Ahead of tomorrow’s midterm elections, the future control of the US Senate is more unknown than ever, with polling continuing to show the Democrats and Republicans are neck-and-neck in key swing states.
In these midterms, the usual 34 Senate seats are up for election. Twenty are held by Republicans, 14 by Democrats. There are two additional seats in special elections, including one for retiring 87-year-old Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK). The Senate is currently split 50-50, so the Democrats must win back all seats to retain the majority. Republicans need only a net gain of a single seat to take control of the chamber.
Midterm elections are often considered a referendum on the president’s first two years of office. In President Biden’s case, he has sustained approval ratings well below 50 per cent for much of the year, with his approval rating sitting below 42 per cent since October. In the 2018 midterm elections, during the Trump administration, Republican candidates lost all 10 Senate races where Trump’s approval rating was below 48 per cent. Similarly, in 2010, Senate Democrats lost in all but two states where President Obama’s approval rating was below 47 per cent. And in 2006, Republicans lost 19 of 20 seats where President Bush’s approval was below 45 per cent.
Accordingly, success for those incumbent Democratic Senate candidates largely depends on the candidates’ ability to overcome President Biden’s low approval rating in their states. Especially in Senate races, the personality and individual merits of the competing candidates often play an outsized role when compared to House and state-level races.
President Biden and the Democrats undeniably secured major legislative wins in the last year – including historic levels of investment in infrastructure, efforts to fight climate change, semiconductor manufacturing and scientific research. Democrats have also benefited from an energised voter base overturning half a century of Supreme Court precedent on abortion rights and an insurrection occurring less than two years ago. Yet with Americans facing levels of inflation unseen in decades and ever-increasing concern about crime levels across the country, the unprecedented political climate of 2022 means tomorrow’s midterm elections are far from run-of-the-mill and may well defy prediction and precedent.
With the stakes so high and so much uncertain, here are four states to watch that may reveal trends for the political future of the United States.
Arizona: Is it 2020 all over again?
In the 2020 presidential election, Arizona proved a vital battleground. Donald Trump carried Arizona by 3.5 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election, yet Biden won the state’s 11 electoral college votes by less than 0.4 per cent in 2020. Biden’s Electoral College victory was the first victory from a Democrat president in the state since Bill Clinton in 1996 (and the third ever).
Arizona’s Senate race appears to be a 2020 rematch of sorts, not only in its capacity as a swinging state but also as a matchup of candidates similar to the temperament of 2020’s presidential candidates – a moderate Democratic personality, Mark Kelly, facing off against a Trump-like challenger, Blake Masters. And, as such, the race presents an important temperature check on the appeal of a middle-of-the-road Democrat and Trump-like politician two years on from such a close election.
While his more moderate politics and urgency to work with the Republicans resembles President Biden, Kelly – a military veteran and former astronaut – largely distanced himself from national Democrats and presented himself as an independent ‘outsider’ with a willingness to ‘stand up’ to President Biden on issues like immigration and border control. Accordingly, Kelly presents an important question about the way forward for a Democrat campaigning while the president’s approval rating remains low – including net approval rating for President Biden of -18 (Kelly’s is +9). In fact, Kelly’s positioning as a not-your-everyday-Democrat in his campaigning is a similar approach taken to that of Arizona Senator, Kyrsten Sinema – who has famously caused significant challenges for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in Democratic efforts to pass major legislative packages throughout 2021 (Sinema’s net approval rating in Arizona is -9). He also bears similarities to former Republican Senator John McCain, who built his reputation working across the aisle and earned his ‘maverick’ nickname by bucking convention.
Similarly, on the other side, 36-year-old newcomer Blake Masters might represent a future direction for the Republicans. After being elevated by former President Trump and well-known conservative financier Peter Thiel, the former venture capitalist ran a MAGA-centric campaign focusing heavily on the southern border and while calling himself “an America first conservative.”
