WASHINGTON — Democrats with proven track records of winning tough districts aren't running for re-election. Republicans are enjoying early fundraising windfalls. And, as Donald Trump and Barack Obama both learned the hard way, midterm elections almost always break against the president's party.
The early indicators that showed Democrats poised to make big gains in Congress four years ago now point the other direction, suggesting that the narrow 220-212 Democratic House majority is in serious danger.
"Based on all factors, you'd have to consider Republicans the early favorites for the House majority in 2022," said David Wasserman, who tracks congressional races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
"But as we found out in 2020, surprises can happen, and it's not a done deal," he said. "Democrats' best hope is that Biden's approval rating stays above 50 percent and that Republicans have a tougher time turning out their voters without Trump on the ballot."
Much remains uncertain about the midterm elections more than a year away — including the congressional districts themselves, thanks to the delayed redistricting process. The Senate, meanwhile, looks like more of a toss-up.
House Democrats think voters will reward them for advancing President Joe Biden's generally popular agenda, which involves showering infrastructure money on virtually every district in the country and sending checks directly to millions of parents. And they think voters will punish Republicans for their rhetoric about the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 election.
"Democrats are delivering results, bringing back the economy, getting people back to work, passing the largest middle-class tax cut in history, while Republicans are engaged in frankly violent conspiracy theory rhetoric around lies in service of Donald Trump," said Tim Persico, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
But the challenges Democrats face are real and numerous.
They knew they would face a tough 2022 immediately after 2020, when massive, unexpected GOP gains whittled the Democratic majority to just a handful of seats.
"House Republicans are in a great position to retake the majority," said Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, "but we are taking nothing for granted."
Emmer and other Republicans say they think they can continue to press their advantage on divisive issues supported by the "far left" and make hay of rising inflation and crime rates. "We are going to continue to relentlessly hold House Democrats accountable for their socialist agenda," Emmer said.
Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin, one of just seven Democrats representing districts Trump won, shocked politicos Wednesday when he announced that he'd "run out of gas" and wouldn't seek a 14th term in Congress.
His rural district had been trending Republican for years. Kind won re-election last year by just about 10,000 votes.
Incumbency is an enormous advantage — well over 90 percent of members of Congress win re-election — and some Democrats worry that lawmakers like Kind who are abandoning swing districts this year are the only ones who can win them.
Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio and Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania are running for the Senate instead of re-election in battleground Rust Belt districts. Florida Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist is running for governor again in a swing area. Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, the most recent chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is retiring from a district Trump won, and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona is opting against another run in a district that leans only narrowly blue.
Democrats are quick to note that Kind was facing a rematch with Republican Derrick Van Orden, a former Navy SEAL who has endorsed Trump's lies about the 2020 election and attended the pro-Trump rally in Washington on Jan. 6, entering a restricted area on Capitol grounds, although he has said he left before the crowd turned violent. Trump endorsed Van Orden on Thursday.
And they say they think the educated suburban voters who swung their way under Trump will stick with them as they see Republicans sticking with Trump and promoting policies about masks and vaccinations that downplay the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, even as the virus again fills hospitals and endangers the new school year.
"In swing areas, the group that sees this most up close and personal are working parents, and I think they break towards their children being safe," said Cole Leiter, a Democratic operative who has worked on House races.
Educated voters also tend to be more reliable voters. And some Republicans have worried about their ability to turn out Trump's base when he isn't running himself.
After four years when Republican were inundated by the "green tsunami" of anti-Trump donations that powered the Democratic "blue wave," Republicans now enjoy unusually strong fundraising and are catching up to Democrats in raising big money from small online donors.
House Republicans' campaign arm outraised its Democratic counterpart in the first half of the year, and it now has more cash on hand.
And while vulnerable Republicans struggled to match their challengers in 2018, several front-line GOP members have already put up impressive hauls. Some, like Rep. Young Kim, who last year reclaimed a district in Orange County, California, that Democrats fought hard to win two years earlier, raised more than $1 million in the last financial quarter alone.
As Republicans learned four years ago, recruiting donors and high-quality candidates can be difficult if prospective givers and candidates believe they're being asked to support a lost cause.
So far, no Democrat has stepped up to run in an Iowa congressional district the party lost last year by just six votes. In the next district over, Abby Finkenauer, 32, who won in 2018 before losing last year, is running for the Senate instead of the House. And some Florida Democrats are growing anxious about finding candidates for several battleground districts in the Miami area, where Trump and Republicans performed better than expected.
Republicans also have the upper hand in the redistricting process, which was delayed by the pandemic and advanced Thursday when the Census Bureau finally released more results of its 2020 count.
The GOP controls more state legislatures than Democrats, so it has the power to redraw 187 districts to Democrats' 75. And some heavily Democratic states, like California, use independent commissions, making it harder for the party to gerrymander maps in its favor.
That's far less lopsided than after the last census in 2011, and Democrats feel better prepared this time because they set up an organization to coordinate their efforts nationally. But some analysts say Republicans could win the handful of seats they need to reclaim the majority through redistricting alone.
Presidents' parties almost always lose their first midterm elections, and after Democrats' disastrous 2010 "shellacking," when many vulnerable lawmakers tried to distance themselves from Obama, they say they're sticking with Biden this time.
"The biggest challenge is emphasizing it so that folks know that the stuff that is happening is happening because Democrats fought for it and every single Republican opposed it," said Persico of the Democratic campaign committee.