The US is in the middle of an intense electoral season.
The outcome of what is referred to as the midterm elections, coming exactly two years into the tenure of the President, will determine the composition of the US Congress and the power structure in three dozen states; affect law and policy at federal, state and local levels; shape the rest of Joe Biden’s presidency, and impact America’s posture towards the rest of the world. It will also set the stage for the 2024 presidential elections.
Who is getting elected?
On November 8, voters will choose all 435 representatives of the House of Representatives and pick 35 Senators, over one-third of the total composition of the Senate. The term of the House in the US is two years, and a Senator’s tenure is six years.
Voters will also choose governors in 36 states, attorney generals in 30 states, and Secretaries of State in 27 states. Almost all state legislatures are also heading for polls.
This is the first election being held — early voting has already begun, with Joe Biden casting his vote on Saturday in Delaware — after redistricting based on the 2020 census. In theory, this is done to accurately reflect the changes in population in constituencies. In practice, it is a subject of partisan gerrymandering where the dominant party in a particular state often carves out boundaries of electoral districts to maximise electoral advantages.
What are the key issues?
There are five issues that have been the focus of the campaign, with the two parties adopting different narratives and placing varying degrees of emphasis on each of them.
The first is the economy in general and inflation and cost of living in particular. On this, Republicans have a clear edge.
Republicans have a standard, fairly popular narrative that goes along the following lines. Joe Biden has been incompetent; the government pumped excess liquidity into the economy; this has led to record inflation, seen most visibly in gas prices; the administration consistently underestimated the inflationary consequences of its legislations with top officials terming it “transitory”; America is now staring at a recession and Biden must be held accountable.
Democrats have a parallel narrative on the following lines. Biden took over at a time of distress and helped American citizens at a time of need; the administration has created a record number of jobs; inflation was a result of change in nature of demand during the pandemic and attendant supply chain issues that the administration has sought to address including by encouraging domestic manufacturing; Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine was responsible for price rise; gas prices have been coming down in recent weeks; and compared to the rest of the world, American economic indicators are relatively better.
The second is social issues in general, but abortion in particular. On this, Democrats have an advantage.
In the wake of the Supreme Court verdict on abortion — it overturned Roe V Wade, with each state empowered to decide their own legislative framework on abortion rather than follow a national judicial precedent — Democrats have stitched a narrative that paints to the dangers of what Biden calls “MAGA Republicans”. This is an attack on the “Make America Great Again” slogan of Trump Republicans — Biden is distinguishing them from old-school conservatives and moderate Right voters uncomfortable with extremism.
Democrats are arguing that if elected with a majority, the party will codify abortion protections in a national law through the Congress; the court verdict is an attack not just on the agency of women but fundamental freedoms; and it can act as a precursor to an erosion of other rights, including same-sex relationships and marriage. For their part, while extreme elements of the Republican flank have batted for a national ban on abortion if the party has a majority, the party leadership is framing the court verdict as a victory of state rights. But it is also seeking to evade the issue, fearing a loss in suburban women votes. Instead, Republicans are on the offensive when they divert the issue to gender politics and education, tapping the fears of parents about pedagogy around LGBTQI+ issues in school.
The third issue is crime. On this, Republicans have an advantage.
Republicans have alleged there has been an increase in crime rates in the past few years, and paint Democrat leaders as soft on crime who want to “defund” the police and will give amnesty to the convicted. The party has spent $64.5 million, a quarter of its total ad spend, on ads focused on crime. It is tapping into a deep concern among voters, for a recent Gallup poll showed that over 78% believe that crime rates are rising nationally. The Democratic leadership has sought to counter this narrative by first insisting that it is not in favour of “defunding” the police and categorically rejecting the slogan adopted by parts of its progressive base. It is also seeking to frame crime in the context of gun laws, remind people of the horrific shootings that have happened this year and promise an assault rifle ban if the party has the numbers in the Congress.
The fourth issue is immigration, especially in southern and western states. On this, Republicans again have an advantage.
They accuse Joe Biden’s administration of having opened the borders for illegal immigrants, demand greater security on the US-Mexico border, and reject any attempt at creating legal pathways for those who may have come in. Republican governors in the south engaged in high-voltage political theatre when they transported migrants to New York, Washington DC, even Martha’s Vineyard to make the point that liberals on the eastern seaboard were disconnected from the reality of immigration. Democrats have sought to counter this narrative by pointing to factual gaps in Republican claims and insisting that they have not enabled greater illegal immigration but they have largely sought to evade the issue.