Abortion rights are a major issue in Arizona in particular. Legislation that bans abortions at 15 weeks of pregnancy is still facing legal challenges after it passed the Republican-led Arizona legislature in late September 2022, though the Arizona Supreme Court has yet to hand down a decision on whether the state’s constitution protects abortion rights. One recent poll of likely Arizona voters shows that societal issues like abortion (as well as guns and democracy) poll almost as high as economic concerns (only a four percentage point difference), whereas in the other states polled – Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania – economic issues led by a margin of around 20 percentage points.
This has likely led Masters to recently clarify that he supported “a ban on very late-term and partial-birth abortion” after previously endorsing a national ban on abortion and a constitutional amendment that would classify abortion as murder. During their sole debate on 8 October, Mark Kelly zeroed in on Masters’ stance on abortion while Masters criticised Kelly for the Biden administration’s immigration policy and inflation.
But beyond the policy debates, Arizona also made national headlines for the way it does elections, particularly amid the swift rise of election monitoring groups. Such groups include “Clean Elections USA”, which purports to prevent voter fraud by watching outdoor drop boxes and gathering evidence of voters illegally casting multiple ballots. However, they now face a restraining order issued by a Trump-appointed federal judge, thereby prohibiting much of the group’s activities.
Georgia: Is democracy on the ballot?
At a campaign rally earlier this month, President Biden said, “democracy is on the ballot” in this election and perhaps this is no clearer than in Georgia. Biden and other Democratic candidates have long presented the midterms as a choice between a continuation of American democracy under his party or the surrender to a more uncertain future under right-wing political extremists who deny democratic processes.
Georgia is positioned at the epicentre of questions on democracy and voters' rights. In addition to being what President Biden called “a cradle of civil rights” for its unique role in the US civil rights movement, Georgia is also the rare state where charges of voting irregularities, voter suppression and election denial predate the 2020 election.
In 2018, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams refused to officially concede her election loss to Republican Brian Kemp, claiming the election was stolen, rigged and neither free nor fair. And then in the wake of the 2020 election, in which Joe Biden defeated President Trump in the state of 3.7 million residents by 11,779 votes, the Georgia state legislature passed the Election Integrity Act (2021). This legislation faced criticism for its particularly punitive rules around the distribution of food and water in polling queues, among other measures. Democrats posit these restrictions around election day procedures and the process of voting have implications on the voter turnout among minority groups, particularly Black voters – 88 per cent of whom voted for Biden in 2020, with two-thirds voting by mail-in ballots. Early voting ahead of the 2022 midterms has already surpassed 2018 levels by around 25 per cent.
Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, both Republicans, are also up for re-election for the first time since both famously refused to comply with President Trump’s demands to interfere with vote counting during the 2020 election (the state’s Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is also now conducting a criminal investigation into the former president’s attempts to subvert the 2020 election).
Like Arizona, the Senate race in Georgia will be a showdown between a more moderate incumbent, Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, and a controversial Republican newcomer, Herschel Walker. Walker is among a slate of new faces representing a MAGA-aligned future of the Republican party, a particular concern of President Biden. These candidates, like Walker, have no former political experience, often champion anti-establishment or extreme conservative politics more than the traditional Republicans, and share discontent or outright denial about the 2020 election results.
Walker gained national attention most recently for accusations that, despite his strong anti-abortion stance, the former football star had paid and/or pressured two former girlfriends to have abortions. Despite this, Walker maintained a close race against the incumbent Democrat – boasting an iteration of MAGA Republicanism that appeals to the state’s Trump-supporting base.
Midterm elections often feature debates about ‘kitchen table’ issues and more local concerns, ranging from roads and bridges to taxes and schools. But in Georgia, national social and political trends like political violence, voter suppression and electoral integrity, are playing an increased role in driving voters to ballot boxes. Nearly three-quarters of Americans believe democracy is in peril, and almost a third do not trust the election results to be counted accurately. In September 2022, Georgia voters ranked “threats to democracy” as the second most important issue facing the country after “cost of living”.
Ohio: A populist pathway to winning Middle America?
