Can Joe Biden avoid the midterm elections curse?
Republicans have the momentum going into Election Day on Tuesday, with high hopes of winning back the House. The Senate will be decided by a handful of close races. If the GOP takes one or both chambers, they will be in a position to kill Biden’s domestic legislative agenda. Still, they’ll struggle to get policies past the president’s veto, which requires a two-thirds majority to override. The next two years could see America run by a divided government, with angry standoffs, financial showdowns and partisan investigations.
What is happening on Tuesday?
In the House, all 435 seats are up for grabs, where lawmakers serve two-year terms. Democrats currently narrowly control the chamber, but Republicans need only a net gain of five seats to take the majority.
In the 100-seat Senate, a total of 35 seats are being contested. The chamber where incumbents serve for six years is split 50-50, and Democrats currently have control since Vice President Kamala Harris wields a tie-breaking vote. But Republicans only require a net gain of a single seat to take control.
There are also a number of other races to watch, including 36 governorship contests, and many more lower positions. Races for state-level Secretaries of State have taken on extra significance this year, since they control state elections —including the 2024 presidential race. There are also elections for state legislatures and ballot initiatives on issues including access to abortion, changes to voting systems, gun control measures and the legalization of marijuana for recreation.
What’s at stake?
At every election, candidates tell voters that this is the most critical election of their lifetimes. This time they may be right.
A Republican wave would sweep in scores of candidates who swear by ex-President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. The former President would likely weaponize a Republican-controlled House against Biden ahead of the 2024 presidential vote; Rep. Kevin McCarthy – who would likely become Republican Speaker if Republicans win – has not ruled out impeaching Biden, despite the absence of any evidence that he’s committed an impeachable offense.
A surprise Democratic victory would allow Biden to build upon his social, health, and climate change legislation, and to balance out the judiciary with liberal judges after four years of Trump’s conservative picks.
What issues will decide the election?
The cliché, “It’s the economy, stupid,” which dates to Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, is everywhere this election season. But it should be, “It’s inflation, stupid.” The US cost of living is at a 40-year-high, putting voters in a disgruntled mood. High gasoline prices haven’t helped either, and the sense of post-pandemic normality that Biden promised remains elusive.
The President has struggled to frame the economic challenges into a strong political message or to give voters any confidence that prices will fall soon. Some Democrats are now asking whether their candidates ignored the true concerns of voters by spending so much time arguing that Republicans would destroy US democracy.
Democrats had hoped that the conservative Supreme Court’s overturning of the right to an abortion would cause a backlash against the GOP. This could play out in some areas – but the economy has repeatedly been the dominant concern of voters in polling ahead of Election Day.
Republicans haven’t had to work too hard — their strategy has just been to blame Biden for everything — even though inflation is being driven mostly by outside factors like the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. They’ve also branded Democratic positions on education, crime, and immigration as extreme and far left of the mainstream.
What to watch for on Election Night
House bellwethers: The best way to watch results roll in is to pick a few bellwether races that will give a sense of where the election is headed. If Republicans start winning big in suburban areas and House districts where Biden was far more popular than Trump in 2020, it’s a good bet they are heading for a banner night.
Given the narrow margin in the House, Republicans could effectively win the majority by sweeping contested seats in a state like New York alone. One fateful battle is in a new seat created from the post-Census reapportionment – Colorado’s 8th Congressional District; if Republicans win, they are on a roll.
Another tight race is in Virginia’s 7th District, where former CIA officer and Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger is trying to win reelection against a Trumpy conservative, Republican Yesli Vega. If Democrats can hold on in this redrawn district, which became more favorable for them in redistricting, it won’t mean they’ll win the House, but it could signal they keep the GOP surge below landslide levels. Spanberger, one of Democrats’ strongest incumbents, hasn’t hesitated to criticize the president or her party.
And keep an eye on Michigan’s 7th District, where another former CIA employee and Democratic Rep Elissa Slotkin is running for reelection. Slotkin is a moderate who distanced herself from soaring progressive policies and criticized her party for not doing more to address the economic pain Americans face.