And finally, the election is becoming a referendum on Biden’s presidency at a time when he is struggling with low approval ratings. Historically, the midterms have gone against the party which has an incumbent in the White House.
Democrats have stitched together a narrative defending Biden’s record. They point to a successful vaccination campaign; laws enabling greater investment in infrastructure, social care and, for the first time, climate; a foreign policy record of weaving together a coalition against Russia and taking on China; and credit Biden for restoring the health of American democracy when it is under threat by right wing extremism as seen in violence on January 6, or most recently, the attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Republicans have a diametrically opposite narrative on Biden, painting him as somewhat incoherent and out of touch with everyday concerns of Americans, captured by liberal and “extreme Left” interest groups.
Who is winning?
While it would be hazardous to predict elections, the striking thing is that in over 80% of the seats, the outcome is more or less certain given how American politics is divided between red and blue corners. The real battle is in the swing seats and for the swing constituencies.
The conventional wisdom in Washington DC, based on anecdotal evidence and a majority of the polls, is that Republicans will win the House comfortably — even Democratic strategists have admitted to HT that they expect to lose 20-25 seats in the House. It is harder to predict the outcome in the Senate, but all attention is on three races — in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Ohio. In the first two seats, Democrats appeared to have an edge but Trumpist candidates are slowly gaining ground.
What’s at stake?
The elections will have four clear consequences.
In the American system of checks and balances, the US Congress is distinct from the executive branch (unlike in India where the executive derives its power from legislative strength). Since 2020, the Democrats have, however, enjoyed control over the White House; they have a slim majority in the House of Representatives where party veteran Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker; and the Senate is split 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris’s vote giving the party an edge. This has allowed Biden to pass a raft of legislations. It has given Democrats the leadership of Congressional committees. And it has allowed the party to hold Donald Trump accountable through investigations such as on what happened at Capitol Hill on January 6.
The outcome on November 8 will shape the balance of forces in the US Congress. An outright Democratic loss in both the Senate races and House will leave the Biden presidency crippled for it will neither be able to pass legislations, nor get nominees confirmed. If the Democrats are able to retain the Senate, but lose the House, a possible scenario, it will allow the administration to push through its nominees which only entails a role for the Senate. But it will still result in a legislative gridlock as a Republican dominated House will block any big legislative moves.
It will also produce more bitter political battles as the GOP is expected to initiate investigations on corruption allegations against Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and the US exit from Afghanistan. There is also talk in extreme right circles about initiating impeachment proceedings against Biden as payback for what Democrats did to Trump, though the party leadership — including the most likely speaker of the House, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy — have been cautious in committing to it given the absence of any evidence pointing to criminal wrong doing on part of Biden.
Two, the outcome at the state level will have an impact in determining future of American frameworks on abortion for the court has left the decision to states in its recent verdict. The position of Secretary of State, up for grabs in 27 seats, is also critical for the office-bearer plays a key role in certifying election results during presidential polls. Trump, after his loss in 2020, sought to pressure exactly these Secretaries of State to influence the outcome and given the high likelihood that the transfer of power will be challenging in 2024 too, a victory of “election deniers” will have implications for American democracy.
Three, the composition of the American Congress will affect the US’s posture towards the rest of the world. While there has been active bipartisan support for Ukraine so far, there are indications that Republicans will begin cutting some of the Congressional political support for the cause as they juxtapose it with the increasing suffering at home. Given the hostility towards China on both sides of the aisle, a strong approach towards Beijing can be expected to continue. With Biden promising to re-evaluate the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, after its recent decision to cut oil production, it is to be seen how a Republican-dominated Congress approaches the issue.
And finally, the outcome will set the stage for the 2024 presidential elections. An outright loss for the Democratis will encourage voices within the party to speak up against a Biden run again though the President has said so far he plans to contest. Even a mixed result — a respectable loss in the House, while retaining the Senate — will allow Biden to have the political capital to make a push for 2024 . On the other side, there is tension between the Republican establishment and Trump, who is keen to announce his candidacy soon and a victory of all the candidates he has endorsed will embolden him to do so.But the party establishment believes that while retaining his base is important, Trump as a candidate will face challenges in national elections.
In a week from now, American politics will enter a new phase. And this new chapter will shape the future of the US, and with it, affect the rest of the world.