other experts said spending in the ARP may have helped prevent “outright deflation and slower economic growth.”
When it comes to gasoline prices, we’ve long written that U.S. presidents have limited influence over the price that consumers pay at the pump. But that has not stopped Republicans from claiming that Biden and congressional Democrats are responsible for the increase in prices.
In June, when average prices hit $5 a gallon, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in an ad attacking Democrat John Fetterman in the Pennsylvania Senate race, suggested that the high cost of gasoline was because “Biden started choking oil production his very first day.” That wasn’t the case. U.S. crude oil production this year is up compared with 2020, when gasoline prices were much lower.
Other GOP ads also have attempted to blame Democrats for the price of gas.
But the price of crude oil, which is set on the global market based on international supply and demand, is the biggest factor in the cost of gasoline. Average gasoline prices dropped early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when crude oil prices were low because economic shutdowns worldwide reduced demand. Gasoline prices began to rise as the global economy recovered and demand for oil, which is refined into gasoline, began to exceed the available supply.
Prices spiked again when Russia, one of the world’s top producers and exporters of crude oil, invaded Ukraine in February, further disrupting international oil supplies, as many nations restricted imports from Russia in retaliation.
When crude oil prices declined earlier this year, which many analysts attributed to concerns that another global recession would again reduce demand for oil and refined products, U.S. gasoline prices started to come down as well. While Biden at times has tried to take credit for the drop in prices, experts have said that his decision to authorize the release of millions of barrels of crude oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve did not help significantly.
As of Oct. 31, the average weekly price of regular grade gasoline in the U.S. was about $3.74 per gallon, according to the Energy Information Administration. That price is about $1.26 lower than the high of almost $5.01 in mid-June, but still about $1.36 more than the average price of $2.38 the week of Jan. 18, 2021, just days before Biden took office.
Medicare and Social Security
In what is an election-year tradition, Democrats have claimed that Republicans want to cut, slash or even “end” Medicare and Social Security — and some Republicans have pushed back with similar charges.
Most of the ads we’ve seen on this topic have come from Democrats. Many of them attempt to tie the GOP candidates to a proposal by Republican Sen. Rick Scott to bring all federal legislation up for a vote every five years — which would include Medicare, Social Security and a lot of other government programs.
An illustration photo of a voter filling out a ballot ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections in Los Angeles. Photo by Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images.
Scott’s idea, which is part of a “Plan to Rescue America,” outlining his vision for what Republicans should do if they retake control of Congress, certainly raised eyebrows. He said he wants all federal legislation to “sunset” in five years, and “[i]f a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.” Such action could certainly lead to changes to Medicare and Social Security, and create major legislative battles over how the programs should operate every five years. But Scott, who is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and who released the plan in February, has said he wants to “fix” and “preserve,” not end, the programs. More importantly, many Republicans haven’t embraced his proposal.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on March 1 that he would be the majority leader if Republicans control the Senate, and: “We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half of the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years. That will not be part of a Republican Senate majority agenda.” (See below for more on that point on taxes.)
That hasn’t stopped Democrats from trying to alarm seniors. In the spring, an ad from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said “Republicans’ plan” would “end Social Security” and “end Medicare.”
More recently, ads from two Democratic-aligned super PACs claimed Senate candidate Oz would support a plan to “take away” or “end” Medicare and Social Security. But Oz never endorsed the provision in Scott’s plan to “sunset” legislation.
We’ve seen other ads that have made some version of this claim, either citing Scott’s plan, other comments by the Republican candidate or both — or not citing anything at all. The DSCC has continued to tell voters that Republicans “will END Social Security and Medicare.”
Biden repeatedly has mentioned Scott’s plan, often describing it accurately. But in a speech on Nov. 1, he went on to say, “You’ve been paying into Social Security your whole life. You earned it. Now these guys want to take it away.” Biden was also referring to comments by Wisconsin Sen. Johnson that funding for the two programs should be discretionary, not mandatory, and approved by Congress every year. But neither Scott nor Johnson said they wanted to end Social Security.
Republicans, including Scott, have pushed back on these claims by misleadingly claiming Democrats had voted to cut or “slash” Medicare spending, pointing to the Inflation Reduction Act. That legislation aims to reduce spending by lowering prescription drug costs, including for Medicare beneficiaries. The provisions wouldn’t cut benefits, as the claims suggest. The National Republican Senatorial Committee made such a claim in an ad attacking Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia.
The Republicans set the tone early when in June 2021 — less than six months into Biden’s presidency — the House Republican Conference tweeted an image of rising homicide rates in seven cities with the words: “Welcome to President Biden’s America.”
But, as we wrote at the time, all seven cities saw large increases in 2020, compared with 2019, when Donald Trump was president, and six of the seven saw larger percentage increases in 2020 than they had in the first few months of Biden’s time in office.
By the end of 2021, the Major Cities Chiefs Association reported that homicides went up by 6.2% from 2020 to 2021 in 70 cities — down from the 33.4% increase it found in 67 cities from 2019 to 2020 under Trump.
Yet, Republicans have made crime a major issue in midterm races, portraying many Democratic candidates as soft on crime and anti-police.
In Pennsylvania’s Senate race, Oz has accused Fetterman of wanting to “eliminate life sentences for murderers.” In fact, Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, has said he wants to give judges discretion in sentencing people convicted of second-degree murder, or felony murder, which is when someone is killed during the commission of a felony crime. People who are accomplices to those crimes can also be charged with second-degree murder. Currently, Pennsylvania is one of only eight states to impose mandatory life sentences without parole on those convicted of second-degree murder.