Ohio is seemingly a standout test case on a method to win Middle America in the 2024 presidential election. Once seen as a “purple” state – Barack Obama, George Bush and Bill Clinton each won it in both their presidential campaigns – Ohio now sees an election between Senate candidates who both lean into the more worker-centric, populist style politics that moved voters to deliver President Trump decisive victories in Ohio in both 2016 and 2020.
The current Senate race between Republican JD Vance and Democrat Tim Ryan will see the victor ascend to the seat of retiring Republican Robert Portman. A former US Trade Representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration, Rob Portman’s 12 years of Senate service was underscored by moderate politics and an openness to bipartisan negotiation and compromise on matters of national security.
The campaigns of Vance and Ryan, while vastly different from each other, both tow a populist approach to politics that veers considerably away from the approach of the senator they are hoping to replace.
Described by Politico as the “working class-obsessed congressman from the Mahoning Valley”, Tim Ryan champions the economic populism of onshoring manufacturing, distanced himself from the federal government trade deals (many of which Rob Portman negotiated), and has not shied away from criticising Democrats and Congressional Democratic leadership. Ryan also makes clear that he agreed with President Trump’s trade and China policies – refusing to back down from his comments that “they promised us higher wages and lower prices and instead we got pink slips and price increases”, “China's winning and workers are losing”, and “China is out manufacturing us left and right…It's time to fight back.”
JD Vance, like Blake Masters in Arizona, is a Donald Trump and Peter Thiel-backed candidate who stands out among Republican candidates for his MAGA populism, including explicit criticism of US support for Ukraine. A military veteran, Yale Law School graduate, venture capitalist and author of the best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy”, Vance is also well-known for the journey he took to supporting Trump. In 2016, Vance publicly called himself a “Never Trump guy” and that Trump was an “idiot”, “noxious” and “reprehensible”. Vance now calls Trump “the best president of my lifetime” and has concurred with the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from President Trump.
Vance appears favoured to win the Senate seat, which makes sense for a state in which Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden by eight percentage points each. In 2020, Trump got the highest percentage of Ohio votes (53 per cent) of any presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988. The fact that Ryan is even competitive in a state now widely seen as solidly Republican, has made the Democrats consider whether Ryan is providing a new playbook to remain competitive in areas previously seen as uncompetitive for the Democrats.
Pennsylvania: Eyes on 2024?
Pennsylvania’s midterm Senate race is an open seat to replace retiring Republican Senator Patrick J. Toomey. The two hopefuls – former television host and celebrity doctor, Mehmet Oz, and current Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman – are locked in a tight contest, like in Ohio, that will see both candidates take a distinctly different path than the incumbent.
A fiscal conservative and top-ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, Toomey faced criticism from Democrats in recent months for his efforts to block the Jon Stewart-backed bill that sought to provide aid to US military veterans who were exposed to toxic burn pits. Toomey also faced President Trump’s ire for being one of the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump in the former president’s second impeachment trial in January 2021.
The race to replace Toomey is one of the best chances for the Democrats to pick up a Republican Senate seat. Fetterman is a progressive Democrat in his politics, but his infamous rugged anti-elite disposition (hitting the campaign trail in long boardshorts and a hoodie) also gives him credit among populist midwestern voters. Fetterman polled strongly in the lead-up to the election, yet as the day draws nearer – particularly following Fetterman’s performance in a live debate that showcased some of his limitations following the stroke he suffered less than six months ago – the lieutenant governor’s lead over Oz has narrowed. This is despite almost half of the likely voters in Pennsylvania thinking Fetterman is still healthy enough to perform the duties of his job.
Meanwhile, Mehmet Oz takes on Fetterman after winning a particularly difficult primary to ascend to the Republican candidacy back in June 2022. Facing criticism for the decades the celebrity doctor spent living in New Jersey, Oz does not hold a strong or loyal supporter base in Pennsylvania while a Trump endorsement has complicated his favour among more moderate voters. Oz has campaigned against the rising cost of living under the Democrats as well as the Democratic party’s more progressive cultural agenda.
