With one month to go before the midterm elections on November 8, the Republicans are hoping to make the vote a referendum on the Biden presidency. The Republicans have been focusing on issues such as inflation, immigration and crime. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is attempting to mobilize female voters on the issue of reproductive rights, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that established the constitutional right to abortion in 1973.
Historically, the party that controls the presidency tends to lose the midterm elections. A few months ago, given President Joe Biden’s abysmal approval ratings, this seemed to be a given. However, in recent weeks, the gap between the two parties has tightened. While the Republicans are favored to win back the House of Representatives, of the 35 Senate seats that are in contention, many are within the polling margin of error.
Americans will be electing 435 congress members to the House of Representatives for two-year terms, as well as more than a third of the 100-seat Senate for six-year terms. A total of 36 governorships are also being contested across the country, along with state legislatures, city councils and other elected bodies. There will also be state referendums held, on issues ranging from abortion to the minimum wage.
If the Republicans take back the House, it will be a major blow to the Biden presidency, as the Republican-controlled House will look to block legislation and open investigations into the White House. In the past, compromise between the executive and the legislature may have been possible, even with different parties controlling each branch of government… but today, with such a polarized political environment, this seems highly unlikely.
Doug Schwartz, an electoral expert and director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, feels that the climate is more favorable to the Republican Party.
“Biden is still unpopular. Traditionally, this isn’t a good sign for the [ruling] party… inflation has been the most important issue since March, and our polls repeatedly show that voters are unhappy with the state of the economy. This doesn’t look good for the Democrats.”
At the same time, he adds, some non-economic issues are also very important to voters.
“While Republicans and independents cite inflation as their number one concern, in our last national poll, Democratic-leaning voters put abortion rights as their key issue.”
Schwartz also notes that some Democratic candidates for the Senate have higher approval ratings than Biden. Looking at polls in the eight most competitive Senate races, Republican candidates lead in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin. Democratic candidates lead in New Hampshire and Arizona. But in Pennsylvania, Nevada and Georgia, there is a dead heat.
In Georgia – perhaps the most controversial race – the Republicans have nominated Herschel Walker, a former NFL player who has the support of Donald Trump. He is up against incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, who used to be the senior pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church – once led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Despite describing himself as an anti-choice, pro-family and “tough-on-crime” candidate, Walker has been accused of beating his ex-wife and forcing his ex-girlfriend to get an abortion. He has also fathered children out of wedlock and refused to pay alimony.
Wildcard, Trumpian candidates like Walker have given Democrats a fighting chance. However, the redistricting that took place based on the 2020 census may mean that, even if the Republicans lose the popular vote, they may still be able to gain control of the House. As of now, the GOP has locked down 202 districts, while the Democrats appear safe in 177. The other 56 are still too close to call… but the Republicans are expected to win enough of them to get to the magic number of 218. In several of these districts – located in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California – the Latino vote may prove decisive.
In addition to increasing the voter turnout of racial minorities, the Democrats are trying to mobilize women, especially after the Republican-majority Supreme Court overturned the federal right to abortion and left it in the hands of each individual state.
“It’s hard to predict voter participation rates in polls, so I can’t say for certain… but it looks like the abortion question is mobilizing women,” says Schwartz, who referenced a referendum that was held in conservative Kansas this past August, which saw voters block restrictions on abortion.
Of course, the question of safeguarding democracy – the Trump question – is also looming large as Democrats race to the finish line. In a speech he gave in Philadelphia at the start of September, President Biden said that “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.” He has also labelled far-right Republicans as “semi-fascist.”
There is the risk that, even if the Democrats manage to hold the Senate or the House in November, many Republicans won’t recognize the legitimacy of the result. The majority of Republican candidates still don’t recognize that Trump lost the 2020 presidential elections.
Lisa Bryant – Chair of Political Science at California State University, Fresno – warns that many states have confusing vote-counting and certification processes, meaning that the midterm election results may take days, or even weeks, to be released. She recalls that, during the 2020 elections, “we had real threats against election workers… intimidation and violence.” Trump and his allies encouraged their supporters to get the result they wanted by any means necessary, ultimately ending with the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Trump doesn’t only have the power to mobilize his supporters. Opposition to him could also mobilize his detractors, pushing centrist and undecided voters to head for the polls and support Democratic candidates. Nothing is for certain… but you can bet that this year’s midterms will set the stage for the face-off that is coming in 2024.