Historically, a US president can expect to see his party squeezed in mid-term elections, and all the indications are that Joe Biden and the Democrats are set to lose control today of the House of Representatives and probably the Senate. And, with some justification, the president is pitching defeat not just as an impediment to his political project but a warning to US voters they “can’t take democracy for granted any longer”.
Voters may accept that logic, and a majority distrust Republican and Donald Trump’s democratic credentials, but their voting intentions appear more focused on the economy, prices and fears of recession, crime and illegal immigration. Democracy does not rank high on their list of concerns, and in the end voters will define the agenda, not politicians. Nor do abortion rights, which in June took a massively unpopular hammering from the supreme court and appeared early in the campaign to be a key issue.
The midterm elections will decide control of Congress – all 435 seats in the House are up, and one third of the Senate – as well as 36 state governorships and other official positions. Republican control of Congress is likely to lead to legislative gridlock, may threaten the ability of the government to pay off the national debt, stymie judicial appointments, and lead to the convening of investigations into the Biden administration. Biden’s major infrastructure bill will be in jeopardy, while attempts to enact federal abortion rights are also doomed. Unequivocal support – and arms supplies – for Ukraine may be called into question.
The substantial threat to democracy, however, comes predominantly at local level, where roughly half the Republicans running for federal or state office believe the 2020 presidency was stolen from Trump, and are determined to prevent a repeat. Jim Marchant, a Republican running for a post as Nevada’s top election official, has said explicitly that: “When I’m secretary of state of Nevada, we are going to fix it, and when my coalition of secretary of state candidates around the country get elected we’re going to fix the whole country, and President Trump is going to be president again in 2024.”
The midterms are also a testing ground for 2024. Loss of control of Congress will certainly lead to Democratic pressure on Joe Biden, who turns 80 this month, not to run again.
But a pattern of defeats for candidates Trump has backed in states such as Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Ohio may yet prompt more pragmatic Republicans to question whether the 76-year-old is still a winner. Trump, who has said he will make his intentions explicit later this month, is understood to believe a campaign could shield him from intensifying criminal investigations by the US justice department. He may well run, but today may test his vulnerability.