Tuesday, November 8 is a crucial day for the future of the United States. Midterm elections have always been considered less significant than presidential elections, yet President Joe Biden made a dramatic appeal recently for voters to save the American democracy. “Five days to go until the most important elections in our lifetime. And that’s not hyperbole. It’s going to shape what the next two generations look like. Not a joke. Because so much is changing, so much,” said the president at a rally in New Mexico.
Hyperbole or not, these are the first nationwide elections to be held after the January 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol by a mob whipped up by former President Donald Trump’s big lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. Many GOP candidates still hold onto that lie and are using it to mobilize their electoral base. In this election, the American democracy, or at least its health, is partly at stake in an increasingly polarized nation.
John Zogby, an elections expert and founder of John Zogby Strategies, says that most US elections since 2000 have been apocalyptic. “In other words, if my side wins, thank God. If your side wins, it’s the end of the world as we know it. Well, this is one seems to be more like apocalyptic-plus. Because in the past, there has been a common set of themes that everyone agrees on. Today, there are two parties with two different sets of issues, two realities, and two sets of facts to support those realities. They are like two planets revolving around the Sun in separate orbits,” said Zogby in a recent conversation with international journalists.
All 435 seats in the House of Representatives (two-year terms) and 35 of the 100 Senate seats (six-year terms) are being contested on November 8. Population density determines the distribution and number of lower house representatives, while each state has two senators, regardless of population. Polls point to a relatively comfortable Republican victory in the House, while control of the Senate remains anyone’s guess.
Although some important functions pertain exclusively to the Senate, such as the ratification of certain presidential appointments like federal and Supreme Court justices, Republican control of the House would enable the opposition party to make life miserable for Biden in the latter half of his term. Libby Cantrill, managing director for public policy at PIMCO, one of the world’s largest fixed income investment managers, says that partial or total Republican control of Congress will be characterized by “obstruction and oversight.”
The legislative agenda
“Biden’s legislative agenda will be stopped in its tracks,” said Cantrill. For the nation’s economy, that will mean no new tax measures such as raising the windfall profit tax on oil companies. It will also mean that Biden will be unable to push through federal legislation on abortion rights or an assault weapon ban, because federal laws must be approved by both the House and the Senate. Other laws aimed at improving access to day care centers and universities, protecting voting rights and combatting racial discrimination will face similar challenges.
As for “oversight,” that’s a nice way of describing the sledgehammer that bloodthirsty Republicans want to bring down on the Biden Administration. The memory of two Trump impeachments engineered by Democrats is still fresh, and many want to repay them in kind.
Republicans say their first target will be Secretary of the Interior Alejandro Mayorkas, whom they blame for the “invasion” of the United States, the Trumpist term for the record number of asylum-seekers arriving at the border with Mexico. Next in line are Attorney General Merrick Garland, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which has been roundly criticized by Republicans for its search of Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s mansion in Palm Beach (Florida). Even if they have no chance of succeeding, Biden himself may be subjected to impeachment proceedings, if his political enemies can somehow find a justification or excuse for doing so.
A Republican majority in Congress may also want to get even with the January 6 committee investigating the assault on the Capitol, and create investigatory commissions on pandemic management, the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, partial student loan forgiveness, China policy, and the list goes on. “Every corner of the Biden administration will be subject to Republican scrutiny,” said Cantrill. They may even go after Hunter Biden, the president’s son, and investigate his business dealings.
The 2024 presidential election
The debt ceiling, which has to be approved by Congress, is another weapon that Republicans may use to wring concessions from Biden. If it is not raised, government functions and public services could shut down due to lack of funding. To avoid that problem, some Democrats want the debt ceiling raised before the current session of Congress concludes. Republicans would also oppose any stimulus measures if, as many analysts predict, the US enters into a recession next year. “Republicans simply don’t feel like helping Biden or the Democrats heading into 2024,” said Cantrill.
The 2024 presidential race will also kick into high gear after the midterm elections. Anticipating a Republican triumph, Trump is poised to announce his candidacy shortly after November 8. Numerous statewide and local elections are also being contested, and the many Republican election deniers vying for public office could change the dynamics of the 2024 presidential race if they win in large numbers.
A poor showing by Democrats in the midterms could amplify party voices calling for Biden, who turns 80 this month and is the oldest president in US history, to forgo a reelection bid even though he has repeatedly said he intends to do run. All hyperbole aside, Biden remains confident of a Democratic victory in the midterms. In a somewhat convoluted response to a reporter’s question, Biden recently said, “I think we’re going to win. I feel very good about our chances. I think we’re going to hold the Senate and maybe gain a seat… and I think we have a chance to win in the House [of Representatives]. I don’t think we’re going to not win… not hold the House.”
Historical trends don’t favor Biden. Traditionally, the president’s party loses seats in midterm elections. This has been true in the House of Representatives except in 1934 (Franklin D. Roosevelt), 1998 (Bill Clinton) and 2002 (George W. Bush). There are a few more exceptions in Senate midterm races, but not many. In the last 100 years, only Roosevelt (1934), John F. Kennedy (1962), Richard Nixon (1970), George W. Bush (2002) and Donald Trump (2018) gained Senate seats for their parties.
Democrats currently have a 222-to-213 majority in the House of Representatives, which they will lose if they drop just five seats. Partisan gerrymandering of electoral districts have virtually predetermined the outcome of 365 races, 200 of which are expected to go to the Republicans. Polls indicate that only 30-40 of the remaining seats are truly competitive, and the Democrats would need to win 90% of them to retain their majority in the House.
The Senate is currently tied at 50 seats each for the two parties, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tiebreaking vote. Of the 35 seats being contested, 21 are being defended by Republican incumbents and only 14 by Democrats. Both parties are virtually guaranteed to have 46 seats each, so control of the Senate will come down to eight states. Republicans are ahead in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin, and Democrats have a slight edge in New Hampshire and Arizona. If the polls are accurate, the Senate will be controlled by the party that wins two of these states – Nevada, Pennsylvania and Georgia.
Republican control of the Senate would not only increase oversight of the Biden administration, but would also enable them to block important appointments such as federal judges. If the Republicans gain control of the Senate in these elections, Democrats will try to accelerate appointment ratifications before the new session of Congress begins in January 2023.
Numerous statewide and local public offices are up for election as well, including the governorships of 36 states. There are also 132 referendum votes in 37 states on issues ranging from abortion to marijuana legalization, compulsory unionization, voting rights, forced labor or semi-slavery for prisoners, legalized sports betting and minimum wages for food servers (which may signal the end of obligatory tipping).
Abortion rights, gun control, voting rights, public debt, fiscal policy, the health of democracy, the 2024 presidential race and government oversight are all at stake on November 8. What about inflation? It’s the main issue for many voters and the one that has hurt Biden and favored Republicans the most. But these elections will not have much of an impact on inflation – that’s the purview of the Federal Reserve.