In a drive along back roads across America, in places pollsters and the media usually miss, voters seem, once again, on the verge of ousting the current party in power.
Two years ago, Democrat Joe Biden beat Republican Donald Trump in large part because he promised a calmer political climate and claimed he would work across the aisle to achieve bipartisan change.
But when the former vice president kicked off his presidency on Day One by shutting down the Keystone Pipeline, many who put him in office were concerned. Their worries deepened when he botched our exit from Afghanistan in August 2021. And, this year, when he called skyrocketing inflation "transitory," lots of voters decided it was time to choose new leadership in the midterm elections on Nov. 8.
The Cook Political Report predicts Republicans will win as many as 25 seats in the House of Representatives, reclaiming control of the chamber. In the Senate, RealClearPolitics projects the GOP will pick up three seats, in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, and also keep their seats in Ohio and Pennsylvania, wresting control from the Democrats, who currently hold just a one-vote advantage.
Meanwhile, in gubernatorial elections in 36 states, several Democratic incumbents look vulnerable against GOP challengers, especially in Wisconsin, Michigan and even blue-leaning New York. The much-anticipated Georgia rematch between Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams appears headed toward a landslide for Kemp. But the biggest statewide upset could happen in Oregon, where Democrat Tina Kotek is trailing Republican Christine Drazan amid widespread dissatisfaction over failed progressive policies.
Ultimately, the results will be decided by the voters in America's swing counties, where support shifts easily between both parties.
Take Erie County in Pennsylvania. In 2008 and 2012 Barack Obama won this county easily; Trump won it narrowly in 2016. In 2020, Biden only just bested Trump. Then last year, a Republican won the countywide executive race for the first time in decades.
This year, Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz is running against Democrat Lt. Gov. John Fetterman for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, in a nail-biting "toss-up" race. Since 2020, Fetterman has repeatedly said "whoever wins Erie, wins Pennsylvania." That's why he held his first rally here since suffering a stroke in May, and Oz walked the streets of Erie in October, talking to local business owners and people he met along the way.
That's where I met Fred Rush, 79, who was leaning against the outside wall of Ringo's Appliances in Erie, his eyes laser-focused on Oz. He told me he was trying to decide whether the candidate's interactions were expertly staged or natural.
Rush is a classic swing voter. For decades, he worked in local government, starting with a Democratic mayor who he reported to for well over a decade. He went on to serve under Democrat and Republican county executives, then another Democratic mayor. He even did a stint for former Gov. Tom Ridge -- an Erie native and a Republican -- as director of his commission on African American affairs.
Rush said he has always voted for people from both parties but this year he is leaning toward Oz.
"My only concern about him is his lack of policy experience," he said. "However, he certainly is showing up to the communities that will show him what policies will impact their lives."
Rush said there is a big difference between a political candidate who drops in, does a rally and then leaves, and one who actually meets with individual voters and listens to them.
"When people show up in communities, it shows they care," he said. "You have to come here and listen to those families who live here, the ones impacted by crime, the scourge of drug overdoses, the ones who can't afford to buy food or pay for their utilities.
"The candidate who stresses on those points wins."
Oz has also got the vote of Emerencia Torma, who owns Hungarian restaurant Huszar in Pittsburgh's North Side neighborhood. Many pundits thought Republicans like Torma, 65, would not fall in line behind the Trump-backed Oz after he won a bruising primary by just 951 votes.
But after months of COVID-19 closures followed by crippling inflation, many Pennsylvania business owners feel fed up and energized to pull the lever for the celebrity doctor. And not just him.
"I'm voting Republican. All Republican," Torma says flatly.
Many of her neighbors appear to feel the same way. In the deep-blue 12th Congressional District, where Torma lives, the race between Democratic state Rep. Summer Lee and Republican borough council president Mike Doyle is shockingly close for a seat that has not been held by the GOP in decades.
Crime, drug use and homelessness have something to do with that. A sizable homeless camp has emerged just down the street from Torma's restaurant. Last month, two innocent women standing at a bus stop in the area got caught in gunfire and were killed. Torma calls the uncertainty of what will happen next "unbearable" at times.
"I am not going to give up, my parents came here for freedom and opportunity, that is why I am voting Republican," said Torma, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Hungary in 1956. "They offer that choice; the Democrats have failed us."
Doug Wood, his wife, Chelsea, and their three kids are new to Dayton, Ohio. Until 2020, Doug, 38, was happily settled in Peters Township, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, where he lived close to family and enjoyed his career as director of transportation and development at 84 Lumber.
But last fall, 84 Lumber's embrace of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate changed everything for him.
"I chose not to get it, so I lost my job," he said. "What upset me about how my company in particular went about it was that it wasn't every position in the company. I became frustrated with the company because they were picking and choosing where to apply the mandate and my choice was over the principle of the thing."
Wood found a new position in the transportation industry in Dayton, and his wife Chelsea, 36, is now expecting their fourth child. Montgomery County, where they live, is the ultimate swing county. Obama won by large margins here in 2008 and 2012. But in 2016, Trump beat Clinton, marking the first time since 1988 that voters in this county went Republican. Four years later, they picked Biden over Trump.
This year, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan is running against Republican J.D. Vance for U.S. Senate in Ohio. For months, the two candidates were neck-and-neck, but a recent poll from USA Today/Suffolk University shows Vance pulling away by 2 points.
In any other year, Wood said he would give Ryan a second look over Vance, the author of 2016's bestselling memoir "Hillbilly Elegy" who was endorsed by Trump.
But not this year.
"It's the uncertainty Democrats have placed in every aspect of our lives and the overreach that has me voting for Vance. Heck, I am voting all Republican," said Wood, who added that voting for one party down the ballot is something he rarely does.
"The way the inflation's gone, (it's) just a complete lapse of judgment on the impact government spending would have on the country," he added.
Public education policies also concern him.
"For instance, we moved to a certain school district, and are paying higher taxes to get a quality public school education for our kids," he said. Now he and his wife are second-guessing that decision.
"It seems to be fine now, but you just worry with the public-school sector. Did we make the right choice? Should we send our kids to Catholic school or find a private school? I would not hesitate to pull my kids and reassess their education if I find their education is not math and science and instead becoming part of the woke culture."
He shakes his head at the state of the country.
"I've voted for Barack Obama, I've voted for Donald Trump. I am pretty independent.
"However, the last few years have made me more conservative."