The Pennsylvania race could well determine the majority in the Senate, but it is as important for its implication on the potential future presidential runs of Presidents Trump and Biden. Pennsylvania has a well-earned reputation as a state to watch with the last two presidential victories by Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020 split by less than 1.2 percentage points. Testament to the state’s swinging status, on the final weekend before Election Day, Pennsylvania hosted both presidents Trump and Biden for final speeches and rallies to close out the midterms campaigns.
Pennsylvania holds a special status for President Biden, being his place of birth and the base of his presidential headquarters. The president’s connection to Pennsylvania is so renowned that despite almost four decades as a Senator for Delaware, he earned a reputation of being Pennsylvania’s “third Senator”. Since coming to office, Biden has visited Pennsylvania 14 times, often to speak about the importance of infrastructure and blue-collar jobs, especially in the wake of the significant and hard-fought Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in November 2021.
Biden has often said his legislative record, like the passage of the Infrastructure Act, is proof of his party’s ability to govern and deliver on the needs of the average American – frequently drawing on his working-class Scranton roots to spruik his economic agenda and connection with working Americans. But the president’s low approval rating in the state (less than 40 per cent throughout October) leaves reason to doubt that this messaging is getting through to voters.
What are the implications beyond 2022?
Politics versus policy
The final outcome of the midterms may not be known for days or even weeks to come, but there nonetheless are clear indications for where Congress is going, regardless of the electoral outcome.
The last time a first-term Democratic president faced a midterm election provides a helpful historical analogy. The 2010 midterm elections under President Obama saw the Republicans take back both houses of Congress in what Obama would call a “shellacking”. Angst over President Obama’s policy agenda, including the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), proved to be a key driver in the 2010 midterms. Such unrest gave rise to the Tea Party, a fiscally conservative political movement that protested the size of government and government overreach. Amid fierce debate over the expansion of the US social safety net, particularly over the ACA, a majority of Americans said that the government was doing too much. Americans in 2010 also said that the top priority for the next Congress was reducing the deficit – a problem seemingly of so little relevance now that it is not even given as an option for respondents to choose from in some surveys.
Just like in 2010, the top issue for US voters in 2022 remains the economy. But the second most important problem is more telling. In 2010, the second most important problem was health care while in 2022, the second most important problem is “the future of democracy in the country”.
While economic anxieties ebb and flow with the state of the economy, it is significant that instead of policy debates concerning the size and scope of government, Americans in 2022 appear to remain more anxious about the fallout from the 2020 presidential election and the existential nature of American democracy itself. Those existential concerns unsurprisingly manifest themselves in candidates who prioritise winning at all costs over compromise. There is little appetite for compromising with those you view as traitorous.
Known as the chamber of compromise and bipartisanship, the Senate passed extensive and expansive legislation in the first two years of the Biden administration, yet it is unclear whether the American people were as eager for such policy outcomes as much as they were for more supercharged politics. Given the nature of the senatorial candidates facing off against each other in 2022, it appears that a more partisan Senate can be almost guaranteed.
Looking to 2024
While midterm elections are often seen as a referendum on the sitting president, they are also seen as the beginning of the subsequent presidential election season – particularly the primary season. The Republican Party will need to find a challenger to Joe Biden, who is presumed to be running for re-election in 2024.
Currently, the Republican field of presidential candidates appears torn between Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. But true to form, President Trump recently brought his simmering battle with DeSantis out in the public, calling the Florida governor “De Sanctimonious” over the weekend while also telling his inner circle that he will possibly announce his candidacy by 14 November, if not earlier. Many assume announcing his candidacy will help prevent any other Republican presidential aspirants from running.
Judging by the fact that Donald Trump took the escalator to announce his then-dark horse candidacy for president in June 2015 – more than six months after the 2014 midterm elections and then went on to win the 2016 race that few predicted him to – one can safely assume that the actual results of the midterms and presidential elections are far from certain.