There is one word to describe the United States midterm elections: volatile. As Ron Brownstein of The Atlantic has noted, the past four American presidents were elected with their party controlling both the house and senate and lost it in midterms two years later.
Gaining and losing power in elections has been Joe Biden’s experience for 50 years. As a senator he was thrown into the minority three times: when Republican Ronald Reagan won big in 1980, when Democrat Bill Clinton lost control of the house and senate in 1994, and when Republican George W. Bush took full control of the senate in 2002. In the minority, you lose the power: to chair committees and set the senate’s legislative agenda.
As vice president under Barack Obama, Biden saw the Republicans gain 63 seats and dominance of the house in 2010, even after the Democrats had enacted Obamacare, the most important health legislation in 50 years. Biden then saw Republicans take control of the senate in 2014. Those midterms put an end to Obama’s legislative achievements.
Biden has been there. He knows what he is facing. The Democrats control the house by a margin of just five seats. In modern times, the average loss of seats in midterms by the president’s party is 25 seats. Both Republican hardheads and expert analysts of congress today agree that the Republicans will likely gain 15-25 seats next Tuesday.
The senate today is evenly divided, 50-50, with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris sealing victories for Biden.
With those tiny margins, the iron discipline of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Leader Chuck Schumer allowed Biden to pass economic and Covid recovery programs, a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, massive clean energy programs, lower drug prices, and breakthrough support for computer chip and allied manufacturing to boost American competitiveness with China. Biden was able to place the first black woman on the Supreme Court and lead the West and NATO to arm Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion.
But Biden has been underwater with the American people since the ill-fated withdrawal from Afghanistan, the resurgence of Covid-19 a year ago and a burst of inflation that drove up the cost of virtually everything, especially petrol and groceries. By the end of July, Biden’s approval had sunk into the 30s.
A president who is below 50 per cent approval cannot lift his party’s candidates running for congress. In 1982, Ronald Reagan had the same approval rating as Biden’s today, and lost 26 Republican house seats. Four years ago, Donald Trump, who never had an approval rating above 50 per cent, lost 42 seats and control of the house.
There was a summer romance between Biden and voters. Trump’s radical Supreme Court repealed the constitutional right, established 50 years ago in Roe v Wade, for women to access abortion services – and the country was rightly appalled. Tens of millions of American women remain deeply angered and they know who to vote against. No Republicans in the house or senate supported legislation to protect a woman’s right to choose.
It was hoped this might shift voters to the Democrats as the midterms neared. Similarly, Biden got big stuff done in congress, and fuel prices came down. Trump’s legal problems were also seen as a boost for Democrats: the FBI’s raid on Mar-a-Lago to retrieve classified documents he took from the White House, the extremist candidates he endorsed, his business tax issues in New York, the shocking evidence given at the January 6 Committee hearings on the insurrection at the Capitol. Democracy was on the ballot.
By September, Democrats began to feel they could defy history and keep control of congress. But when autumn arrived, their prospects dimmed. While most Democrats believe the state of America’s democracy and abortion are the prime issues in these elections, 50 per cent of registered voters cite inflation and the economy as the top two. Abortion is a distant third. As voters lock in their decisions, inflation is the highest it’s been in 40 years.
The Federal Reserve raised interest rates again this week, to the highest levels in 20 years. With a recession threatening, more than 60 per cent of likely voters are pessimistic about the economy. In all, 80 per cent of likely voters believe the country is “out of control” and most of those said they were voting Republican. Vladimir Putin and the Saudis have driven up fuel prices just as Americans are driving to the polls. They have a joint interest in a weaker US president who has lost support in congress.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are pushing all the culture war buttons: scare campaigns about violent crime in the cities and the southern border being out of control, with immigrants flooding the country. Republican candidates sense these messages are working big time.
Half a dozen senate races are within the margin of error. If the Democrats can hold their existing seats, including in Georgia, Arizona and Nevada, they will keep the senate. But those Democrats are under intense stress, and Republicans are also gunning for a gain in Colorado.
There is a further chance for Democrats in the open Republican seats in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and to flip seats in Wisconsin, Iowa and North Carolina. The ex-presidents are in on the act. Obama is on fire on the trail in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Trump is campaigning in Pennsylvania, Florida, Iowa and Ohio.
The Republican Party now poised to take the house is a Trumpist party. Within Republican ranks, 70 per cent question whether Biden’s win in 2020 was rigged. Trump purged almost all of those – from Liz Cheney down – who voted to impeach him. The fear of Trump’s vengeance among Republicans is palpable.
A Republican house next year would not only block Biden’s legislation but would also conduct scorched-earth investigations of Biden’s cabinet. They would be all but certain to impeach Biden for “abuse of power”.
They would pass a nationwide ban on abortion. Unhappy with government spending, they plan to let the US default on its debt.
If the Democrats hold the senate they can at least force votes in order to show what their party stands for: voting rights, gun control, clean energy and abortion rights for all women in every state across the country.
But if the Republicans hold the senate as well as the house, Biden’s days of major legislation are over. He can still act forcefully on foreign policy. He can veto anything the Republicans pass. But Biden will not prevail on any issue Republicans oppose.
This midterm campaign ends under the shadow of a rancid, violent political culture that demonises political opponents as enemies to be eliminated. The vicious assault on Paul Pelosi last week was a continuation of the attack on the Capitol, when the mob wanted to hunt down and execute his wife, Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In the immediate aftermath, no “thoughts and prayers” were sent to the Pelosis from Donald Trump.
The outcome of the senate races will have a profound effect on the Republican presidential race. If the Republicans take the senate, it will be because Trump-endorsed candidates won their races. That means Trump is back as a winner and the kingmaker in the party. Why should he be denied the presidential nomination?
But if the Democrats keep the senate, that means they can beat Trump at the ballot box – again. The political syllogism for Republicans will be: Trump lost the house in 2018; he lost the White House in 2020; in January 2021, he cost us the senate in the two special Georgia elections; now his hand-picked candidates have cost us the senate – again – in 2022. Suddenly, Trump’s candidacy to lead the Republicans in 2024 would be highly contestable.
Biden wants to run again in 2024. Last month, he said, “The only reason to be involved in public life is, Can you make life better for other people? I have not made that formal decision, but it’s my intention to run again.” And in another interview: “It’s a matter of, Can you do the job? And I believe I can do the job. I’ve been able to do the job. I believe I can beat Donald Trump again.”
Obama lost the house in 2010 and won a second term in 2012. Clinton lost both the house and senate in 1994 and won re-election in 1996. Biden will discuss his future with his family over Thanksgiving and Christmas. If required, he will show us that a lame duck can fly.