Johnson’s campaign in Wisconsin selectively edited the remarks of his Democratic challenger, Mandela Barnes, to misleadingly claim Barnes “rationalized violence” against Dallas police officers days after a gunman killed five officers in that city. Johnson’s ad ignored that Barnes said in the interview that the killings in Dallas were “not justified in any way.”
In New York’s 19th Congressional District, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC, misleadingly claimed in a TV ad that Democrat Josh Riley said he “supports help not handcuffs” for criminals and is backed by “a radical group that wants to defund the police.” All this “as crime rages out of control.” But, as we wrote, Riley actually said that “folks having a mental health crisis deserve help not handcuffs,” and he has said he doesn’t support defunding the police.
Also, as we explained in 2020, Congress has little to do with police funding. According to the Urban Institute, 86% of police funding in 2017 came from local governments.
Another part of the GOP’s “soft on crime” theme, Republicans have attacked a number of Democrats over economic stimulus checks going to some prisoners. The American Rescue Plan, for which all but one Democrat voted, did not block eligible inmates from receiving the law’s economic impact payments intended to help individuals and families during the pandemic.
But what the ads don’t tell viewers is that congressional Republicans also voted for two previous COVID-19 relief bills under Trump that permitted stimulus payments for some incarcerated people.
In ads, politicians often specifically claim that their opponent supports higher taxes that fall on the so-called “middle class.” And that’s no accident: Whether it’s true or not, most people consider themselves to be middle class.
This midterm election cycle is no exception. We have seen ads from Democrats and Republicans alike making misleading claims about their opponents supporting tax hikes on this nebulous middle class.
The Republican spin:
Republicans have seized on Democrats’ vote for the Inflation Reduction Act to claim that Democrats voted to raise taxes on “lower- and middle-income families.” The attack is two-pronged.
The law does not include any new individual income taxes, but it does impose a corporate minimum tax of 15% on companies that report average profits in excess of $1 billion over a three-year period. That minimum tax is expected to raise about $315 billion over 10 years.
Tax experts say corporations pass along some of the burden of higher taxes in the form of lower wages and lower stock values, affecting shareholders. According to a Joint Committee on Taxation analysis of the legislation, federal taxes for people making less than $200,000 would rise by $16.6 billion in 2023, and those taxpayers would be shouldering just over 42% of the tax increases in the bill that year. And so, Republicans argue, that amounts to a tax increase on the middle class, and proof that President Joe Biden broke his promise not to raise taxes on people making less than $400,000 a year. But as we have noted, Biden always followed up that promise with a vow to make corporations “pay their fair share.”
Republicans have also pointed to another part of the Inflation Reduction Act that would fund increased Internal Revenue Service tax enforcement to falsely claim in TV ads that Democrats voted to raise taxes by $20 billion on “lower- and middle-income families.” For instance, Senate Leadership Fund ads cite that figure in attacks against Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who is running for Senate against author JD Vance. But the claim relies on an outdated Congressional Budget Office estimate.
The Inflation Reduction Act provides the IRS with $79.6 billion over 10 years to improve technology, customer service and enforcement efforts to collect unpaid taxes. The CBO provided a preliminary estimate that the enhanced enforcement would result in people earning less than $400,000 paying about $20 billion more in taxes over the next 10 years. But that was before the Treasury Department issued specific guidance that enhanced enforcement should not increase the amount of audits on households making less than $400,000. Based on that direction, the CBO revised its estimate and concluded that those earning less than $400,000 will only pay “a small fraction” of the increased tax revenues that are expected as a result of enhanced IRS enforcement.
Republicans also have repeatedly claimed that the new law will allow the IRS to hire “87,000 new agents” to investigate average citizens. For example, an ad attacking Florida gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist claimed the Democrats “teamed up” with Biden to “hire 87,000 new IRS agents to audit the middle class.”
IRS and Treasury Department officials have said some of the increased IRS funding will go to hire new employees, potentially as many as 87,000, most of whom will replace outgoing staff and will be on the customer service side of the IRS, doing tasks such as upgrading computer systems and answering phones. Furthermore, however many new “agents” or tax enforcers are hired, which would be a minority of the positions, administration officials say those employees will focus on auditing the tax filings of high-income individuals and businesses — not “middle-class” workers.
The Democrats’ spin:
Democratic claims about Republican tax-raising have largely been based on Scott’s proposal. In addition to sunsetting federal legislation, the plan included a provision that stated: “All Americans should pay some income tax to have skin in the game, even if a small amount. Currently over half of Americans pay no income tax.” Democrats targeted political opponents who said even vaguely complimentary things about Scott’s plan, even if they never expressed support for that particular part of the plan, and accused them of supporting tax hikes on the “middle class.”
For example, the Democratic-aligned Senate Majority PAC said in an ad that Oz would “hike taxes on working families” after Oz simply said Scott “has a vision for what the party can do going forward.” Not mentioned was that Oz went on to say, “we may not all agree on the specifics of the vision,” and that Oz never praised or even mentioned the minimum tax. Also, Oz has pledged that he would not raise taxes.
Similarly, an ad attacking Johnson in Wisconsin said he “supports a plan that would raise taxes on the middle class.” That is based on Johnson saying that he agreed with “most of” Scott’s plan and that he called it a “positive thing.”
As we explained, McConnell rejected the idea of raising taxes on half of Americans. Two months after he released his plan, Scott clarified in an op-ed for the Daily Caller that a minimum tax would not fall on retirees nor on any workers who “are already paying into the system, whether through income tax, payroll tax, state and local taxes.” That would seem to exclude almost all workers.
And in June, Scott revised his “Rescue America Plan,” adding a 12th point, but taking out the part that said, “All Americans should pay some income tax.” The attack ads mentioned above came months after Scott revised his plan.