Senate battlegrounds: In the Senate, keep an eye on neck-and-neck battles in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia. If Democratic Sen Maggie Hassan loses her reelection bid in New Hampshire, it’s a sure sign it’s the GOP’s night.
Pennsylvania represents the best chance for Democrats to pick up a Republican-held seat, but their candidate John Fetterman had a stroke just before winning the party nomination in May. Even off the campaign trail over the summer, Fetterman had the upper hand against his Republican challenger, but the pair’s recent debate opened up new questions about how the lingering effects of the stroke on the Democratic nominee.
Republicans are trying to win Democratic-held seats in Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia. If neither candidate in Georgia gets 50% of the vote, there will be a run-off in December, meaning uncertainty over who runs the Senate for the next two years could linger for weeks.
What the election means for American democracy
This is the first national election since the cataclysm of 2020 when Trump refused to admit defeat and tried to stay in power. Biden took office two weeks later with a message of healing and national unity. But his vision that America’s better angels could bring a polarized country together has fizzled. Trump still won’t admit he lost, and is using the lie that he was forced illegally from power to catapult an expected bid for reelection. Millions of Americans believe him, creating intensity among core supporters that could sweep the GOP back to power in Congress.
One key development to watch Tuesday is whether Republicans who lose their races concede, or like Trump insist they won and cite non-existent ballot irregularities. Another source of tension will arise in races where it appears Republicans are leading vote counts until large batches of early and mail-in ballots are tabulated all at once. Trump used such a scenario to falsely cast doubts on the integrity of the 2020 election.
What happens if the Republican Party wins power?
We don’t need to guess. The GOP is already telling us it will make life miserable for Biden and try to destroy his hopes of reelection. McCarthy told CNN in an exclusive interview that he plans to subject the White House to a blistering round of investigations on everything from the origins of Covid-19 to the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The GOP also plans to target Biden’s son Hunter over his business dealings, and will seek to discredit and disrupt the FBI and Justice Department investigations into Trump. In the Senate, a Republican majority would make it extraordinarily difficult for Biden to confirm cabinet appointments, key officials foreign ambassadors and judges. Expect a period of acrimonious standoffs over budgets and the US government’s borrowing limit — a crisis that could send the global economy into deeper turmoil.
What does this election mean for Biden?
History shows that newly elected presidents almost always face a backlash in the midterm elections two years later. That’s why they jam top legislative priorities into the start of their term.
If Democrats don’t do as badly as some fear, Biden will get a boost as he contemplates whether to run for reelection. If Republicans win big, fresh questions will arise over his prospects in 2024.The president will be 80 in a few weeks — an occasion to celebrate, but also an unwanted reminder of his own political liabilities.
It’s not all dark for the president, though. His two Democratic predecessors Bill Clinton and Barack Obama suffered debilitating rebukes from voters in the midterms, but recovered to win easy reelection two years later. The question is whether Biden has the energy and political dexterity to use what would be an extreme Republican Congress as a foil.
What does this election mean for Trump?
The former president has made the midterms a test of loyalty for Republicans, who have had to pay for his endorsement by amplifying his false claims of election fraud in 2020. GOP leaders would have preferred that Trump stay out of the election entirely — but that’s not how he rolls.
Trump was instrumental in his party losing the House in 2018 and the Senate and the White House in 2020, and it’s possible he will again be a spoiler since the protégés he picked in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Ohio have big liabilities as candidates. If Republicans do well on Tuesday night, Trump will take the credit. If they don’t meet expectations, he will blame everybody else.
Either way, the ex-President seems certain to run again in 2024 — a campaign that could trigger a political meltdown since there’s a chance he’ll be indicted over his hoarding of classified documents or over his malfeasance after the 2020 election.
But here’s the bottom line. A Republican win Tuesday, especially in the House, means that two years after he left in disgrace — Trumpism is back in power.